Ji Strangeway describes the 1980s in Denver as the "dark ages," explaining that she grew up surrounded by evangelical-sponsored billboards filled with messages of hate and intolerance and people who were equally bigoted.
Strangeway said being LGBT and Asian-American only made her childhood and teenage experience harder.
"I was suicidal," she said, adding that even though her family didn't ascribe to the religion around them it still infiltrated her self-image. There was no "it gets better" campaign back then and Strangeway said there weren't any images on television, in books or films that could give her any hope for the future.
"I wish I could say I had a role model but I don't and I think that's one of the reasons I felt so fired up about writing this book. I didn't have any role models and it was very dark and you feel very alienated when you don't have anyone to represent or make you feel normal, even."
Even today, Strangeway said she doesn't see the LGBT role models that speak to her and her experiences reflected in popular culture. So, Strangeway is using her talents as a filmmaker and writer to create her own.
Strangeway just published "Red As Blue," which she describes as a hybrid graphic novel that includes elements of a screenplay as well as illustrations.
"It's a teen love story about two girls struggling with forbidden love in what I consider to be the dark ages of the 1980s," Strangeway said. "They are just discovering the magic of first love and their true sexual identity in the process."
Strangeway said the novel is very much a reflection of the time period it is set in and the environment at that time though she said the issues it tackles remain relevant to teenagers today.
The coming-of-age story explores issues of gun culture, teen suicide, social class, and gender and sexual identities.
Strangeway draws on her own experiences to create the universe of the novel, which she said was somewhat cathartic, but she said what has been most cathartic is getting to talk about the story and knowing its out there for young people to discover.
"Writing about it is a nice creative release in terms of transforming that energy into something beautiful and meaningful, but I think the unexpected thing that came out of it is when it was completed and being able to talk about it," she said. "The cathartic feeling is even greater, because it's no longer just about you after that. And that is the best catharsis I can think of, when you have something to offer that may touch other people going through the same thing or just giving them a better understanding of humanity because of it."
Strangeway said it helped her to create the main character June Lusparian with distinct differences from herself. For instance, rather than making June Asian-American, Strangeway decided to make her Mexican-Armenian.
While the intersectionality of ethnicity and being LGBT is an important aspect of the story Strangeway wanted to tell, she said ultimately she wanted the story to be about being LGBT in an unaccepting and often painful environment.
But she also wanted to give teens today hope. Strangeway has created a world where the outsider and the cheerleader can fall in love, which is a narrative she could never have fathomed back in the 1980s.
Strangeway added that creating an environment of possibility in her story is important, because that is what young people need to see to give them hope.
"Especially when you are young, you are highly influenced by what you see and your very insecure so you want to fit in and you hear all these things and I think it's very damaging to a person's individuality and how they feel about themselves."
While LGBT representation has grown dramatically since the 1980s, Strangeway said there needs to be a much more diverse storytelling.
"We have a long way to go in terms of the arts because we have so many tastes and we need so many more LGBT people doing cool, great stuff in books and film. We need to be out there more."
The book is available at: redasblue.com/.