The release of the short film In a Heartbeat has gotten me thinking about a lot of things, namely the fact that it never would have been able to have been released to such a supportive audience a few years ago.
As the years go by, we are entering a new age of hope for many people. It isn’t remotely close to where we as a society should be, but it’s infinitely better than what it used to be. We are on an upward curve where each step means that people in the LGBT community are just a little more accepted than they were before.
This is obvious in a lot of ways: The passing of laws protecting gay rights, the public outrage against Trump’s attempt to ban transgender people from the military, and, of course, the evolution of fiction.
As I usually do, I’ll speak of my own experiences concerning this issue.
For most of my life, my experience with LGBT characters was limited to lesbian, gay, and occasionally bi individuals, and these were generally in shows and books meant for young adults and older. Even then, the characters often felt like two-dimensional caricatures that were made simply to be “the gay character.” More often than not, these characters were in anime, and were therefore only accessible to people who were specifically looking for them. Anne Rice’s vampires were a blessed exception.
The idea of having gay characters in kids’ media, obviously, was almost unheard of. There was an ongoing belief that exposing children to gay characters was a bad idea, that it might influence them to “be gay,” and that it was overall inappropriate. Hell, this attitude still prevails today, even more so when it comes to trans characters.
Things changed minutely, and I mean very minutely, when J.K. Rowling came out with the knowledge that Albus Dumbledore is, in fact, gay. There was a great deal of controversy over the issue. And…that’s it. It’s never actually addressed in the series that Dumbledore is gay. His feelings for Grindelwald are never shown in a way that makes his gayness obvious. In my opinion, there were a lot of missed opportunities with this character.
Things became a little better with the introduction of Kurt in Glee, a series that, while meant for young adults, was watched pretty religiously by the younger generation. I remember hearing about Kurt and being surprised at the fact that there was a legit gay character in mainstream media. Later on, when he actually entered a relationship, I was stunned. I was so used to the few mainstream gay characters I found being the victim of unrequited love and terrible endings. The “Kill Your Gays” trope comes to mind here.
With the creation of Adventure Time, a whole new wave of controversy hit. The implied relationship between Princess Bubblegum and Marceline evoked such a sense of outrage from so many people, the creators were forced to say that they were just platonic friends. From what I understand, that has mostly ben retconned by certain episodes and even a comic series where they are ruling the kingdom together.
The reaction to Adventure Time, as well as the limitations put on Alex Hirsch when he wanted to show a gay couple in an episode of Gravity Falls, shows that we are not anywhere close to where we should be. Still, we’re getting there.
Probably the biggest victory in the world of television for LGBT representation is Steven Universe. With the supposedly genderless, but still referred to as female Gems, Rebecca Sugar was able to explore relationships in a way that no cartoon has been able to do before. We have a canonically lesbian relationship in the form of Ruby and Sapphire. We have unrequited love in the form of Pearl. We have the potential for a beginning relationship in the form of Peridot and Lapis or Amethyst (depending on how things go there). We even have a gender nonbinary character in Stevonnie. The most recent episodes introduced us to a six-Gem fusion who is clearly meant to represent a polyamorous relationship. And all of these things are shown in a way that is totally normal and understandable for any audience.
The world of children’s books is also catching up with the times. In the Heroes of Olympus series, we have Nico di Angelo, a misunderstood son of Hades who is in love with Percy initially. In Wings of Fire, there have been references to several gay dragons, including Umber, and the lesbian couple Snowflake and Snowfox.
And now, we have In a Heartbeat, a very important short that shows that gayness is not only okay, but that it exists in people younger than high school age, and that it isn’t inherently sexual. It is a simple, cute story about a kid with a crush. That crush just happens to be another guy, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
I hope that LGBT characterization in media only continues to evolve from here, and that the next step will be an increase in trans characters and characters with alternate gender identities. The way to acceptance is paved with understanding, and I firmly believe that the evolution of fiction is a reflection of the evolution of us as a society.
The evolution of kids’ fiction, in particular, is very important, as these kids are the next generation. If we keep teaching love and acceptance, each following generation will be better than the last. Every LGBT character is a chance to show that we are people, nothing more, nothing less.
Who knows? Maybe someday, we’ll live in a world without metaphorical closets, where LGBT characters are every bit as common as cis/hetero characters, and don’t cause anyone to bat an eye anymore. It’s a nice dream, isn’t it?