The Movies That Taught Me All About Love, Like What It Is and Who Can Have It

July 7, 2021 / Amelia Kushner

How could I imagine gay love in my future with all the straight love on my screen?

I was born on National Coming Out Day nearly 20 years ago: Oct. 11, 2001. Every pigtailed, dressed up birthday of mine, every totally-worth-it vanilla sheet cake stomachache, coincided with a swell of joy in a community I now call my own.

Yet I never saw them. They were phantoms, living in radical, hippie pockets of Portland or somewhere West Coast, rustic chic like that, shelved away from little-kid me in my quaint nuclear family neighborhood. The rest of the world came to my egregiously homogeneous, white, upper-middle-class corner of it through the television. DVDs were stacked high in the TV room closet: ‘80s classics my parents couldn’t live without, early-aughts kid fare my sister and I begged for on family trips to Target.

Except it wasn’t the real world that I saw. It was every emotion, every nuance of the human experience, shoved into skinny, white, straight bodies over and over again. The only characters with any shred of personhood looked and loved the same. So I believed that to be in love was to be straight, was for a man to find you beautiful. To be in love was to be in love with a man.

It’s not like there weren’t gay characters. There was a decent amount, especially as the early 2000s rolled into the 2010s. And those characters were precisely why, when I realized why the girls’ locker room made me so uncomfortable, I cried and prayed and desperately willed my feelings away.

Because there has to be a foil for Main Character. If everyone was a shy, nerdy model-turned-actress plucked off the streets of New York City at 15 and shipped off to LA to audition for big-budget teen movies at 17, how would Male Love Interest know who to pick? Sure, we get an obvious foil with Mean Girl in all her arched eyebrow, bedazzled denim mini skirt glory, but Main Character has to have friends, right? That’s where Queer Coded Sideshow comes in.

She’s not as pretty as Main Character — pretty enough, but it’s hidden under thick, unflattering eyeliner, a cut-up screamo band T-shirt, and an irredeemably horrible attitude. All three traits connote gayness; queer coding relies on recognizable stereotypes of gay people to portray characters as such without explicitly saying it. An alternative look and a boisterous “mannish” demeanor are accessible tropes that can both imply sexuality and damage public perception of said sexuality. Queer Coded Sideshow has few friends, and her presence shows just how properly demure Main Character is (not to mention how charitable she is for allowing someone so insufferable to be her friend). Often, plot developments expose Sideshow to be just as bad as Mean Girl, if not worse. Janis Ian from Mean Girls and Lilly Moscovitz from The Princess Diaries were two Queer Coded Sideshows I grew up watching and deeply hating.

Even worse was when gayness served as a punchline. I grew up on dearly beloved network sitcoms: Friends, How I Met Your Mother, the like. The funniest thing in the world to these writers was two men in a “gay” situation — sharing a bed, appearing as a couple in public, picking the wrong words to speak in unintentional double entendre. Being perceived as gay was a humiliating misunderstanding that passed for comedy.

Most damaging to me was when film and TV maintained that gay people were sexless and loveless. Big, bullish, butch women were comic relief; effeminate gay men served only to pick out Main Character’s shoes and squeal about her boyfriend with her. No intimacy, no romance; they existed only as one-dimensional conventions of comedy.

So where did that leave me, 14 years old, scrolling through pictures of Sandra Bullock on Google Images and finally putting the pieces together?

Devastated, truthfully. I was gutted. Being gay contradicted every positive facet of my being. Only Main Character was smart, funny, kind, and pretty. Only Main Character ever got to experience love. I remember turning on my shower to cover the sound as I wept when I realized that I would never be complex heroine Cady Heron or even beautiful bad-girl Regina George ⁠— I was doomed to live and die as Janis Ian. Rude, ungrateful, friendless, undesirable Janis Ian.

So I repressed. I kissed boys. I didn’t think about what I wanted or liked. I wanted to be Main Character, so I lived like her. I agonized over how I looked in the morning just to brag that I’d woken up late and thrown something on last minute, no makeup ⁠— aka mascara and lip tint ⁠— hoping to be scooped up by my very own Male Love Interest. As the years went by, it got harder and harder to pretend I didn’t keep that tab of Sandra Bullock up on my phone to stare at when I was alone. Even more so, it got harder and harder to ignore what that meant.

But some glimmers of positive representation finally began to shine through tiny cracks in the Hollywood standard. Glees Santana Lopez changed my entire view of myself. She existed in the real world ⁠— as real as a musical satire about high school show choir can be ⁠—  and she was a whole person. Santana was gay, and she was also talented and flawed. She dated and broke up and dated again and even got married. Santana got to be in love. She didn’t have to be picked by Male Love Interest to get there.

And it’s not just her anymore. Granted, mainstream shows that feature positive sapphic representation, such as I Am Not Okay With This and Atypical, keep getting canceled. Still, the fact that those shows came into existence, that they were greenlit, or that Netflix even took the pitch meetings, is nothing short of revolutionary. With access to today’s Netflix library, very confused 12-year-old me would have so many more chances to stumble upon something that would have made it all click.

Representation isn’t just important for young queer kids, either: On-screen queer love has the power to soften those who grew up in generations and environments that were hostile towards gay people. Modern Family’s gay married couple Mitch and Cam marked a massive step towards widespread acceptance of gayness beyond the space of entertainment. People who had only experienced gay people from a distance, from ‘90s sitcom jokes, or from hushed warnings about “The Gay Agenda,” could now attach gayness to characters they cared about. They invited Mitch and Cam into their homes for half an hour on Wednesday nights, and in turn, slowly relinquished the ignorance, misogyny, stereotypes, and religious admonition that led to their homophobia in the first place.

Movies and TV also provide a unique opportunity for kids who might not turn out to be queer. Representation in kids’ shows builds awareness and empathy for gay people in a formative stage, so the dismantling of prejudice never even needs to occur. If you see a gay boy on a Disney Channel show at six years old (thank you, Andi Mack), acceptance ingrains itself in your psyche before you have time to know any different. Now, we’ve bridged the gap before the crack has even formed; rather than building a bridge, we’ve prevented the chasm.

And so people can be who they are without feeling different — not good different, like, why don’t other girls listen to My Chemical Romance, what a bunch of normies different — I’m talking about the bad different, the not good enough different, the doomed to be laughed at forever different.

LGBTQ+ representation has a long way to go. Dismantling the comedic conventions of gayness that plagued film and TV for decades will take a long time, but it’s better than it ever has been, and it’s trending up.

I want kids who come after me to know that gay love exists: It’s real, it’s attainable, and it’s every bit as magical as early 2000s rom-coms promised love would be. ■

By: Amelia Kushner

Graphics by: Emma Weeden 
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