Updated: Feb 21
The complexities in narrating LGBTQ+ history reflect the dynamic nature of gay culture and society’s grand narrative surrounding queer history. LGBTQ+ acceptance and representation in the media can be broken down into layers of representation that mimic the integration of any minority group into society.
Layers of LGBTQ+ Representation
The layers of public approval of homosexuality can be defined as the following stages: NON-RECOGNITION, CONTEXT OF A JOKE, REGULATION, and RESPECT.
Non-recognition can take form as the LGBTQ+ community is either not represented or only portrayed through queer-coded characters. Disney villains are often queer-coded to provoke the audience to associate gay stereotypes with predatory or "evil" intentions.
In the context of a joke, LGBTQ+ characters are reduced to perceived comical attributes. For example, queer figures could be dismissed as sexually perverted, outcasted by society, or as a token or "accessory" to real heterosexual leaders.
Portrayals of homosexuals that are meant to regulate public perception can include queer characters adhering to societal expectations. Individuals chosen to represent the LGBTQ+ community can often be simplified into a predictable and palatable trope, such as the effeminate, supportive gay best friend. Or, a character could be portrayed as adhering to respectability politics and their relationship follows heteronormative gender roles. Queer historical figures' stories should not be erased if they do not end in marriage or follow the "dominant" and "submissive" dynamic that people associate with the partnership between man and woman.
The ideal and most inclusive form of queer visibility can achieved through respectful representation. This includes narratives of LGBTQ+ characters that are nuanced and unique individuals who are not held to preconceived gender roles or societal expectations. In respectful and transparent representation of queer history, national identities that were once solely dominated by heteronormative supremacy now highlight the contributions of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender to the development of the state and country.
Video content from Rowan Ellis
Education Creates Empathy
Teaching LGBTQ+ history allows our society to transcend past the stage of the non-recognition of queer voices. It also promotes an inclusive environment that can allow students to associate education with a safe and affirming experience for LGBTQ+ students. Ensuring that history books and media include “fair, accurate, inclusive and respectful” representations of LGBT Americans and people with disabilities. Reclaiming queer history also includes being respectful of historical figures LGBT who had not publicly described their sexual orientation or gender identity. However, public texts could include relevant biographical information about speculation related to their sexual orientation in the teachers’ guide or unabridged readings.
Origins of LGBTQ+ Stereotypes
Prejudice against the LGBTQ+ community has been a longstanding issue that can be traced back to many moments in history. However, it was during the Culture Wars of the 70s that the threat of homosexuality was fabricated in American media. The attempt to misinform American citizens was a response to a combination of the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, and the feminist movement.
During the feminist movement, The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was proposed to end legal distinctions between men and women in matters of divorce, property, and employment. Basically, it would guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex. Gender-neutral language in the constitution would protect against sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination.
In response to this proposal, conservative homemakers created the STOP ERA (Stop Taking Our Privileges) to prevent the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. They believed the ERA would corrupt the "submissive" and "dominant" nature of patriarchal standards and, ultimately, lead to public acceptance of same-sex marriage.
There were many falsified fears central to the STOP ERA campaign, but the major points were fears of reversal in gender roles, same-sex marriages and same-sex adoption, and the loss of nuclear family structure.
Anti-gay rhetoric and sexual shaming were central to Schlafly’s STOP ERA campaign. Drawing from longstanding opposition to homosexuality, her pamphlets and articles transposed biblical rhetoric onto fears of homosexuality. She frequently associated the ERA with the dangers of “sex mixing,” “homosexual marriage,” and the threat of “homosexual schoolteachers.” Schlafly’s insistence on a nuclear family model viewed any deviation from this model as a political threat. These antiquated attitudes established by opponents of female and queer liberation prevail in our historical accounts, media platforms, and policies.
We see this policing of female and queer bodies in modern debates over the right to safe and accessible abortion and gender-inclusive bathrooms. In order to rectify the misrepresentation and oppression of the gay community, it is imperative that we also address the psychological impact of an entire group of people being viewed as a public threat.
The fear tactics that were instilled during the spread of misinformation of the Culture Wars have modern repercussions that continue to put the LGBTQ+ community at risk. According to a 2021 national survey by The Trevor Project, a crisis prevention organization for the LGBTQ+ community, it was reported that 42 percent of LGBTQ+ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year.
I conducted a series of interviews with subjects of different ages, cultural backgrounds, and sexual expressions to gauge the public’s understanding of the origins of anti-homosexuality attitudes. Participants were asked about their understanding of the Equal Rights Amendment and the STOP ERA campaign. 4 out of the 5 subjects were familiar with the ERA but some of them assumed that it had passed. Only 3 out of the 5 were familiar with the STOP ERA Campaign. In general, interview findings pointed to the conclusion that the general population is not aware of the misinformation spread against the gay community during the Culture Wars.
When describing their current observations, subjects had an easy time identifying stereotypes in both gay men and lesbian women. There were common themes of lesbians being depicted as masculine or manipulative, gay men depicted as an effeminate or public health threat, and erasure of non-binary identities both within the LGBTQ+ and in the media. All of my participants expressed feeling misunderstood in their own identity as a result of stereotyping.
Exploring the voices, experiences, struggles, and uniqueness of each identity represented in the gay community is essential to respect the community’s diversity. Throughout the course of history, stereotypes perpetuated in gay depictions vary greatly from lesbian, bi, trans, or asexual depictions. However, it was the non-recognition of the queer experience that created the proverbial “closet.” Past moments in history in which there was no literature or public support for anything other than heteronormative expectations incite fears of the LGBTQ+ community and continue to echo today. Chronic oppression provoked the gay community to establish “safe” spaces for individuals to express their sexual or gender identity. For example, queer narratives could be found in the army, single-gender schools, dance halls, and religious community living. Gay subculture flourished in urban cities, but gay people have existed on every part of Earth and at any moment in history.
As the projected gender roles of “male” and “female” have evolved, the difference between gay and lesbian stereotypes become more reflective of patriarchal systems of control. The sexualization of lesbians can be traced back to the Lesbian Pulp Fiction of the 1950s and 1960s. Despite the reality that this depiction of homosexuality fetishized sexual orientation, lesbian pulp fiction served as a problematic form of representation and has been reclaimed by the community. These stereotypes framed lesbian individuals as sexually promiscuous, manipulative, or as an “other” in comparison to dignified, heterosexual women. Assumptions of the different identities of the gay community should be studied separately and in the context of each other.
There was a general consensus that the media has made progress in its representation of LGBTQ+ identities. As far as a truly equitable environment, free from negative stereotypes, research and personal experiences reveal that our society must strive for more inclusivity, visibility, and accountability in the representation of queer voices.