Exploring the importance of queer representation

BY JACQUI RHULE-DAGHER, IMAGE BY UNSPLASH

Growing up under Section 28 meant that I had very few role models. Teachers avoided talking about homosexuality in case they might be deemed to be “intentionally promoting it” – thanks Maggie! Meanwhile, lesbians on TV seemed to either be vampires, or have the life expectancy of a lettuce. Worse still, when lesbians were portrayed, their relationships were presented using unrealistic storylines which were viewed through a lens of scandal and intrigue. On the other hand, LGBTQIA films were aspirational, educational and motivational. The Colour Purple (1985), Boys Don’t Cry (1999), and Carol (2015) are three films which enabled me to make sense of my intersectional identity, and helped me to understand some of the issues impacting the LGBTQIA community more widely.

The Colour Purple follows protagonist Celie’s romantic relationship with her husband’s mistress, Shug. Although Stephen Spielberg’s film adaptation airbrushes out the book’s love story between the women, witnessing the faint hints of a relationship ignited a fire within me. This was the first time that I appreciated that Black women could love each other romantically. The film also deals with a number of powerful, intersecting themes including class, domestic violence, gender, race and religion. Nevertheless, to view the lesbian love story as tangential, as opposed to interwoven with these themes, is to miss the point entirely.

When Boys Don’t Cry was released in 1999, it was the first mainstream film to portray a transgender man. It is based on the true story of Brandon Teena, a 21-year-old, who was raped and murdered when his trans identity was uncovered. Although the film was released 24 years ago, it could just as easily have been made today. I was inspired by Brandon’s bravery, courage and tenacity. I also kept replaying the scene where Brandon is asked: “Why don’t you just admit that you’re a dyke?” (not least because I personally grappled with the same question). To which Brandon replies: “Because I am not a dyke.” This taught me that gender identity and sexual orientation are distinctly different things, and the terminology for these should not be used interchangeably.

Carol is a post-World War II love story between a young photographer, Therese, and a wealthy, soon-to-be divorced socialite, Carol. I was struck by the historical backdrop to the film as gay rights in the UK only began to gain prominence in 1954, following the formation of the Wolfenden Committee. This Committee believed that homosexual behaviour between consenting adults, in private, should no longer be a criminal offence. Notwithstanding this, 1950s UK was still very much about heteronormativity and suppressing homosexuality. Similar heteronormative pressures weigh heavily on Carol. In order to gain sole custody of their daughter, her husband tries to use the “morality clause” in their divorce proceedings due to Carol’s relationship with Therese. With few options, Carol decides to break free from societal expectations and she makes the painful decision to give up custody. In a moving monologue she says: “What use am I to her if I am living against my own grain?” Finally, we see Carol escape from heteronormativity and embrace her true identity.

It is almost 20 years since Section 28 was repealed, and almost a decade since I last watched any of these films. Nevertheless, the legacy of Section 28, and the impact that these films had on me, marked me permanently. The Colour Purple developed my understanding of intersectionality, while Boys Don’t Cry opened my eyes to the lived experiences of the trans community. Significantly, Carol provided me with an exquisite, cinematic masterpiece which confirmed that, ultimately, the key to happiness is living authentically.

Jacqui Rhule-Dagher is a lawyer at an international law firm.

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