by Jessica Freedman
There are only a handful of fictional depictions of LGBTQI+ characters. This number becomes even less when you remove the offensive depictions. While there are many creators who are aiming to provide more LGBTQI+ content and there has been an increase in mainstream media involving queer characters, most of this content uses homophobia against the LGBTQI+ character as a plot point. Seeing homophobia on screen may be relevant to many current political and social climates and may be relatable to an LGBTQI+ audience, but often it simply is not enjoyable for a queer audience to watch. Watching films and series is often intended to be a fun or peaceful form of escapism. Observing characters experience the brutality of homophobia is not fun or peaceful when you experience it every day.
A notable example of a film that uses homophobia as a plot point is Love, Simon. Love, Simon was a massive step forward in gay films and that deserves to be celebrated. The film tells a story of love and fear that is close to many gay teenagers’ hearts. The groundbreaking nature of the film does not, however, mean it is beyond critique. In telling the story of a typical guy who just happens to be gay and having that story center around coming out, Love, Simon becomes easy to watch by heterosexual audiences and alienating to many queer audiences.
Intended as a lesbian Christmas romcom, Happiest Season revolves around a couple, Abby and Harper, who is forced back into the closet when they visit Harper’s conservative family for Christmas. Happiest Season has faced a lot of criticism specifically for how frustrating it is to watch Abby be forced to hide herself for her seemingly unappreciative girlfriend’s homophobic family. The resounding question the audience is left with after watching this film is “why didn’t Abby leave sooner?” In not having Abby leave the situation, there is a subtle message of queer people having to fit into straight lifestyles and narratives in order to achieve happiness.
Adapted from the Broadway musical, The Prom follows four Broadway stars as they attempt to save themselves from irrelevance by taking on a charity cause. The cause they take on is an Indiana school cancelling their prom to prevent a student named Emma from taking a female partner. This musical has been praised for taking on the entrenched homophobia of places like Indiana and they do it well. The tragedy of the homophobia experienced by gay characters is tear-jerking and impactful.
The problem, however, is that this theme of homophobia is explored in almost every other work that has LGBTQI+ characters. I also felt that the ending, which was clearly intended to be cheerful, simply did not make up for the sadness explored in the plot. Sure, Emma did get to experience a prom and her classmates did begin to gingerly accept her. Still, I found it difficult to move past the fact that Emma’s whole school had been set to bully and ostracize her for her sexuality and the briefly mentioned fact that she was living with her grandmother because her parents could not accept her sexuality.
There are ways to have LGBTQI+ characters experience hardships without having those hardships come in the form of homophobia. This is done very well in the Netflix animated series, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. Despite the show having a variety of canon lesbian, gay, and transgender characters who experience a variety of heart-wrenching hardships, the world in which the series is set simply does not have homophobia. The LGBTQI+ characters fit into the world easily and casually, which is to be expected as the showrunner of the series Noelle Stevenson has stated: “Assume all characters in my comics are gay unless stated otherwise.” She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is a great depiction of LGBTQI+ characters because they have experiences that are not directly tied to homophobia.
Ultimately, having the central focus of an LGBTQI+ character’s narrative be their experiences of discrimination is a very heterosexual story. Homophobia would not exist without heterosexuality and heterosexual people’s main understanding of LGBTQI+ life is in how it relates to homophobia. LGBTQI+ narratives of homophobia are generally more relatable and palatable to heterosexual audiences, which generally helps them reach success. However, this is rarely enjoyable for an LGBTQI+ audience. Queer people deserve to see their experiences represented onscreen in ways that do not center around their relationships with heterosexual people and homophobia. Queer people deserve better when it comes to portraying homophobia in fiction.