I’ve told the stories before but I keep going back to them because of how formative they were for me.
First, Ellen Degeneres. Her short hair and baggy boys clothes. The way she was always single and really happy about it. The way her life and humor were centered on friendship and not romance. I eagerly sat and watched her show with my family every week. We laughed and laughed. I was so grateful to see her on my tv screen.
I was in my mid-teens. I wore a baseball cap almost everywhere I went. My clothing hung off my skinny frame. I had short hair. Not quite the Jonathan Taylor Thomas cut I was going for, mine sadly resembled something closer to an uneven mullet, but still it was short. I wasn’t allowed to date, which for the most part was fine by me. There weren’t really any boys I saw myself being close to like that. I got teased sometimes for the way I dressed. People made a fuss when I wore dresses and said how nice I looked (even though I was miserable in them).
So every week, seeing Ellen on my tv made me believe I was okay. There was at least one other person in the world like me. There was another heterosexual woman who had short hair and baggy clothes. I am okay. I am okay. I am okay.
Then Ellen came out. Shit. My family boycotted the coming out episode and the one after that. When we watched again we “all agreed” the show just wasn’t that funny any more. But I remember the terror. I remember praying her gayness wouldn’t reflect on me.
There was no one else I could see myself in. Not as closely as I saw myself in her. Not until “Boys Don’t Cry.”
I rented the dvd at the local Blockbuster and brought it home to my off-campus apartment. I was a senior in college. I knew, at this point, that I was gay, but I was trying to fight it. I was praying my feelings would go away. I was telling myself and the few close friends I had confided in, that I wasn’t ever going to date. I could do this. I could still be holy.
I watched the story of Brandon Teena unfold. I watched this young person with short hair, with boyish clothes, who fell for the girl and I felt such an affinity. It was so much deeper than what I felt watching Will and Grace or Rosie O’Donnell’s show. I loved those shows but I also knew, somehow, that it wasn’t quite the same. It was a different lived experience.
But Brandon. Brandon with his rural swagger. Brandon with his ability to be seen as male. Brandon spoke to me.
The film doesn’t use the word transgender. (The filmmaker, at the time of filming and for some years later saw Brandon as a masculine woman, not as a man.) But even in the midst of that I saw a reflection of myself. A touchstone.
And it shattered me. It told me that being myself would mean being seen as a freak and a liar. As deceptive and a fraud. I would be an outcast and subject to violence. And so I sat alone on my couch, curled up into a ball, and felt despair.
We are hungry to see ourselves. No, actually, we are starving. Ravenous. Not just trans people, but queer people, poly people, asexual people, the list goes on. It’s why we’re so quick to jump on any character that might even remotely resemble our identity. It’s why we get so angry when creators get it wrong. It’s not just that we’re purists, it’s that this might literally be the only time we see ourselves in media this decade. So we want perfection. We want every nuance captured, even if we know it’s impossible. It’s because we’re desperate.
The answer isn’t for more people with power to shoehorn our stories as side pieces into their projects, the answer is to equip, empower, and pay marginalized artists to tell our stories. To tell them through our lens and not filtered through the gaze of the majority.
When we do it will be a gift to all people, not just to our community. Because you’ll finally be able to see us the way we see ourselves. You’ll hear us speak about our experiences using the language we use. You’ll see how beautiful and multi-faceted and creative we are. Your expectations and understandings will expand from the narrow to the boundless.
I want this not only for myself, but for every other kid praying to see themselves while they also try to make themselves invisible. I want this for every young person curled up alone feeling hopeless. I want this for every isolated person who just needs to know there is someone in the world like them.
I want this for all of us.