A couple of weeks ago, Stephen Fry's new documentary, Out There, aired on the BBC. In it, Fry explores homosexuality around the world, and what rights, or restrictions, people experience because of their sexuality or gender identity.
This is a fascinating and important topic, but one thing is often left out of such discussions: how young LGBTQ people feel and what opportunities they believe they have for living LGBTQ lives as adults. Often, we tend to focus on LGBTQ adults and whether they can get married or adopt kids, or what religions say about homosexuality, or which countries feature the terrors of "corrective rape" or the death sentence, among other topics. Maybe this is because we somehow don't believe that very young people can know what their true gender or sexuality is. Whatever the reason, I often feel we need more support for young people as they begin coming to terms with their sexuality or gender identity, and as they then start telling people they are LGBTQ, embark on romantic and/or sexual relationships, consider university and careers, and so on. It's true Stephen Fry spoke about and to the next generation in regard to some of the challenges they face, but in general, he seemed most interested in adults (and then primarily gay and lesbian ones).
How often do young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or otherwise queer children or young adults see positive reflections of themselves and their lives in literature, in the media, on TV, or in films? When will they be featured in a documentary? When will they learn that they too are productive, welcomed, supported members of society who have bright futures ahead of them?
At the University of East Anglia, where I teach queer literature and where I have helped run coming-out workshops for students and staff, I am regularly told by LGBTQ young people that it is hard to come out in part because they don't have many role models. Of course there are people such as Stephen Fry, Sandi Toksvig, Martina Navratilova, or Frank Ocean - celebrities who are brave enough to be open about who they are and who will fight for equal rights. But the students seem to long to see people who are like them: ordinary folks who happen to be LGBTQ and who have happy, healthy queer lives. Sometimes young people seem to think that it's easy to be out when you're rich and famous and eminently employable, and they wonder what it's like to be out when you're unknown and from a working-class or middle-class family.
The obvious solution to this is to feature more LGBTQ characters, especially young ones, in books, films, and television shows. But rather than focusing on the queerness of the character, it would make more sense to just have a character who is LGBTQ but who isn't obsessed with it or hugely worried about it. Such characters would just be depicted as living their lives: dating, hanging out with friends, celebrating holidays with relatives, studying, working, marrying, raising children, and so forth. In other words, the way heterosexual or cisgender characters are depicted.
Young people absorb so many messages from the media that it is essential that we pay attention to what subtle things we're telling them via literature or movies. If, for example, we show them that gay men are camp and fashionable and are straight women's best friends, young gay men might feel pressured to act that way, even if that isn't who they truly are. If we portray bisexuals as indecisive or promiscuous, they may lack the confidence to come out as bi, and others might be prejudiced against them (see my new book for more on this).
Documentaries such as Fry's are tremendously vital to informing the audience about LGBTQ issues and to helping to slow change the situation for LGBTQ people around the world. But we also have to consider the next generation of LGBTQ people. We need to feature more of them in documentaries and in works of fiction. And we need to do so in a positive, productive way that doesn't stereotype or suggest that a queer life is a narrow, unhappy one but rather that inspires and encourages them to be who they are.