What Growing Up Without Gay Role Models Taught Me About Empathy

I wish I could remember the first gay person I was aware of. My own realization didn’t start to form until I was a teenager, and as someone born in the early ‘80s, there weren’t many gay people on my radar in terms of movie and TV characters. Sure, as an adult I can look back at some of the movies I loved as a kid and see some fairly queer characters, although they’re mostly Disney villains. One doesn’t automatically relate to a fey, evil, slightly British tiger, after all.

When I think of my age and which pop culture properties I was consuming in my adolescence, it’s likely that Reality Bites was the first movie to feature a character I recognized as gay. Steve Zahn played Sammy, a clean-cut, awkward, essentially celibate gay man who was a friend of the main characters: he was there, like, most gay sidekicks, to give clever one-liners — although he does get a brief scene in the film in which he comes out to his mother. Like a lot of Reality Bites, the scene represents the mid-’90s zeitgeist — in this case, coming out in the post-AIDS era — but it’s just a fleeting moment, because there are two guys fighting over Winona Ryder and that plotline is more important.

steve zahn reality bitesI was 14 when Ellen DeGeneres came out of the closet, which ushered in a new age of the mainstream understanding of the gay experience. Ellen’s coming out, of course, was immensely controversial — 17 years later, it’s nearly impossible to imagine how angry people were. That we’ve come so far in terms of acceptance in less than two decades is something to consider and be excited about.

The following year brought the premiere of Will & Grace, which is a show I never watched much. I was still not quite sure if I was gay or not, and I didn’t particularly see myself in either of the main gay characters. Sean Hayes’ Jack was flighty, effeminate, and, well, annoying, but I didn’t think I was anything like Eric McCormack’s Will, either. My Best Friend’s Wedding also, around that time, featured the typical gay best friend — in this case a loving British man who, shockingly, didn’t drop insults toward Julia Roberts, and got more screen time. I mostly had female friends — I wasn’t into sports, and my male peers intimidated me — and I must have considered Rupert Everett’s character to be attractive and appealing. Of course, he was also single and without any romantic prospects. It didn’t make the “gay lifestyle” seem very fulfilling; again, a gay man’s entire existence revolved around being snarky and charming.

These are, obviously, gay men in comedies. The serious films depicting gay men in the ‘90s were, naturally, AIDS-related narratives. When I grew up, gay men seemed to either be dying or bitchy. They cared only about shopping or AZT. Even those who didn’t embody either of those characteristics — say, Robin Williams in The Birdcage — carried so much shame that they went to great lengths to hide their identities from others. Even Don Roos’ comedy The Opposite of Sex features immense self-loathing; it was a movie I loved even before I was certain what I was (I had a thing for Christina Ricci, which I assumed was an attraction; looking back, it was probably an affinity for the dryly sarcastic characters she typically played — I mimicked that quality to cover up my own pain and frustration over not fitting in with my school mates). But as darkly funny as it is, it’s incredibly bleak: I didn’t want to grow up and become a gay man. It didn’t seem very fun, despite what the bit gay parts — the hairdressers and fashion designers and musical theatre actors and cross-dressers — tried to suggest.

the opposite of sexOf course, all of those characters represented the point of view at the time: that gay men were doomed. It’s the way we looked at ourselves as much as it was how everyone else looked at us. I wouldn’t say I was desperate for anything different — or maybe I just didn’t know that I was. Would I have felt differently about myself and what I was during those confusing teenage years if I’d seen even one depiction of a fulfilling life? Maybe. But back then, most people didn’t think that was possible for gay men; they either died or, if they were lucky enough to be in a long-term relationship, found that their partnerships were not legitimized because marriage wasn’t an option.

Queer teenagers need fictional characters they can relate to — a person can, after all, work on their own identity when they can identify similar characteristics in fictional characters. It’s the great power of art: depicting, with realism and empathy, the human condition. I didn’t see any gay male characters to whom I could relate, but I did manage to find other characters that helped me shape my identity and interests.

In the year that I’ve been writing for Flavorwire, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the need for realistic queer characters — characters who represent the voices of queer communities themselves, rather than what straight writers, directors, producers, and actors assume is our experience. The first time I saw Looking, which I recapped weekly, I was disappointed — not because I couldn’t relate to the characters on the show (I could), but because I thought it wasn’t a very well-written program. The need to relate to people in TV shows and movies is so strong that it can determine whether or how much we appreciate a cultural product; our tastes are subjective, for certain, but they can also be narcissistic. That was a particularly troubling undertone to the appreciation of the show, the suggestion that Looking was, finally, a show that depicted “real” gay men — by which they meant generally masculine, fair-skinned, urban-dwelling gay men. I saw a lot of reviews that pit the men of Looking against their fictional predecessors.

will and graceThe fact of the matter is that Will Chase and Jack McFarland and The Boys in the Band and every other gay character previously mentioned — the hairdressers and fashion designers and musical theatre actors and cross-dressers — were pretty real, too. Sometimes stereotypical, sometimes one-note, but always representative of a variety of gay men. Looking wasn’t groundbreaking — I had seen most of it before, just not in half-hour dramedy form — but it offered another alternative to some of those tropes. It wasn’t, however, the only TV show to offer some form of realism about life as a gay man.

As I get older and more settled in my own identity, I find myself less in need of fictional role models on TV and film. Most of my favorite movies don’t feature queer characters at all, yet I still find the characters in them to be interesting and relatable. While I do wish I had more opportunities to find myself in characters when I was a teenager, I managed to grow up and discover things about myself on my own. I’d even go so far to suggest that characters like me are more important, at this point, for others than they are for me; after all, while characters representing marginalized communities are certainly nice to see on the big and small screens when you’re part of those communities, they’re especially useful in teaching viewers not exactly like them to have empathy for others.

What’s most important, I think, is that we all have access to a great variety of characters that represent the many different people in our society, rather than just assume that the majority experience will resonate with everyone. That will always be the best way to remind ourselves how different we each are from one another, and that our personal realities are not necessarily the universal one.