If we go back just a few decades, queer visibility was a covert signal to other queers meant to pass under the radar of straightness. For example, in the ’70s, flagging—which was intended to communicate sexual preferences—was a code made deliberately inaccessible to a hostile and often violently homophobic mainstream culture. While I’m not a historian, I’ve understood that the hanky code mainly was a conversation starter that helped gays find each other, rather than a practical system (like, how do you remember all the variations, let alone the regional differences?). Regardless, the point stands, pre-marriage equality, queers used a variety of subtle displays and symbolism to find each other and build communities. Discretion was just as important as discerning the code. This is where the idea of queer visibility originated: were you recognizable to other queers? Over time, the goal of visibility has changed.
Fast forward to 2022, LGBTQIA+ acceptance is surging, despite the many hurdles still in our way. Of course, keep in mind throughout this critique that it’s vital for queers to have human rights and safety—that’s always been the goal. Yet, on our trek towards equality, the target of queer visibility has shifted from us to them. Visibility is no longer about finding each other and building community while flying under the straight radar; it’s now about being visible to straights in the hope of being accepted by the dominant culture, which comes at a price. Some of us have happily assimilated into mainstream culture with the hope of gaining more social status. But it’s important to note that short-term assimilation tactics have long-term community-destroying consequences that we must consciously examine before jumping on the rainbow Chase-sponsored Pride Month float while rocking our Target Pride Edition tank tops.
“Visibility is no longer about finding each other and building community while flying under the straight radar; it’s now about being visible to straights in the hope of being accepted by the dominant culture…”
In the US, we’ve seen our federal government make countless comments about equality, while simultaneously allowing states to pass bills that strip us of our dignity and rights. We’ve seen corporations pump out rainbow logos and palatable queer commercials while actively funding this anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. Are you willing to pledge allegiance to the politicians making promises while they pocket lobby dollars that corporations made selling you gay Mickey Mouse T-shirts? I’m not. My political affiliation remains strongly secured with the folks who share social disenfranchisement and grassroots visions of progress. We have to find each other in order to take care of one another since time and time again those with power won’t—and in some cases will seek to actively harm us. A strong community is non-negotiable. Visibility needs to be about finding one another.
Unfortunately, as we’ve become more visible to straights, there’s been a rise in mainstream representation, which flattens queer experiences to suit a predominantly straight audience. What we call mainstream representation, is often just appropriation with two goals: making straight people feel comfortable about our existence and telling queer people how they should look/behave in order to assimilate. Media has effectively anchored queerness to heteronormativity—this phenomenon is often called homonormativity. Meaning that straightness remains the norm, and queerness is validated or disavowed in relation to proximity.
“As we’ve become more visible to straights, there’s been a rise in mainstream representation, which flattens queer experiences to suit a predominantly straight audience.”
The issue with anchoring is that we end up locked into tropes that limit the range of stories we’re allowed to tell. Sure, we might be seeing more queer characters on TV, but the plots still center so heavily on coming out and gaining acceptance from straight characters. As a result, we start to view ourselves only through the lens of acceptability. We haven’t gained equality, we’ve just allowed cishet culture to validate us, which inevitably means that those who conform to homonormativity gain privilege while typically BIPOC, trans, and radical queers remain excluded. We’re allowed to be ourselves, as long as we follow the familiar script of coming out and waiting for straights to decide if we’re valid. And while the coming out story is pitched as a self-discovery arch, in reality, it always centers straight people; think about it, straight cis people going through puberty never hand their sexual or gender identities over to queers in order to be accepted or rejected. In these stories, queers—even as main characters—are ultimately accessories to the self-growth journey of the straight people around them. We only have to ‘discover’ our queerness and ‘struggle’ to accept ourselves, because cis heterosexuality is the norm. The obvious irony is that coming out is just a fraction, just the beginning, of what it’s actually like to be queer. It shouldn’t make up 90 percent of stories about us. But when we allow people who aren’t queer to shape stories of queerness, that’s all we’re reduced to.
What concerns me about this homonormative representation trend is the watering down of our community. At the end of the day, if we spend most of our time consuming media that’s ultimately created to praise straight people for accepting us, we forget that queers are the ones who need to support and validate each other. Our strength lies, and always has, in the queer community, not outside of it. When we’re together, we get to be fully dimensional. We have interests, talents, passions, and lives that have fuck-all to do with explaining to straight people that we’re queer. Real representation is showing queer people doing stuff together. Queer media is queer because it’s made by queers for queers. We don’t need to constantly tell each other about coming out and our struggles for acceptance because we’re out and accept one another already. Media that centers queerness allows people to just be themselves and do things with their lives. Basically, what I’m saying is I want to watch lesbian HGTV! We need to see talented queers with passions, hanging out together, and talking about everyday shit. Acceptance is a minor topic, not the central point or focus of our lives. More than anything, I want to see stories about what queers do, rather than about being queer; that’s the difference between representation and tokenization.
“More than anything, I want to see stories about what queers do, rather than about being queer; that’s the difference between representation and tokenization.”
Obviously, the solution isn’t for us to go back into the closet. Far from it. I’m advocating for us to seize control over our representation. That means not waiting for corporations and straight people to approve or dictate how we depict ourselves. That means continuing to invest heavily in DIY, independent, and grassroots projects. That means throwing a fit when organizers seek to exclude kink and leather at Pride for the benefit of corporate sponsors. That means holding on to the queerness of being queer and defending our history, rather than rewriting it for palatability. That means creating art, stories, and content that mostly exist apart from, not in relation to, straightness. That means resisting trite plots, caricatures, and straight stories that swap in queer characters without any other cultural consideration. Ultimately, reclaiming visibility means that we stop performing for straights and go back to investing energy and passion into showing up for queers. Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying—this isn’t about straight exclusion, it’s about queer focus. The more we show up authentically as ourselves, in spaces where we can be uncompromising and authentically ourselves, the more actual progress we make. Visibility is ultimately for us, for each other, for ourselves.