Representation and Visibility Matters — Even to Adults

It’s funny — I can write complex legal briefs, but writing about myself has never been easy for me. I have been trying to write this for over a month without success. But I’m going to try, because I think it is important to say this — not that my story, individually, is important, but visibility is.

I have been thinking a lot about the importance of representation and visibility — in the media, in social media, and just in the world around us. A lot has been written about its importance to kids. But the last couple years have shown me how important it can be for adults, too. There is no doubt in my mind that it has played a crucial role in my life recently.

A number of years ago, I met, fell in love with, and married a woman. She was everything I had been looking for in a partner, or so I thought, just in a different form than I ever expected. Our love story was straight (no pun intended) out of a Nora Ephron movie, although that is a story for another day. My ex ended the relationship days after our first wedding anniversary and I was left hurt, confused, uncertain and just lost. I was broken — shattered might be a better word.

At times during that relationship — my first (and, thus far, only) one with a woman — I wondered if my attraction to my ex was just to her or was it something more. Some friends even asked me whether I would date men or women if the relationship ended. Even my ex asked that in one of our last civil conversations. She used to joke — or maybe it wasn’t joking — about being in a relationship with a straight girl. I just shrugged it off and went along with it. Maybe some things in our relationship would have been different had I been more comfortable with myself then (tho I have no doubt it would have just delayed the inevitable.)

I was in love and I believed she was “the one,” so I figured the answer to a hypothetical question about who I would date didn’t really matter because I would never have to answer it. Still, my first instinct was just to answer “men” because I knew I was attracted to men and it meant I didn’t have to ask myself hard questions. It was easier to eschew labels and just assume I had fallen for the person regardless of gender, than to wonder if I wasn’t as straight as I always had assumed and believed I was. In my mind, I was still just a straight ally who happened to fall for a woman.

So I never really dealt with “coming out,” at least not publicly and openly. Our relationship was long-distance until it ended, so I could come out to people on a need-to-know basis. I often just let people maintain their assumption that my partner was male and I tended to use gender neutral language in public spaces if people didn’t know the truth. (And after it ended, it was even easier to maintain that neutrality by simply saying “my ex.”) That said, my Facebook relationship status reflected our relationship and my profile picture for much of the last year we were together was a picture from our wedding, so I also didn’t completely hide it.

So what does this have to do with representation?

My divorce threw me into a very dark place. I had put so much of myself into the relationship, and had so many hopes and plans for a future with my ex, that the loss devastated me and was hard to overcome (in truth, I am still not fully recovered). What took me a long time to realize was that it wasn’t just the relationship I had lost — a fundamental part of my identity was in doubt. And that is where representation and visibility played a role.

In the midst of my grief, almost exactly two years post-breakup, season two of Supergirl featured the so-called “Sanvers” story arc. For those not familiar, it was Supergirl’s sister’s coming out and romance storyline. I still was not dating, although I had just taken a detour on a European trip to meet up with a guy I had met earlier that year (another long story). That detour and another chance meeting with a guy in London the next spring confirmed to me that I was still interested in men. But I still felt that wasn’t my whole story. As I watched Alex Danvers come out on Supergirl and then watched her budding relationship with Maggie Sawyer, I realized more and more that I was in a place not so different from where she had been. I felt there was something about myself under the surface, but I still couldn’t quite figure it out.

And then there is Legends of Tomorrow, with its unabashedly bisexual captain, Sara Lance. The show never hid, and even flaunted, her bisexuality — through both Arrow and then Legends, she had relationships and flings with men and women until, this season, she fell in love with a woman. And I felt something familiar as that relationship developed. As the TV season wound to a close, I watched Lost Girl, which had previously been highly recommended by friends in part because of itsvery openly bisexual protagonist), and Wynonna Earp, which also features several prominent LGBTQ+ characters).

There are plenty of other examples, I am sure I could find, if I put my mind to it (Glee comes to mind). But these are ones that stand out most to me during a time in my life when I was trying to figure out who I am and how I see myself.

Over these last months, I have been thinking back to my marriage and even farther back. I started to wonder, had I been attracted to women before? I had “girl crushes,” on celebrities I admired, but was it more than simple admiration and actually a crush that I just couldn’t admit? Which takes me back to one final example of LGBTQ+ representation that impacted me as an adult.

Not long before I met my ex, I had played the first two games in the Dragon Age and Mass Effect trilogies. Although on a first playthrough, I engaged with the male romance options, I always found myself more drawn to the female options — Leliana in the former and Liara in the latter — and would replay the game with those options. I always just explained it away, to myself and others, as being more interested in the characters with better writing and voice acting — the male characters always seemed so uninspiring to me. But I realize now it was something more — BioWare’s games gave me a safe space to experiment, to become comfortable with an aspect of myself I was only starting to realize was there. I am reasonably certain that I never would have felt comfortable enough to consider a relationship with my ex, or even to let myself fall for her in the first place, if not for that experience.

As I looked back, I realized it was probably there all along, something more than a curiosity. I knew I wasn’t gay — I always have been, and still am, attracted to men. I gradually started talking to some gay and bisexual friends, trying to understand myself better and testing the waters to being more open about it (although I didn’t expect to dive into the deep end this way).

But while I was beginning to recognize and become comfortable with the idea that I identified as bisexual, I started seeing — or I guess noticing is a better word — more and more examples of biphobia, particularly within the LGBTQ+ community, and bi-erasure, particularly in entertainment. So while I have been open with some friends, I have been hesitant to label myself as bisexual. Studies have shown that bisexual people, and particularly women, are at a higher risk of depression and suicide, as well as other mental health issues, in part because of the alienation they experience, so I hesitated. At a time when I was just rebounding from the darkness, did I want to expose myself to the potential alienation and prejudice? I knew it wouldn’t come from my friends, but what about others? And bi-erasure is a real thing in the media, which is why I had seen so few characters who shared my struggle— bisexual characters are often depicted as promiscuous and relationships are frequently depicted as a fling or a phase. If a bisexual character ends up in a relationship, they are often portrayed thereafter as being straight or gay. That’s why shows like Legends of Tomorrow and Lost Girl, with prominent and openly bisexual characters, are so important (even if both had promiscuous lead characters, the promiscuity was depicted as stemming from character traits other than simply related to their sexuality). And it is why it is important that video games also give players the option to play as the gender that best reflects their own and to have varied relationship options (when there are any).

None of this is meant to minimize the impact that real people had on me during these times. I have been a “straight” ally for years and have many friends across the LGBTQ+ spectrum. I have friends who I looked to as role models in how they live their lives openly or how they are advocates for LGBTQ+ issues. Some were there as I looked for advice and reassurance — their openness and willingness to be a sounding board or a friendly ear has helped me immeasurably. And there are several LGBTQ+ people I follow on Twitter whose visibility has inspired me to go public with my own story (some of whom I’ve had a chance to tell about the role they played).

So, now that the relationship ended, how would I answer my friends’ question about whether I’d date men or women? (Setting aside that gender is more a spectrum than a binary — a discussion for a different time) I can more comfortably answer that I’d date either. Of course, that’s not the end of the question because there are certain things I am looking for in a romantic partner other than the outer package. But, the truth is, right now, I’m still not sure I’m ready to date anyone. I still have wounds that haven’t healed and I’m kind of enjoying being able to make decisions and plans without having to consider how they might impact a partner. Besides, for the last couple years, I have been working full-time and in grad school part-time (and teaching part-time in the summer) — I haven’t had much time for a social life. That’s not to say that there aren’t times that I miss being in a relationship — I do — but I don’t miss dating and I’m really in no rush to put myself through that game again. But I digress…

As I said from the onset, my story is nothing special. But I am sure there are others out there with similar experiences, fears, and confusions. I believe representation and visibility is valuable especially at this moment in history when people at the highest levels of government would like to turn back the clock on progress of all types. So this is my way of giving back and paying forward what others have done for me. It’s my way of being visible and letting people know they are not alone.