|Art by: CJ|
By Amelia A J Foy
Something that always comes to mind when broaching the topic of LGBT+ ships is a post I saw when marriage equality was legalised in the UK three years ago. A fan of BBC’s Sherlock had posted something along the lines of: "Gay marriage is legal now in England. Johnlock can get married now." And while I'm sure this person had the best of intentions in writing that, it encapsulated a lot of the toxicity seen in the relationship between straight fans and queer characters: it’s purely self-gratifying, which leads our identities to be fetishised and trivialised.
This isn’t to say that when you see two men, for example, and you think they would make a cute couple, that you’re fetishising gay men. Fetishising is more intrinsic than that: it involves viewing someone as an object of gratification before they are a person, and often involves sexualising the people involved. It’s finding gay men hot and calling yourself a “f*g hag”, while ignoring the damage you do to real gay men by doing this. You separate the (typically cis, white) gay aesthetic from their humanity; you objectify their identity.
It has become an emerging trend among many different fandoms to go above and beyond to pair celebrities together who are explicitly not attracted to the same gender, to the point of invading their personal lives and, often the case with male celebrities, disrespecting their female partners in a very misogynistic manner. This is taking queerness and using it as a tool. In doing so you invalidate their identities, whatever those may be, but also erase actual LGBT+ celebrities for the sake of shipping your faves together. It sends out a message that straight people painted in rainbow colours are more valuable that actual LGBT+ people. One of the obvious consequences of this is not getting credit where credit is due – straight celebrities nominated for LGBT+ awards when they have done the absolute minimum, for one – and this results in upholding the same structures which oppress LGBT+ folks: ones that like to toy with our narratives and relationships, but not actually support them.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with shipping two celebrities together, but here it becomes less about you supporting us, and more about you using our sexuality as a plot device. That isn’t support or allyship; that’s belittlement and erasure.
The same sentiments apply when straight girls see Ruby Rose on Orange Is The New Black and say she “turned you gay”. Not only does this ignore Ruby Rose’s genderfluid identity and bisexuality as a valid option (by assuming there’s only straight and anything else is “gay”), but it trivialises lesbianism. It feeds into the stereotype that lesbians are just experimenting and can choose when to be gay, and when not to be. Ruby Rose didn’t turn you gay, you found her attractive. It speaks heavily to your privilege that you can announce you’re “gay” at the sight of a hot woman (or who you perceive as a woman) when actual sapphic women are scared of holding hands in the street.
LGBT+ people don't just exist in fiction; and when we do, our realities should be reflected and we should be provided with validation and acceptance. That is what good representation is; it is the very purpose of representation. Sadly, while it is a lot easier to find gay relationships in the media, the nature of capitalism means our representation must be marketable - that is to say, cis white gay men are the standard, hence why I’ve referenced them primarily. (If we were to talk statistics, a bisexual black person would be our figurehead.) This also means that your favourite straight celebrities playing gay are more palatable than actual LGBT+ people. We are divorced from our own stories and our identities become fetishized, seen as something to enrich a storyline or add trauma to a character’s arch, but never fully supported. Even progressive shows have a long way to come, with biphobia present throughout OITNB and Glee and transphobia in The L Word, so it’s not uncommon for queer headcanons to emerge – where characters can be edited or added to by their online followings. This can often be important for LGBT+ people to find within fandoms, as it allows us to create that sense of validation and security we may not have found in the actual show itself. However, rarely do you see headcanons of characters being transgender, asexual, or even pan- or bisexual unless they come from LGBT+ fans; they are usually, once more, centred on wanting two white men to get together. But most importantly, headcanons are not the same as actual, substantial representation – which is where queerbaiting enters the frame.
Queerbaiting is a tactic used by media to attract LGBT+ fans by hinting at the idea of representing them in the media, without ever actually doing so. Many shows are guilty of this: Teen Wolf hinted that one of its most popular characters, Stiles, could be bisexual, then never advanced this plotline; Supernatural centred an entire episode on a musical of their show in which Dean and Castiel are romantically involved, then never advanced this plotline; and Sherlock repeatedly jokes about John Watson being gay, but, you guessed it, never advances this plotline. The common denominator for these shows are that they all have massive followings for gay ships (Sterek, Destiel, and Johnlock), and all of these characters aren’t canonically queer. While you can argue their fandoms may put pressure on the shows to be more representative, this hasn’t happened – if anything, it has given a faux-progressive impression of these shows, and allowed the writers a get-out clause. They will do just enough to satisfy straight fans, but never enough for the actual LGBT+ community. Again, our identities are used with no regard for the harm to our actual community; we are teased with the idea of representation but mocked when actually asking for it.
In this kind of culture, it is important to be self-aware of your actions. If you truly want to support the LGBT+ community, you won’t feed into what oppresses us by promoting a white-washed image of our community where queerness is just on the surface. You won’t treat LGBT+ identities as commodities, fetishise the people you claim to support, or excuse shows which refuse to acknowledge us as real people. We don’t want or need any false-representation; we’re already swamped with stereotypes, violence, and fear in our daily lives. Our stories are more than just fan fiction and our narratives aren’t your trauma porn or plot twist. We refuse to live behind the closed doors heteronormativity has locked for us. To be an ally to us is to listen and stand in solidarity as we break them open - not tweet your married celebrity fave to come out of the closet already.