Black Queer Lives Matter, Too
“Television needs more LGBTQA women!” It’s a common cry, one often heard in the wake of another dead lesbian or bisexual character, killed off of their show thanks to that toxic Bury Your Gays trope. And — they’re right.
We do need more LGBTQA women on screen. According to GLAAD, gay men make up the majority of LGBTQA representation on screen at 47%, with lesbians making up 24% and bisexual women making up only 13%, while transgender women are nearly non-existent. This doesn’t factor into whether or not the portrayals are problematic or not. LGBTQA women are sorely underrepresented on screen and we deserve better.
With that being said, there’s a huge elephant in the room that is almost never addressed: When we ask for better LGBTQA representation, are we also asking to see POC represented as well? Far too often the answer is resounding silence. As a Black bisexual woman, I spend a lot of time paying attention to the presence of people who look and love like I do on screen (as well as WLW — women loving women — of other races), as well as the reaction — or, more often, the lack of reaction — to the audiences who watch them. The same audiences who clamor for representation are eerily silent when that representation comes in the form of WOC, or they ask questions or express doubt about the show or character that they would never voice for a white character. There are even fanon (fan-made, unlikely to happen within the confines of the show) relationships between two white women that receive more attention from audiences than well-developed lesbian or bisexual characters of color in relationships with women.
When Black Lightning was announced by the CW, I was ecstatic. I’ve followed the story of Anissa Pierce (Thunder) for years and so I knew that she was a lesbian character, and more this was something that was a part of the promotion for the show! Even more exciting, Anissa’s powers ensure that she is essentially bulletproof and even when she can’t be, her suit provides an extra layer of protection — explicitly acknowledged within the show: “Even when you’re not bulletproof, the suit will be.” She’s openly out, her family is supportive, she starts the show with a girlfriend. Anissa Pierce is basically everything that white lesbian and bisexual fandom members have been asking to see on screen for years.
But when I decided to check into the fandom world to see the excitement surrounding her, I was (unfortunately) not at all surprised to be met with…nothing. I created my own post (which quickly reached over a hundred thousand notes), and there were lots of WOC who had not heard of the show, or of Anissa, and were super excited to watch the show.
But not every reaction was joy. As I watched the replies roll in, I noticed several negative comments ranging from “It’s a CW show, we can’t trust them to treat LGBTQA characters well” to “We shouldn’t just watch a show because it’s diverse.” Notably, a lot of these comments came from people who “ship” (pair two characters romantically) fanon white f/f relationships that will likely never happen. Looking at these replies, I was once again reminded that the actual stories of WOC, in all of our varieties, are deemed less important than the possible stories of white women. We are forced to recognize that we have a systemic issue with accepting diversity in film and media, and it’s toxic.
I am obviously an avid television viewer. I watch as much as I can stand to consume, but the 2015-16 season of TV was particularly rough for LGBTQA viewers. I watched as Bethany (a black lesbian) and Donna (her black girlfriend) were murdered on Blindspot; as Felicity (an Indian woman) from The Catch was murdered by her boyfriend for sleeping with his sister (i.e. she died as a direct result of her sexuality while they played on the bisexuals are promiscuous trope); as Pam Claybourne (a black bisexual woman) was murdered on Saints and SInners; as Camilla Marks-Whitman (a black bisexual) from Empire had an affair (again reinforcing that bisexuals are promiscuous trope), killed her wife and then herself; as Kira on The Magicians (a black lesbian) begged for death; and absorbed the silence of the loudest part of the LGBTQA fandom.
I named these characters specifically because their deaths all occurred after the death of Lexa on The 100 and I expected, hoped, and wished that after her death, the outrage would continue to pour over into other LGBTQA characters that experienced the same fate. And yet the outrage has remained focused on Lexa, and even when the outrage is focused on other WLW, they are almost all white. I’ve even seen white LGBTQA individuals take the deaths of WOC and somehow make it about white LGBTQA characters.
I suppose I can’t be surprised, as what we see here is only a reflection of the treatment of real life WLWOC who are murdered or abused. By and large the most common victims of LGBTQA-related violence and homicide are POC, but most people are unaware of this statistic because the color of their skin prevents the media or the public from focuses on them. Even in our fictional lives and deaths we are not given the dignity of being mourned the same way white women are. I’m not trying to say that you shouldn’t be allowed to relate to a character however you’d like, but I’d like us to begin questioning why only characters of certain colors are deemed important enough to start movements over, and what that says about the real-life priorities we place on people.
If your activism isn’t intersectional, it’s not activism. If your feminism isn’t intersectional, it’s not feminism. If you only care about or prioritize representation that looks exactly like you, you’re failing at ensuring a more inclusive future for all of us. Activism like this can’t be allowed to continue. It's time we get to work ensuring that all WLW representation is seen as equally important.