24 August 2014

MANCHESTER PRIDE and the Importance of Diversity in Fiction

Yesterday I attended my very first Manchester Pride parade and my flag-waving arm is absolutely knackered. When a beautiful drag queen air hostess on a bright orange float tells you to “wave that flag girl”, you wave it.
This post is one I’ve wanted to write for a while, and yesterday gave me a good kick with a rainbow-coloured boot towards finally doing it. It’s hardly something that’s never been talked about before in the literary world but I wanted to get up on my soapbox and add my voice to the conversation.

Diversity. Specifically, diversity in fiction. More specifically, diversity of sexuality and gender in fiction.

Now, there are of course many other diversity issues up for discussion. I am not saying diversity of sexuality/gender is any more or less important. This is just the type of diversity I am going to talk about here. If there is more of a slant towards discussing sexuality over gender, this is because I’m fortunate enough to identify with the gender I was assigned at birth so don’t have a personal insight into growing up as trans. Please, if you have an experience of this and want to chip in, leave a comment and educate me!

(Also because I took lots of colourful photos, this post will be broken up my pictures of the parade.)

BIG BOO <3 i="">
Lea DeLaria, who plays ‘Big Boo’ in the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black, was the parade marshal this year and perfectly introduces the first thing I want to talk about. The hit show in which she stars (a show that I was completely in love with ten minutes in) has an amazing cast of funny, strong, damaged, sweet, angry, brave, selfish, mothering, confused, intelligent, manipulative, broken, interesting women. They’re everything from straight as a flag pole to gay as the fourth of July, from dreaming of a husband and a home to stamping on such traditionalisms with their heavy black boots. Either end of the spectrum and everything in-between.

And none of it determines their personalities.

The show isn’t specifically about this diversity; it’s a slice of humanity in the context of a prison drama. It demonstrates how many different varieties of human being there are, and that every single one of them has an identity far beyond their label or stereotype. These are some of the realest characters I’ve ever experienced, and made me enjoy the show on a number of different levels. I want more shows like this, more characters that represent a further reach of sexuality and gender. One solitary sassy gay man in a cast of entirely straight characters is simply not enough.

Having a strong LGBTQ presence in the fiction I consume is particularly important to me, simply because growing up any sexuality besides straight and gay were entirely invisible to me. As a person who now identifies as bi, it’s frustrating to think that it took years for me to come to the conclusion that ‘bisexual’ most accurately describes who I am attracted to because as a teenager, I had no idea that liking two genders was even an option. I know. When I started to notice I was attracted to girls, I ignored it because I knew I didn’t want to be a lesbian. I still fancied guys, and being a lesbian would mean I couldn’t anymore. You know. Because boxes and labels are the be all and end all. At least that’s what was naturally drummed into me.By the time I came to know about bisexuality, I had already considered myself straight for so damn long it didn’t occur to me that I might be anything different.

Kudos to the @BiPhoria rep at the expo yesterday who managed to continue talking to me after an almost entirely naked man wandered up next to me.
If Ginny Weasley had developed a crush on both Harry Potter and Hermione Granger, I would have known what I was feeling was a) normal and b) even a thing that happened. If Mildred Hubble got butterflies every time the pretty witch from potions class smiled at her, I would have felt more comfortable knowing that crushing on class mates of the same gender wasn’t cause for a complete identity crisis. And if James had flew his giant peach to New York and admitted to his new found friends he was really more of a Jane, I wouldn’t have looked upon the trans community with confusion/ignorance when it first became known to me later in life. I’m not saying that these kinds of subplots should be forced in where they’re not needed just for the sake of bringing in LGBTQ characters; far from it. Just that where there are opportunities for characters to experience attraction or change, authors don’t default to heterosexual-cisgender without a second thought on the matter. 

Visibility is important and as content creators for an audience, I feel like writers have a responsibility to represent the entire spectrum of humanity. Personally I feel I owe it to my boxed up thirteen-year-old self to create characters with a diverse range of sexualities and genders, to say loudly and clearly to current boxed up thirteen-year-olds, THIS IS A THING AND IT’S TOTALLY OKAY. Going through puberty is an ordeal in itself without the additional thoughts of what the hell but I like guys how can I also like girls nope must be straight let’s put those feelings in a box. If a more diverse range of characters had been available to me (without having to search for genre-specific literature which, again, I didn’t realise existed), I might have been able to comfortable identify myself much sooner. And know that it was perfectly natural. 

There is no need to have to label yourself, and edit your behaviour to fit under a certain list of descriptors. We don’t have to categorise people/characters and tick boxes off on a representation list. But that’s not to say that having a handful of your favourite characters going through the same thoughts and feelings you are can’t be extremely comforting. Seeing, understanding and finding a fitting identifier can be reassuring to a hormonal teenager because it simply means, you’re not the only one.  

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