2022 has, so far, been a pretty terrifying year for queer youth in America. From bills in Texas seeking to remove trans children from affirming homes to bans on trans student-athletes across the South, it seems like danger is all around. One of the most high-profile bills to emerge from this flood of homophobic legislation is the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida1 2, which seeks to prohibit kindergarten through third-grade teachers from mentioning (non-straight) sexual orientation and (non-cisgender) gender identity in their classrooms, with the threat of being fired or sued looming over teachers and schools that do not comply. The Walt Disney Company quickly found themselves in hot water for their reactionary removal of seemingly unintentionally and intentionally queer scenes from upcoming children’s movies, as well as their prior support of legislators who brought the bill forth.
This might seem reasonable to some, especially parents of young children who think, Well obviously I don’t want my young baby learning about sex at that age, in schools or media! However, in truth sexual orientation and gender identity are inseparable from even the stories told to newborn babies, in which mothers and fathers create families of their own, care for them, watch them grow, and see their children find happy lives and loves of their own. A story about a princess who comes into her strength and saves her kingdom is also a story of gender identity—we just haven’t historically thought about it that way.
Upon further consideration, each of us can probably recall countless representations of straight love and cisgendered youth given to us as children—the many inspiring, joyful, humourous stories of clumsy first crushes, going to work with Dad, and lessons about proud womanhood received from Grandma. I remember fairy tales and stories of little girls with big, strong attitudes (much to their mothers’ dismay). I remember stories of mothers and fathers who love each other deeply and always have important life lessons to impart, who never fail to pick up their children when they stumble along the way. Paul Zelinksy’s retelling of Rapunzel, with passionate (heterosexual) romantic love, heartbreaking tragedy, and strikingly beautiful illustrations, is a story I have treasured for as long as I can remember.
What I can’t remember is the first time I saw gay people on television.
I estimate it occurred sometime between when the fourth season of Legend of Korra was released in the fall of 2014 and the first time I snuck the family iPad away to watch Glee in a corner toward the end of 2015. I was a curious but repressed preteen, attending a private Christian middle school in the heart of the Inland Empire. I had kissed another girl in elementary school, with no language to articulate the experience and the feelings that lead to it, and since then all that I had learned about gay people came from religious leaders and bastardized interpretations of the Bible. When Korra and Asami left their world, hands woven together and clearly in love3, I was both drawn to it and disgusted, caught up in my confusing reaction to a kind of story I didn’t previously know existed. I was confused by my own story.
Growing up in a deeply religious but also (as I have since learned) very queer friend group, my experiences were not uncommon, and that internal conflict was one many of us shared until we left home for college. Once in college, I voraciously devoured all of the queer stories I never knew existed, messily navigating the freedom to express all the love and desire that had been suppressed in me before. My friends have largely done the same, all while finding their own friends and communities that love and support their vibrant gender expressions and romantic lives.
Now that we are somewhat grown, adults at least in name, we are able to watch a children’s movie or television show and notice the hints of queerness scattered across the fantastical stories. A glance between two adolescent boys, full of affection and yearning, the brush of a hand between young girls who have long been friends and now are on the cusp of something more. In comparison to the representation we never saw as children, or in my case was kept from me, this is amazing, and we are blessed to live in an age where we now see ourselves positively, quietly living out our lives on the big screen.
However, I am still afraid for younger generations, for people who cannot wait until they go off to college at seventeen to see themselves and their love presented as beautiful and normal. For the young queer people forced to live in environments much more dangerous than mine, who fall in love or find themselves at an age when they have no one to tell them that it deserves to be celebrated. Current queer representation for children’s media is so subtle, so shy as to its intentions, as to almost completely erase its queerness from the public record.
And maybe that’s the intention—to keep queerness and the celebration of it from the young people that need it, for whom representation might change the course of their young lives. If one must be immersed in queer culture, in the day-to-day experiences of queer life and love, to access and identify queer representation where it makes brief appearances on the big screen, then we’ve missed the point of showing these stories in the first place. Because that’s what’s most important: telling kids stories they might not be able to hear at home or at church, stories that might later in life become their own. To do that work, we need big, bold queerness, queerness that presents them with limitless possibilities for the future and makes them feel safe in the world they are so joyfully growing into—no matter who they are and who they become.
To lawmakers, executives, educators, and creatives alike, I beg of you: please say gay, please tell our stories, and please help children understand that their stories are valuable—that their stories are ours, too. Keeping children away from queer stories does not make them any less queer of adults, but giving them these stories does hold the potential to make those queer adults healthy, safe, and loved in a world that can be so, so scary and lonely. We owe them that.