As a group that is routinely judged, shunned, and fighting for acceptance, we as LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex) people are often pigeon-holed into playing the role of educator to the people that inflict the most pain on us, however inadvertently by our friends and family members (who some, or even most of the time really do mean well).
Given how heavily politicized LGBTI identities are (ie: constantly in the news as an issue for political debate) it’s challenging for our loved ones to get to know us as individual people versus some issue they’re not well-versed on or quite sure when and how to speak about.
Our suffering decreases our emotional capacity to offer straight people the space and time through which they can explore their own feelings, and get their questions answered, a stalemate. But it doesn’t always have to be that way.
I quickly learned that forcing people to confront the elephant in the room (and there were many — more masculine clothing, a crazy frohawk, new friends, a compulsive habit of pointing out which well-liked celebrities were gay/lesbian/bi) wasn’t going to bridge the divide I felt growing between me and my siblings, or my parents. I couldn’t sacrifice my mental health for their education about who I was; I needed someone or something else to do the job.
Back then (early 2000s), I didn’t have much to work with; most of the LGBTI films on Netflix, including the L Word featured mainly white privileged characters. But then, I discovered Saving Face, a film drama-comedy about two lesbian Chinese-American girls navigating family expectations about career and marriage. That film was the closest I had to reflecting the complexities of my identity as a queer person of color who was also an immigrant — another narrative that is also missing from mainstream media.
There’s something about media that lowers our defenses and makes it easier for us to learn, to accept, to connect. Yet, when we talk about “pushing for change”, we often leave out how much media and pop culture–and the narratives they depict we can relate to–humanize issues, and ultimately influence the people we love (and hope to be loved by).
In a recent study on the effects of fiction (storytelling), researchers assessed the mood and self-identification of readers before and after popular fiction novels, and found that the overall empathy i.e. ability to relate to (and, in fact, see themselves as) one of the characters, significantly increased.
What does this mean for queer people of color? Our friends and our families are more likely to relate to who we are through a novel, a film, a song than they are a blog post titled, “How to Be an LGBT Ally.” It doesn’t mean that non-fiction articles, political campaigns, blog post “call outs”, and legal advocacy, are less important strategies, but I dare say they may not be as relevant around the average holiday dinner table.
In the face of funding cuts for the arts, and the constant (and annoying) trivialization of media as a tool for advocacy by LGBTI activists, it’s easy to dismiss personal storytelling, fiction, film, even music as powerful tools to invoke empathy and not just “social change”, but the stronger, closer interpersonal relationships that bring about this change. Still, we owe it to ourselves to invest in the relationships that matter to us the most by daring to facilitate critical conversations (in plain language!) about who we really are. So why not give your relationships a fighting chance and give the gift of media this holiday season?
Surviving the Holidays as Queer POC (spectra)