In a 1978 speech at the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade, San Francisco city supervisor and civil rights leader Harvey Milk made an urgent plea to his audience: “Gay brothers and sisters, what are you going to do about it? You must come out. Come out…to your parents…I know that it is hard and will hurt them but think about how they will hurt you in the voting booth! Come out…to your relatives. I know that is hard and will upset them but think of how they will upset you in the voting booth. Come out to your friends…if they indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbors…to your fellow workers…to the people who work where you eat and shop…Come out only to the people you know, and who know you. Not to anyone else. But once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions.”
Like much of the rhetoric of the Gay Liberation movement during the 1970s, Milk emphasized the importance of visibility and representation. Before the important political progress achieved during the decade after the Stonewall Riots in 1969 (the event most frequently commemorated as the beginning of the Gay Liberation movement), homosexuality was mostly absent from popular discourse. Some images and stereotypes did circulate, but they were mostly negative: communist and homosexual were synonymous, for example, in Senator Joseph McCarthy’s famous hearings during the 1950s. However, Milk believed that increased visibility of LGBTQ lives and experience, specifically at the local, personal level, had the power to discredit these negative images and stereotypes by supplanting them with positive ones. No longer would the homosexual be a depraved, immoral sex addict who lurked in public toilets, but a friend, a family member, a coworker, or an acquaintance, a person whom you already knew and, probably, already liked.
It took a long time for these negative images and stereotypes of LGBTQ people to fade, and, of course, in many places and for many people, they have not faded nearly enough–or at all. Visibility and representation thus remain concerns for many in the LGBTQ community. One organization that promotes positive representations of LGBTQ people is the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, or GLAAD, which was started in 1985 by activist Vito Russo and others in response to the negative representations of gay men published in newspapers during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Since that time, GLAAD has become the ultimate arbiter of positive representation of LGBTQ people in mainstream media. The organization provides press guides that inform journalists of language preferred by the LGBTQ community, and it issues yearly reports on LGBTQ representation in mainstream TV and film.
In its latest report on LGBTQ representation on TV, GLAAD provided some interesting conclusions. More queer characters appeared in recurring roles in 2014 (32 out of 813, or 3.9%), a figure that was up from 2013 (3.3%) but down from 2012 (4.4%). Queer women, remain under-represented (43% of recurring characters), as do queer people of color (26%). Likewise, no transgender characters were featured in recurring roles on network TV. But what does GLAAD accomplish when it tallies up the number of characters in each show? The logic of this numerical account assumes that more representation of LGBTQ people in mainstream media must be better.
While GLAAD’s logic has some value, I want to put pressure on the assumption that the quantity of characters is an appropriate measure by which to evaluate progress. To take TV again as an example, representation has indeed grown from a few out characters in shows like Roseanne in the early 1990s, to shows that featured gay themes and characters such as Will and Grace and Ellen toward the later part of the decade. More recent line-ups have included shows like Modern Family, The Fosters, Glee, Looking, and Orange Is the New Black. But these shows, upon which GLAAD and national media organizations fix their regard, are just a small sliver of what is out there. The main problem of representation thus might not be one of quantity, as GLAAD’s reports suggest, but one of attention–the problem of where we look for what we watch, what we read, what we listen to.
The digital archive project aims to address this problem of attention. Its primary purpose is to give you the opportunity to pursue aspects of queer culture that intersect with your own interests. My syllabus aims to expose you to many different traditions and voices, but with only fifteen short weeks, there is only so much we can cover together. In your posts, you have the chance to direct our attention to the films, books, shows, etc. that you think are important and interesting and that you think might merit the consideration of our class. Two posts from last semester–one on The Watermelon Woman and another on Del LaGrace Volcano–made strong enough arguments for me to include them on this semester’s syllabus.
As a student in this class, you will participate in our digital archive of queer culture as curators, and you will all have access to the digital platform as authors. You will be in charge of deciding what constitutes our archive–what content should be included–and then offering an interpretation or analysis that relates your choice to the content of our course readings and discussions.
By the end of the semester, we will have collectively added almost a hundred posts to this website, which I hope will serve as a substantial resource for LGBTA representation, for diverse queer expression, and for further critical analysis.
For more specific information on the different components of the archive assignment, check out the following links.