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OP-ED: I didn't know what being gay was until middle school
by Morgan Lee

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At 20 years old, I am now an out and proud lesbian—but, growing up, I didn't even know queer people existed.

I have lesbian aunts who have been in a committed relationship since before I was born. However, it wasn't until I was in middle school that I actually realized the extent of their relationship. I vividly remember going to visit them when I was a young child and having my parents describe them as "partners." While there is nothing wrong with this terminology, no one had ever explained it to me, so my small-child brain assumed they worked together and, for some reason, also lived together. While my parents never explicitly hid my aunts' relationship from me, they certainly never made it clear that being in a loving, committed relationship with someone of the same gender was possible. Maybe if I had seen examples of healthy, successful queer relationships on TV and in my community as I was growing up, I might have come to terms with my own sexuality sooner and prevented years of pent-up confusion and anxiety. Just knowing that it was okay to be gay could have saved me from so much hurt as well as misunderstanding and misinterpretation of my own thoughts and feelings.

The conversation about LGBTQ+ representation in media has been especially prominent lately as popular shows including Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Orange Is the New Black and How to Get Away With Murder have introduced queer characters. Studies performed by GLAAD and individual researchers have shown some improvements in representation of queer characters, but the lists of shows with queer characters almost never include childrens' shows.

I wholeheartedly appreciate the increasing representation in adult television shows and know it helps to create greater understanding of the LGBTQ+ community, but I know that where queer representation really counts is in children's media. Some important progress has been made lately as Disney Channel's Andi Mack made history in February of this year with the first character on a Disney Channel show to say "I'm gay." While I am extremely grateful for this monumental step, it is not enough. One gay kid is not enough to make up for the messages of compulsive heterosexuality found in every mainstream children's show. We need kids to know that being gay doesn't make them an anomaly. Furthermore, we need kids and adults that represent all parts of the LGBTQ+ community, including transgender, non-binary, asexual, and bisexual characters, in children's TV.

I know many will argue that more queer representation in media will distort traditional family values. However, I ask which is more detrimental to family values—showcasing loving, diverse families to create models of love and acceptance or excluding entire swaths of society to further ideas that some people are abnormal or perverted due to who they love or who they are?

If you are queer, whenever it is safe, please keep being proud of who you are and sharing your story to give hope to those who are still discovering who they are. If you are straight and/or cisgender, please be open with your kids about your queer friends and relatives. And please, no matter your gender or sexuality, we need to work together, for the sake of the health and safety of the next generation of queer kids, to advocate for greater and more diverse representation of LGBTQ+ people in media.

Morgan Lee is a student at Northwestern University.

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