It’s a tumultuous time to be queer and of color in the United States.
Hate for the queer community is nothing new, and the new president seems to be fueling this at every turn. Donald Trump has embarked on a radically anti-LGBTQ agenda, railing against marriage equality, claiming anti-trans bathroom policies should be left up to states, and promising to allow religious discrimination against same-sex couples. Trump’s racism and xenophobia can’t fit in this introduction.
In this environment, the web series Brown Girls, which debuted on Wednesday, speaks volumes. The highly-anticipated series puts queer people of color in the spotlight, finally giving them a voice in a media environment that too often forgets their existence completely.
The premise of Brown Girls is simple:
“Leila is a South Asian-American writer just now owning her queerness. Patricia is a sex-positive Black-American musician who is struggling to commit to anything: job, art and relationships. While the two women come from completely different backgrounds, their friendship is ultimately what they lean on to get through the messiness of their mid-twenties.”
Unknown iFrame situation
The show itself is pretty simple. It shows Leila, Patricia, and their friends and family — all of whom have their own intersections of identity through race and sexuality — just going about their daily lives. From the one-liners with a dry sense of humor, to the chill realistic tone of the theme song playing in the preview, it’s clear that the aim of Brown Girls is to simply show queer women of color as we’ve always existed: dynamic, multi-faceted, and most importantly, human.
The creation of Brown Girls is so important, given the serious lack of queer people of color in the rest of media.
Being a Black queer woman, there’s a certain level of hypervisibility and invisibility that I try to navigate daily. Existing between what’s often seen as three separate worlds — womanhood, Blackness, and queerness — can be a tiring, exhausting affair. And in times like this, I look for solace. Often, I find that in the media.
I’ve always been drawn to media — particularly movies, television shows, and comics — for the way that they tell universal yet simultaneously specific stories about people being their best selves. As I’ve navigated my various identities, media has not only played a significant role in helping me shape my own identity, but it has also helped me understand the ways that others perceive me. And if today’s media representations serve as any indication: society doesn’t see me and other queer people of color at all.
Queer representation has been gaining more popularity within mainstream culture in recent years, but there are still a lot of problems. The queer media that does exist is mainly targeted toward white audiences. Television shows like The L Word, Will & Grace, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and Queer As Folk were popular in the early 2000s — all with lead characters from communities of privilege. These white, middle class or affluent, cisgender, and widely able-bodied portrayals brought awareness to sexuality beyond heterosexism but, erased so many within the queer community in the process.
When queer people of color are allowed to exist, it’s often in the role of a troupe or sidekick. Or we’re invisible altogether.
Many shows will refer to their characters’ queerness in passing, or as a way to advance plot points of heterosexual characters who take the lead of the story. One of the most well-known examples come in the death of Tara in season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, when she is killed by a stray bullet only to further the storylines of both her girlfriend Willow and season antagonist Warren. We can also see how the “Bury Your Gays” trope is used in more recent shows, such as The CW’s The 100, when fan favorite Lexa is killed accidentally by a bullet meant for her girlfriend Clarke, a short time after they were intimate together on-screen. Lexa’s death represents the struggle that queer characters face in being heroes of their own stories.
The issue with queer POC representation is that it’s rarely three-dimensional. Of course, there are a few shows changing that, like HBO’s True Blood, Netflix’s Sense8 and Orange Is The New Black, and the animated shows Steven Universe and Adventure Time. Still, there’s a long way to go.
The issue is not that these characters are members of communities outside of just being queer — it’s that they aren’t allowed to exist as someone that stands at the intersection of race, gender, class, and ability while also being their own individual person. Reducing them to stereotypes makes for not only off-putting storywriting, but also sends the message that queer people of color don’t matter.
The few accurate portrayals of queer characters of color that exist come mainly from independent media. The movie Pariah (2011) starring Adepero Oduye, for example, was one of the first to show what it’s like to be a young Black queer woman. Brown Girls, too, is independently produced.
There’s an underrated power that media holds, and allowing queer people of color to exist will do more than just promote better diversity on screen — it will give queer people permission to be themselves, in a society that thrives on conforming instead. By only showing specific communities associated with queerness, media influences the ways that queerness is allowed to be expressed. Many of us exist at the intersection of identities that go beyond our sexuality — and can coexist with religion, race, gender, gender identity, and ability. The media needs to reflect that.
There’s far more work that needs to be done when it comes to queer representation. We need to examine representation not just on screen, but in places like the writer’s room, production team, and executive board room in order to truly change media portrayals of queer people, and especially queer people of color.
For now though, Brown Girls may be standing alone as one of the few spaces where queer people of color can be themselves, but there’s optimism that more queer-focused media will soon follow. Media is so often the way that we see ourselves and learn how to navigate the world around us, and in the future to come, we need more images that reinforce the magic that comes with being a queer person of color.
Cameron Glover is a writer and sex educator living in New Jersey, whose work has been published in publications such as Ebony, Extra Crispy, Harper’s Bazaar, and more. When she’s not writing, you can find her on Twitter talking about comics, memes, and Internet culture at large.