As a Queer Parent, I Still Don't See Myself on Television
Television's catch-all depictions of gay parents highlight the difference between "diversity" and real representation.
The first gay parents I ever saw on television were Bette Porter and Tina Kennard. In comparison to the soap-opera hijinks of most of the characters on The L Word, their relationship—as partners, then separated co-parents, then partners again—was the show's most grounded, and one of the few I can look back on today without cringing. I didn't see my queer reality in The L Word's funhouse-mirror fantasy of lesbian life, but I could imagine that one day I might marry a hot art curator and raise an adorable child like Angelica.
Today, married and raising a child with my spouse, my legal standing is far less precarious than Bette and Tina's, but it's just as hard to find characters I relate to as it was a decade ago. It's true that LGBTQ people raising children are becoming a more common feature of the pop-culture landscape. From film's The Kids Are All Right to television's The Fosters, Modern Family, and Grey's Anatomy to even the pages of Highlights magazine, same-sex couples raising children are ever more visible and less controversial. It's refreshing and important to see representations of families that differ from the standard heteronormative narrative. But there still aren't any LGBTQ parents on television who remind me of myself or the people I hang out with.
As our cultural understanding of parenthood and family evolves, we need new archetypes that reflect the world we live in. Archetypes aren't clichés. They're just categories, lenses through which we see ourselves and one another. An archetype gives us a broad-strokes sense of a character that we can then enjoy seeing a specific person play into or against—think of how Amy Poehler in Mean Girls embodies the characteristically clueless "cool mom."
But we don't have cultural archetypes for queer parents. There are so few pop-culture avatars for LGBTQ parenthood that the only way to talk about them is to lump them into one category: Bette and Tina, Stef and Lena, Mitchell and Cameron—they're all the "gay parents." They have to be the stand-ins for all of us, because there aren't enough of them to showcase more complexity.
We don't see nuance or diversity in representations of queer parenting because none of these fictional families has a crew. Few LGBTQ parents in pop culture ever so much as interact with another same-sex parenting couple. Bette and Tina hung out with nobody but lesbians for years, but they were the only people in their friend group with kids. I think Stef and Lena know one other lesbian couple with a kid. Out here in the real world, my social life is like 80 percent other LGBTQ parents. I went to a birthday party for one of my daughter's friends, and there were more queer parents in that building than I've seen on television in my entire life. Did Nic and Jules ever vent to their friends at Lesbian Moms' Knitting Circle? Did Mitchell and Cameron drop in on a book club for gay dads? If One Big Happy hadn't been canceled, would we have seen Lizzy befriending a contingent of queer folks from her Baby & Me yoga class? Nope, nope, and I really doubt it.
This is the difference between "diversity" and real representation. To be lauded as diverse, a piece of media simply has to represent the broadest possible spectrum of identities and experiences. Diversity treats people like check boxes: one pair of lesbian moms, one family of color, one person with a disability. Not only does this tend to erase intersectionality—queer disabled parents of color exist, but you'd be hard pressed to find one on the small screen—but it flattens the reality of our lives and communities to make them more approachable to mainstream audiences.
In real life, people who experience marginalization come from—and create—communities who share their experiences. To transplant "diverse" characters into a predominantly white, straight world is to exchange real diversity for tokenization. Yet when Marvel's Luke Cage depicted a true-to-life Harlem where white people were rarely seen, many white viewers took offense. A white audience, it seems, can relate to a black protagonist, but they still want him to inhabit the world they're familiar with. When asked to immerse themselves in that character's world, they balk.
Likewise, straight audiences are becoming comfortable with the idea that queer people are part of their world, but they're still not ready to engage with the world as we create it for ourselves. When LGBTQ characters show up in media, it's usually as emissaries to the straight world rather than as part of a fully realized, dynamic LGBTQ community. This often comes with a moralizing storyline concluding that LGBTQ people are "just like" straight cis people—an argument that minimizes instead of celebrating our differences.
I think the time to normalize LGBTQ families by depicting us as fundamentally the same as straight families is through. As a queer mom, I want to see fictional characters I can relate to, not just because our marriages are superficially similar, but in terms of how they see the world and live their lives. I want to see archetypes of queer parenting that acknowledge the ways we aren't just like straight people, that value us for our whole complex histories and selves.
I want a sitcom about a bunch of queer moms who are all at different places in their lives, relationships, careers, but they get together every week for a pot-luck picnic and support and love one another while their kids run around in the park. I want a TV show that understands there are lots of different ways to be a gay parent, just like there are lots of different ways to be a straight one. And, ideally, I'd like it to star Samira Wiley. But until television sees fit to deliver, I'm just going to hole up and watch The Birdcage over and over again, like I've been doing up until now. Sure, Robin Williams and Nathan Lane don't belong to a gay dads' play group, but at least they were surrounded by fellow gay men who celebrated their queerness instead of downplaying it. I wish we could see more pop culture doing the same.
Follow Lindsay King-Miller on Twitter.