After Orlando, the seemingly frivolous things are more important than ever.
A few weeks before the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando one year ago, a hashtag started trending with one simple goal: #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend. After a few days in the spotlight, a string of seemingly never-ending tragedies rightly pushed it out of the headlines. But for #WeNeedLGBTQStories Week, we’re bringing the conversation back, and the Pulse shooting itself shows us why we need to take demands like these seriously.
To put it simply, representation matters.
“A queer Cap is a message to the queer community that we can be a part of that America too.”
Stories matter. Stories inspire us, educate us, heal us, and unite us. Stories give us a shared vocabulary of archetypes and possibilities that has a huge impact on how we make sense of the world around us.
Stories show us what is possible. We all need to see ourselves reflected in those possibilities, from the fantastic to the mundane. And this is especially true for those of us in the queer community.
Captain America provides a particularly powerful opportunity to provide that representation, and not just because he’s a popular character in a traditionally hyper-masculine genre.
We need heroes.
At their core, superheroes are free-floating metaphors that can tell many different stories by representing many different things anchored around one common theme. That’s what makes them so powerful and so enduring, as they morph and adapt to fit the current issues of our world. It’s a big part of why they have so captured our imaginations for more than 70 years.
“We have few places to turn to see ourselves portrayed in a positive light, and almost infinite options for seeing ourselves hated and dying.”
It’s almost redundant to point out that Captain America always represents America in one way or another. But to put it so simply is to miss the best thing about Cap.
He isn’t America as it is or as it was in some distant, rose-tinted era. He is how we want to see ourselves. What we strive to be. What we could be. He is our best virtues, our unbending spine, our unwavering commitment to justice for all.
It’s an image of an America that has never been, but that we can still strive to create. It’s a goalpost, a marker on the horizon, a science-fiction imagining of our greatest potential — the seeds of which exist in us now, waiting for our work to cultivate them. Cap represents this thing we are striving to create, one day at a time.
A queer Cap is a message to the queer community that we can be a part of that America too. In fact, we can lead the way. We, too, can be heroes.
We can be the best of us.
And that’s an important message. Despite recent progress, we’re still struggling for basic rights and safety. The Pulse tragedy brought home how much of a risk it is to simply live our lives. Hate crimes and queer suicides remain at a staggering high. The current administration has already made moves against the LGBTQ community and is stuffed to the brim with some of the most proudly homophobic officials in modern history.
Fiction might seem a disrespectfully shallow thing to write about amidst these challenges, and especially today of all days. But these things are connected. In the midst of all this, we have few places to turn to see ourselves portrayed in a positive light, and almost infinite options for seeing ourselves hated and dying, in reality or fiction.
The recent GLAAD reports on LGBTQ characters in film and TV have made it clear that representation is increasing at a glacial pace and is still plagued with harmful stereotypes and tropes. When we’re not invisible, we’re the punchline. When we’re not the punchline, we’re villains. And when we’re not villains, we’re dead.
We are easy targets for blame and easy victims to pick off when we’re invisible, unseen and impossibly different. Empathy requires understanding; understanding requires exposure. Look how easily we’re turned into things that go bump in the night — that corrupt your children and ruin your country — to those people who think they’ve never known a gay person, who have never heard our stories.
We need a queer hero. Because if J.J. Abrams is right that “of course” there are gays in space, then of course there are gays in spandex beating up bad guys. Duh.
Because it should not be more believable for a character to make out with the niece of his dead girlfriend, just after the latter’s funeral, than for a character to have a satisfying emotional resolution to a relationship arc that has defined his story for three movies.
Because it should not be more acceptable to turn a Jewish-created symbol of radical antifascism into a Nazi than it is to see him kiss a man.
It’s not like we’re short on relationship options that would explore this side of Steve Roger’s character while creating powerful narrative arcs.
There’s Bucky, who has been the center of film — Steve’s world and the person he would gladly sacrifice everything for. Or there’s Tony, who pushes and challenges Steve, who has a long way to grow alongside him while both characters benefit from the evolution a romantic arc would bring (and who, I must point out as a comics fan, is basically married to Steve in every other continuity, solving several wars along the way). Or maybe you’d rather Sam, who is devoted and caring and willing to call Steve on his nonsense.
Any of these men have more emotional intimacy and more interesting chemistry with Cap than Sharon Carter — a great character who should be so much more than an awkward love interest shoehorned in to declare “no-homo.”
It is possible.
To those crying about Steve being “straight” in the comics (which has never been confirmed), the Marvel films are adaptations that have taken plenty of liberties with the source material in order to tell the best stories. And given the impossibility of telling stories about openly queer characters until recently, I’m not exactly concerned with preserving yet another character’s heterosexuality. After all, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has not featured a single LGBTQ character. Ever. Evidently our Avengers exist in a world populated only by heterosexual, cisgender people.
To anyone arguing anything else, I have only this to say:
Straight, white men don’t own America. They don’t own heroism or strength or courage. They do not represent the default model of what it means to be a hero.
At least, they shouldn’t.
We are not asking anymore; we are demanding.
So hear this, creatives of all stripes: This is not just another cute hashtag. Like #GiveElsaAGirlfriend before it and now #LetAyoHaveAGirlfriend, this is a passionate and serious plea for representation that not only matters in itself, but would result in a deeper and more meaningful narrative for this character.
If not Captain America, then it needs to be someone, and it needs to be soon. We need a LGBTQ main character, a hero, who is in a relationship and lives through the end of the story, from a major franchise with serious cultural capital. (Good options include other superheroes, Star Wars, Star Trek, and Disney princesses.) Even better if it’s a character who stands for something, who represents righteousness and bravery, doing the right thing and saving the day.
It’s that simple. There’s nothing to “make sense of.” We’re asking for exactly what we’re saying. Something we’ve frankly waited for long enough.
The year since the Pulse shooting has made it clear how dire our situation really is — how high the stakes and how present the danger. How easily our progress can be lost. How far we really have to go. We are not asking anymore; we are demanding. It should be obvious how impossible it is to be patient when we’re fearing for our lives. We’ve already been patient far too long.
So maybe this issue does feel frivolous in light of what’s happened and happening. And of course more gay fictional characters won’t stop the next tragedy — though it might stop the next suicide, might deter the next hate crime. But in light of all we’ve endured as a community and all the challenges we continue to face, it doesn’t seem that much to ask.
So much of America made it clear they stand with us in the wake of Orlando. That an attack on us is an attack on all of America. That we’re all ready to make this country a safer place for the queer community. That we have #OnePulse. It’s time to put up or shut up. Here’s one small way to live up to the hashtags and do just that.
You’ll make a lot of fans very happy. And you might even save some lives while you’re at it.
Join the conversation by getting involved in #WeNeedLGBTQStories Week all week on Twitter, Tumblr and other social media networks. Find out more here.