An Essay about LGBTQ+ representation and art, tied up with a bit of a tribute to Stephanie Rice.
I haven’t written something like this in quite a while. But I’ve been thinking a lot this past month about stories (even more than usual). So please be patient with all the caffeinated rambling I have to do here.
Needing to tell stories is something I have always known. There’s not a point in my life that I can look back on and not find in my younger self the intense will to put words and worlds, experiences and characters on paper. I’m sure this is a thing many artists and storytellers would say about their own lives. It’s the heart hammering, hand shaking need to find an outlet for experiences, passion, compassion and emotion that answers every “how did you know you wanted to do this” question with a “because I had to.”
Being gay is something that I haven’t always known. And yes, I can look back on my life and point to moments and insecurities and road bumps that came from having always been gay. But I haven’t always known. Knowing came later. Knowing came with combined fear and confidence and the ability to eventually shatter the brick walls I’d built to hold my shoulders upright, in order to look at myself more clearly. And then I knew, and now it’s as though I always have.
I spend a lot of time thinking about my experience coming out and the experiences of other LGBT people around me, and young kids who have come out and are coming out every day, either in quiet moments to themselves, or in one big fight with their families, or again and again each day to that Uber driver or that woman next to you on the plane, or your hair dresser who always asks who you’re dating. I spend a lot of time thinking about how that experience can be made easier, how kids can be received with more love, how we can better learn who we are before the years of self doubt. And no matter how much I think about anything, I am almost always brought back to the same two ways to fix anything. 1. Through giving and compassion and 2. Through art and stories.
With each generation in the LGBTQ community, the groundwork is laid for the ones that follow. From fighting for our right to live and be seen, to demonstrating that we’re just like everyone else, the generations before mine have laid a foundation that I am fortunate and humbled to stand on. In that light, I really and truly believe that it will be my generation that brings us alive, as a community, through art, that tells stories and writes songs so that generations after us can see themselves a little sooner, can look up to more than just a handful of queer artists, can grow up knowing and with families who know that there is no one normal, no cookie cutter sexuality, no right experience.
I have few memories of experiencing media that was specifically gay, growing up. But one of the clearest I do have is watching Pretty Little Liars with my mom. I grew up in liberal Massachusetts, outside Boston with loving, accepting parents. Even still, I can vividly remember a time when Emily, a then high school student on the show kissed her girlfriend and my mother explained that she just “didn’t like to see it” that it was fine and she had “nothing against it” but “she’s just a little girl” and she didn’t want to think about it. I’m sure my mom’s response wasn’t different from many others. So often, the world is okay with kids being queer but not okay with showing them a world of experiences like theirs beforehand. My mom is one of the most loving people I know and I tell this story with a fondness. She’s always been accepting of who I am. I’ve always been safe and supported. There’s a chance she doesn’t even remember this moment because she loves me for who I am. But when all is said and done those moments happen all the time and they pile up and they mean something. They mean something because there are young kids, across the country, across the world, in less loving houses, with less accepting parents, who don’t have the word for what they feel for years and years, who are sheltered from seeing Emily Fields kiss girls on TV, who watch their parents turn off movies if two boys are in love. Those kids hear song after song on the radio where girls sing about boys and boys sing about girls. They’re raised on fairytales and animated films about Princesses who marry Princes or don’t marry at all. They flounder, they search, they look for themselves here and there and everywhere and they come up empty handed. They come up with one song by a niche band that no one else listens to, or one sad lifetime movie about a woman’s dead gay son, or one lesbian on a TV show who inevitably ends up dead.
It’s my understanding that art is never meaningless. That culture and stories are what shape who we are, our worldview, our communities. It’s my understanding that when we diversify those stories we begin to change the world, stone by stone, kid by kid.
Often, I hear other LGBTQ people talk about not wanting to be defined by being gay or bi or trans. But the more I grapple with it and the more I exist in this world, living in LA, working in television, fighting for my chance to tell stories, the more I want to scream it. I’m gay. I’m gay. I’m gay. I’m gay. Because maybe if I yell it loud enough some kid will hear it and say “hey me too.” Because maybe if I pour that pride and pain and passion into my art it will reach their television some day, their home, their couch, and even if it doesn’t change their dad’s mind, it might make them feel less alone or give them the right words for the pain and passion that they feel.
I never watched The Voice before last year. I turned on season 11, at random, because I wanted to watch Alicia Keys be a coach. At some point, I stopped. It was fun but these aren’t the kind of shows that feel like they’re for me. They feel like they’re for corn fed, middle America, fighting over this pleasant looking man or that palatable country singer. And while I’m a creative who appreciates the rise and fall and hopes and dreams of other creatives as stories, these weren’t ones I was ever invested in. This year, I again turned the show on to watch season 12. Only to watch the auditions because those are fun and I get one more season with Alicia Keys. I remember the moment the show played Stephanie Rice’s backstory. I was watching it with one of my good friends. I remember we both perked up a little more when we saw her holding hands with her fiancée. I remember watching in an odd, baited breath silence as Stephanie began to tell her story and finding myself choking up just a little. For me, that emotional choked up feeling came from hearing things that I recognized, from watching her talk about the fear of disappointing her little sisters and knowing that exact same fear, to the same hands shaking, heart in your throat need to prove it’s alright, to make your way, to have your voice heard. Even as a person who has been out for years, an adult who is comfortable and confident in my sexuality, that feeling is still there. And as I watched it and watched her speak her truth and kiss another girl back stage I was reminded again that some kid, somewhere on a couch was going to see this, and feel that reliability, and feel seen and understood and not alone. I was driven again to keep fighting to tell my own stories.
There is something significant about pain and diversity and art that isn’t discussed enough. Art is universal and can be interpreted and understood and seen and heard and felt by anyone. But there is a rare and often overlooked feeling that comes when art feels like it understands you. When someone says words or shows an emotion that you can put your finger on and say you’ve felt. I stuck with the Voice after that. I watched specifically to follow Stephanie’s journey. For one, because she’s an incredibly talented artist, and for two, because I have a distinct understanding of how much harder that fight to make your way is.
Just a few nights ago I was driving, after my last day at my job in the Shannara Season 2 Writers Room, at about midnight down the freeway, and I was loudly singing along to Stevie Nicks with my windows down. On my reverse alphabetical order by artist itunes library, Stephanie Rice’s cover of White Flag comes right after Stevie Nicks’s Edge of Seventeen. So I’m driving and I’m singing and I know every damn word to Dido’s White Flag because I’ve heard it a hundred thousand times before and it was never even a song I cared about or liked. But I hadn’t heard this version that many times. Here I am, twenty-six years old, yelling at top volume in my car feeling my head get sort of swallowed and overcome and numbed by emotion as I do. Because when another gay woman sang that song, it changed. Because when another person fighting and dying to get their pain and emotion out of their chest sang that song, it changed. Because the emotion she sang with is emotion I know. Because suddenly yelling that I wouldn’t put my hands up and surrender became about something different. I can’t tell you what someone else meant by their song or their voice or their story. But I can tell you how it touched me personally. And I grinned like a damn idiot in my car because I felt a little stronger and a little prouder.
I’m in the process of writing a feature/novel package with the brilliant Dawson Schachter. It’s a romance between two women. And as we work on it we keep having to remind ourselves of the reality that these stories don’t get told often, that the market for them is smaller, that they have to be palatable to the big wigs that will look at them. And that is infuriating and compromising and fucks with every better angel and creative demon you have, let me tell you. That’s the ugly part people don’t talk about. That’s the reality of being an LGBTQ creator. Being too gay or too different or not gay enough, not sensational enough, being martyred to your community when you would love just a little less pressure today, knowing the pressure is the only way, being brave because anything else has never even been an option you were given, feeling like failure means letting down that kid who needs this story, feeling like it means letting down the kid in you who needed this story and now just needs to get it out. But I also know how inspiring all those feelings can be and how it can feel like singing along at brain numbing volume to White Flag with your windows down going 90 on a freeway at midnight in Los Angeles far away from your home and your family.
To Stephanie Rice, thank you. With as much weight as I can put in those two words, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for so bravely sharing your story and your art with America. Your vulnerability and light brought a story to televisions across this country that people need. And despite that particular journey wrapping up last night, I have no doubts that you will go on to keep sharing your soul through your music. As a fellow woman, as a fellow storyteller, you reminded me why I’m doing what I’m doing and I am so grateful to have gotten to hear your truth. You have a friend and supporter in Los Angeles if ever you need one. I look forward to hearing everything else you have to tell the world.
To anyone else reading this, my friends, young LGBTQ followers, fellow writers, coworkers, strangers consider this very long ramble a plea for you to continue to back and support LGBTQ artists and youth. Continue to lend them platforms and elevate their voices. Continue to diversify the stories you tell, paint televisions and movies and the radio with kids that look like them, that sound like them, that feel like them. And please, also consider this very long ramble, another in a pile of promises I’ve already made to you, that I will never stop doing everything I can to illuminate your hearts and your souls and your stories. If I have to scream them or deliver them from the ground with bloody knuckles, I will make them heard. I hope that together, we can continue to build a foundation for generations after us, through art where exposure has opened hearts and minds, where stories have saved lives, and art has changed the world. We fight, as we always have, for a better, louder, prouder, safer, and more inclusive future.