Although LGTBQ acceptance has come a long way, we still live in a world where everyone is assumed straight until proven otherwise. On top of this, not only can the general populace be misinformed about different queer identities, but certain identities, such as bisexual, asexual, non-binary and trans, can be downright invisible in mainstream media.
GLAAD keeps track of LGBTQ representation in film and television. In 2015, GLAAD found there was more representation of gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters in film. However, there were no discernable trans characters and the majority of queer characters in films were able-bodied, white men. Even with increased representation compared to past years, GLAAD found that most LGBT characters in films were minor or secondary characters.
Although GLAAD found television to be doing slightly better than film, it can be extremely frustrating for queer people to wait for one character in a hundred who may or may not represent them. The odds of this are slim especially for queer people of color or queer people with disabilities.
However, there is another world hidden from the mainstream, where these identities are thriving: fan fiction. These stories inspired by mainstream characters and worlds become avenues for fans to finally get the queer stories that traditional media isn’t providing.
“There are people of color in the world, there are queer people, neurodivergent people, disabled people,” says Tiana Moore, a fan fiction writer. “They exist in everyday life, and if we’re talking fic pairings to be specific—these people deserve (and DO!) fall in love in very ordinary ways at the end of the day. To have accurate representation means to tell a story that lots of people can find themselves lost in, found in, healed by.”
Fools Gold is one fan fic that stands out because it is packed with queer representation. Based on the web series Carmilla, it reimagines the characters in a high school setting. Some of the main characters of the fic include Danny Lawrence as bisexual, Lola Perry as asexual and LaFontaine as a non-binary character.
The fan fiction’s portrayal of these characters’ sexuality and gender identity received lots of attention in the form of messages: some positive, some negative. Olivia D’Agostino, executive producer and co-author of Fools Gold, particularly remembers messages she and her co-writer would receive about their characterization of Perry’s asexuality. Whereas the mainstream media often portrays asexual characters as cold and disliking affection, they wrote Perry differently to explore other parts of the asexual spectrum, D’Agostino says.
“So having someone who’s ace that likes kissing sometimes, but she’s just not comfortable with sex, it’s just a different representation,” D’Agostino says. “But a lot of people were kind of happy, because they’re like, ‘Wow.’ We would get so many messages that would be like, ‘I’m crying because this is the first time I’ve seen my version of asexuality anywhere.’”
Communities grow around fics because people are able to form better bonds with characters they feel represent them. Moore says fandom makes a big part of the fan fiction community because there is already this group of people invested in fleshing out these complex characters.
D’Agostino also finds that some of the perceived illegitimacy of fan fiction may come from the queer aspects of certain fics, because it can be seen as fans doing whatever they want.
But in a world where writers and showrunners see one queer character in every hundred as acceptable, fan fiction writers have to take queer representation into their own hands, D’Agostino says.
“For queer stories, I think they do flourish so much because we don’t have that representation,” she says. “You have characters that are just clearly into each other. You see it there, you see the chemistry, thinking ‘why isn’t this happening?’ So you’re just like, ‘I’m going to make it happen myself.’”
Seeing a representation of your identity in the media
Queer representation—whether in film, television, books or fan fiction—can have profound effects on queer youth. Seeing themselves on TV, in print, in music videos, etc., helps queer youths to know themselves better, D’Agostino says.
“Honestly, I think I would have realized I was bi sooner,” D’Agostino says. “I don’t think I even knew what bisexuality was until I was maybe in high school. And my version of how I found out about bisexuality was probably some gross stereotype. So I’m like, well I’m not cheating on people and having threesomes and doing all these things, so I guess that doesn’t fit me. It’s kind of this idea that with bi-erasure, the default is either you’re straight or you’re gay. If I’m like, well, I can’t be gay because I’m attracted to guys…if only there was something else,” she says, laughing. “But there isn’t, so I must be straight.”
When D’Agostino went to college, she realized she was bisexual her freshman year after a friend of hers came out as bisexual. She attended an LGBT group on campus with her friend as support and learned more about the identity.
“I was that literal cliché straight ally going to the group,” D’Agostino says. “And then I just kind of realized one day. I really think if there was more accurate representation growing up, I would have realized it sooner because I would have known that it was a thing. I think that’s why representation is so, so important, because a lot of people don’t know that some of these things exist and then you find out it exists, and you have that click moment, and you’re like ‘Oh my God, that’s me,’” she says.
Similarly, Moore, who identifies as polysexual and demisexual, feels if these identities had more representation in media when she was growing up, she would have realized and accepted her sexuality faster.
“I grew up in a conservative Christian household,” Moore says. “And to be able to have had more access to representation—to show what is normal—would’ve changed a large number of years growing up for me, I think. I would’ve self-harmed less, I would’ve been less confused. I’d have fallen in love more.”
Not only is accurate representation important, but the use of labels can go a long way in normalizing queer identities. Labels add legitimacy to identities because they show that the identity exists and that it’s not a phase, D’Agostino says.
Especially with bisexuality, D’Agostino feels the only time queer characters “don’t do labels” is when they are bisexual, and the lack of this label in mainstream media inherently contributes to the idea that bisexual people cannot make up their minds.
“I think using labels is vastly important, whether that’s directly in the show or through transmedia,” Moore says. “[For example], on The 100, Clarke is bi and Lexa is gay, but those labels aren’t really important in that time period that the show takes place in which is great, because it’s far into the future.”
“But we’re alive now, and the creators and actors are also alive now, and that show in particular has done a wonderful job of stating, very clearly, that Clarke is bisexual and Lexa is a lesbian. So I think a balance of something like that can be amazing as well,” she said.
While mainstream media is getting better in its representation of queer characters, it still has a long way to go. D’Agostino feels many queer stories in the mainstream media end in tragedy, and are oftentimes focused on coming out dramas. She says she would like to see more stories of everyday life, where queer characters exist beyond their queerness.
But it’s not just the characters on screen she wants to see changed. It’s the people behind the scenes, too. More queer writers, producers and directors would help ensure better treatment and more development of complex queer characters. In addition to that, Moore would also like to see non-binary characters who do not exist just to be non-binary and trans actors playing trans characters.
“Most profoundly for me on a very personal level, I would love to see queer women have happy endings,” Moore says. “Deserved ones, earned ones, but happy ones.”
Until mainstream media starts to provide more varied and accurate representation of queer characters, fan fiction written by writers dedicated to telling the untold stories about these identities are always just a click away online.