The different stories of LGBTQ+ media representation

While cis lesbian women and cis gay men are facing greater acceptance than ever before in the media it is a very different story for bisexual and transgender people, as Stephanie Farnsworth examines.

The problem when it comes to discussing LGBTQ+ rights and progress in any collective way is that the movement is fragmented, with different people making very different gains while some are left behind and others are thrown out.

Bisexual and pansexual people are still being failed to be represented on TV shows. ‘Orange Is The New Black’ has been revered for the way in which it shows fluid sexual attractions and yet it still took the writers an age to dare to stick the word “bisexual” in their rampantly popular show. This show is a particularly good example of biphobia in the media due to how it includes women who experience attraction to other women and its reaction.

The attractions and relationships on this show are all centred around the fact that the women have nowhere to go. This does not invalidate their relationships but it makes bisexuality far much easier to market. I don’t think a show could demonstrate sexual fluidity as candidly unless it had some factor as to try to explain why these relationships happen beyond just sexual attraction. It’s almost like the audience are being told that the women are inevitably going to have sex with each other as there isn’t much choice as there are no men. To be clear, I think the relationships on this show are often brilliantly done and actually contain nuance but the issue is the restraints of the wider media world which mean that this show is arguably an anomaly for including so many different identities rather than a revelation of things to come.

It’s almost like the audience are being told that the women are inevitably going to have sex with each other as there isn’t much choice as there are no men.

A major stumbling block for writers is that bisexuality and pansexuality are still so misunderstood and relationships are often very cliché or one dimensional. Writers simply don’t know how to craft a love story featuring a bisexual or pansexual person. The myths that bisexual/pansexual people can’t fall in love or stay faithful are helping them be erased from the media. When a writer (usually cis, white, straight and male) writes a love story he wants something simple which sells and the audience and writers still buy into the idea that a bisexual or pansexual person will always wonder what they’re missing out on and that will undermine the relationship. Simply put: bisexual/pansexual people can’t be sold as romantic heroes. Bisexual/pansexual people might be the odd villain, the odd cliché, a recurring guest to stir up a relationship to boost ratings but we aren’t seen as heroes or even human. Every detail of our character is solely defined by biphobic and monosexist assumptions.

Simply put: bisexual/pansexual people can’t be sold as romantic heroes.

The one major positive of LGBTQ+ representation in the media over the last few years has been the greater inclusion and recognition of transgender people with shows such as ‘Call Me Cait’, (and again) ‘Orange Is The New Black’ and ‘Transparent’- to name a few. Eastenders too has finally cast a trans actor to play a trans character. However, visibility is both  a good thing in the long term as much as it can be a dangerous thing in the short term. Visibility helps to lead to greater understanding and therefore acceptance. Parents will feel a lot less isolated if they see trans lives and experiences in the media and hopefully this will help make parents less transphobic and more supportive towards their children.

However, a lot of the coverage when it comes to celebrity trans people (such as Kellie Maloney) is often salacious. Newspapers and media outlets often aren’t trying to challenge the way society thinks but desire only to sell and so they are putting trans people on display. If anything has shown this recently it has been the Channel 4 documentary ‘Girls to Men’. Even the title is staggeringly inaccurate so you can probably imagine how the rest of the show went. Trans people consented to appear on the show under false pretences (even including the show’s title being changed without informing those who participated) and the documentary used footage for which they had not requested permission.

This latest incident – as it is not the first by any stretch of the imagination – highlights further that trans lives are thought of with disregard. Trans people’s bodies are seen as property up for public consumption, and available for cis people to misgender, slander, attack and erase. Shows and articles that often claim to want to increase understanding and acceptance of trans people often show little commitment to that aim and reduce trans people to nothing more than their bodies- specifically their genitalia.

Trans people’s bodies are seen as property up for public consumption, and available for cis people to misgender, slander, attack and erase.

Tuesday’s episode of ‘This Morning’  featured a segment called ‘Born In The Wrong Body’, yet another deeply inaccurate title regarding trans identities, and the hosts both repeatedly asked the trans guest about what surgery he was planning on having. This is a deeply personal issue and yet there was no consideration of this, particularly as it was on a national platform. While cisgender liberals claim these shows are progressive and are leading to more accepting times, the reality for trans people is a distressing one which is dominated by the fear of rejection, violence, erasure and pain. Cis people are using trans people to sell stories and ridicule them with little regard for the people they are hurting.

The lack of responsibility in the media means that as trans lives become more visible, transphobia can also become more extreme and overt. With so much attention on trans people they are even more likely to become targets for abuse. It is a catch 22; while being silenced trans people are denied any ownership over their lives yet greater coverage means an increase in the potential exposure to violence. Furthermore, while trans media representation is making grounds it isn’t translating into action when it comes to the priorities of trans people; such as tackling poverty, abuse and making good health care more accessible.

There’s a great incoherence when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues. Bisexual people are being silenced and ignored despite the fact that cis gay people (although to a lesser extent gay cis women) and their love lives are often celebrated in the media. Trans people too are now supposed to be more accepted in the media, and yet the lives of trans people aren’t improving at all and nonbinary people (particularly people of colour) are still invisible. This helps demonstrate just why there are so many conflicting experiences and divisions within the LGBTQ+ community because rights and acceptance are not progressing equally. Transgender people and bisexual and pansexual people are facing vastly different realities to cisgender and gay people and this could not be more clear when you turn on the television.

Follow Steph on Twitter (@StephFarnsworth)

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