I first discovered Buffy the Vampire Slayer when I found the first season on sale for like $20 while on vacation. It was a show I wouldn’t have dreamed of watching when I was in high school. Vampires, magic, all of that stuff was evil! But I had heard good things about it and it was on sale! I put the disc into my laptop on the plane on the way home. I was nervous. The voices of my youth leaders were echoing in my head telling me that I was watching something “sinful”. I pressed play. I was almost immediately drawn into these characters and their lives.
Over the next couple of days I would watch the show in my apartment. I was ready to hit stop whenever I heard my mom making noise and thought she might interrupt me. I knew that she would be upset that I was watching such things. Often I would wait for her to go to bed and then I would watch an episode or two. When I finished season one I immediately went out and bought season two, and then season three. There was just something about the show.
I was in my twenties, but I empathized with these characters in high school. Since I didn’t have a normal high school (or college) experience I felt like I was just starting to come of age now that I was out of that oppressive environment. The stories of these teenagers who felt like misfits, who were picked on, who wanted to do more good in the world; that was my story! I also desperately wanted the friendship that the Scooby gang had. They had people they could call up, people they could rely on. I was feeling incredibly alone and lonely. I felt like I didn’t have anyone to turn to and so I lived vicariously through them.
I also appreciated the Willow coming out storyline; yet another aspect of my life being shown on the screen. I still didn’t really know any gay people, at least not very well. I had a couple of aquaintances but no one I could really talk to about things, no one I could hang out with. It sounds so silly, but that tv show got me through a lot of really hard times. I felt like I had companions (even if they were fictional ones) for my journey at a time when I desperately needed companions.
I have always found myself living somewhat vicariously through fictional characters; whether they were in the stacks of books I read growing up, or in the television shows and movies that I loved. I’ve always had a very active imagination. As a lonely kid I would dream up fantasy worlds to inhabit, populated by people who loved me and thought I was something special. It was a way for me to not feel so overlooked, a way to feel like my life meant something to someone.
I often felt kind of invisible, even when I was the center of attention. I felt like people were paying attention to me because I was weird or because I was dressed funny. I was never quite in step with my peers. The clothing I wore didn’t feel right, the way I moved in my body didn’t feel right. I was serious and intense while they were laughing and joking. I wasn’t interested in dating when that was all they could talk about. So I retreated into my imagination. In my head I was safe, I was the hero. I wasn’t weird or out of step. I could have long conversations with people who were happy to listen. Hanging out in my mind was an escape and salvation.
This is why it matters that there be representations of diverse queer experiences in popular media. We need to see ourselves and our experiences reflected in the media that we consume. The problem with so much queer media (although it’s getting better) is how negative a lot of it is.
In my senior year of college I lived off campus in a tiny apartment over a garage. It was right across the street from campus, but it felt like another world because I was freed from a lot of the on-campus rules. It was a sanctuary and haven for me. I remember taping Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show every day just so I could feel like there was someone in my life who was gay and who understood. And I remember the night that I rented Boys Don’t Cry.
Boys Don’t Cry is the story of Brandon Teena a (presumed to be) trans man who was killed because of his gender identity. At this point I still didn’t understand what it meant to be transgender. I just knew that this movie was about someone like me. I saw myself in this person’s struggle with the sex assigned to them at birth. I saw them trying to make sense of the life they were living. I watched that movie and I wept because I recognized myself. And it terrified me.
What does it say to our queer and trans youth when the only movies that include their lives involve murder and death? (I could list a string of movies with terribly sad endings.) What does it say when the films that tackle queerness and religious themes almost all end badly? Certainly there is truth in these stories, but we have to also admit that they take a toll on the youth and young adults watching them. I have grasped for any book or movie that might resonate with my experience at all, just so that I feel seen and understood in the stories that I love. But rarely am I represented. Rarely do these stories have a happy ending. Can you imagine if you never saw a love story that ended up well? If you never saw a coming of age story that didn’t involve death or family rejection? What would that do to your psyche?
We need stories that reflect our lives, capture our imaginations, and show us what can be. We need to see ourselves reflected in popular media. For those of us who grew up in rural areas or with families that didn’t accept us (or both) these representations might be the only thing letting us know that we are okay, that there is someone else out there like us, that maybe someday we can show up in the world as all of who we are.
I think also of the responsibility we have as preachers: Do we only talk about queer issues on Pride Sunday (if at all)? Do you ever talk about the Eunuchs as gender non-conforming? Or point out that nonconformity of people like Deborah, Jacob, and others? Do you weave queerness into your texts? Do you talk about same gender couples and families in your sermon illustrations? We need to see ourselves represented lest we think that we don’t belong, that this story isn’t ours, that we don’t matter.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer gave me a window into a world where I could be myself. It gave me a dose of much needed courage and comfort. It made me feel seen in a way that the sermons I was hearing didn’t. It made me think that someday, just maybe, I would be surrounded by friends who wouldn’t think I was weird.
In a really dark time in my life, this show gave me something that nothing else did: Hope.