The Ranting Fangirl: Survival Through Subtext

Lately I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to lesbian subtext.

Now, my friend Katie is, as we speak, rushing to the bottom of this post to insist that I’m always thinking about lesbian subtext, as well as lesbian text, lesbian picture books, lesbian cartoons, and lesbian interpretive dance. Before you go read her shameful libel, let me state categorically that this is not at all true. I spend ten percent of my time thinking about sci-fi and fantasy in general. Five percent of my time goes to thinking about my holy crap adorable niece, another five percent goes to thinking about ponies (including unicorns and pegasi), and another five goes to thinking about my cats. Three percent of my time goes to thinking about how it would be so much easier to find clothes and shoes that fit properly if my feet were three or four sizes smaller and I was six inches shorter and a few pounds lighter. And, last but far from least, two percent of my time goes to thinking about corgis and Shelties, and what I’m going to name any corgis and/or Shelties I’m able to adopt someday (Tinkerbell or Stellabella for girls; Puck, Robin or Casey for boys). So, at most, I spend 70% of my time thinking about lesbian subtext. Math.

But I’ve spent the last day or so thinking about lesbian subtext in somewhat more abstract terms, inspired by a couple articles I’ve read recently. The first, an Entertainment Weekly piece tweeted by Roger Ebert (and then retweeted by a Twitter buddy of mine), asks if Merida – the newest Disney princess, and star of the new Pixar film, Bravemight be gay. Their reasoning isn’t great; Alyssa Rosenberg of ThinkProgress takes it on here. But a lot of the people who responded to both Ebert’s tweet and the original article objected to the very idea – not only from the generally anti-gay perspectives you might expect, but from feminist perspectives as well. I can’t say I entirely disagree with the fundamental point that heterosexual women can reject traditional gender roles, too; nor do I disagree with the related point that we are not defined solely by who we’re attracted to, and saying “Well, Merida just isn’t into men at all, is she?” kind of undermines her determination to choose her own fate, no matter what that fate may be or who else it might involve. (Please note that I haven’t seen the film yet. I plan to. Soon. But I’m working from only the sketchiest details.)

And yet…

Subtext is important. At times, subtext is vital. Especially when decent text is so hard to find. It’s getting better, to be sure, but there’s still a dearth of compelling, well-rounded gay characters, particularly in children’s entertainment. Sure, Dumbledore was gay…but that was never truly relevant to the saga of Harry Potter, and it didn’t even come out until the last book was printed. And too often, even those meager scraps can be ripped away.

This brings me to the second article. Now, I should preface this by saying that I don’t watch Adventure Time. But I do follow another WordPress blog called Misprinted Pages, and today Stephanie posted a review of the Adventure Time comic book, touching on a “controversy” connected with the show in the process. Said controversy is recapped here, but in brief: about a year ago, there was an episode showcasing some “light lesbian subtext” between two female characters, Marceline and Princess Bubblegum, and the show’s creators posted an online video commenting on the episode, essentially upgrading the subtext to some kind of text, and soliciting fan art and fan responses. That video was later pulled – after an outpouring of support from the online lesbian community in particular –  for reasons that still don’t make a lot of sense. The episode is still in circulation, but heaven forbid the creators openly acknowledge  that two characters in a family cartoon might be gay for each other. (Since the same episode apparently also implies or outright states that another character has been jerking off to a lock of Princess Bubblegum’s hair, I’m not sure how gay characters would cross any lines that haven’t already been left in the dust anyway.)

I know, I know – I’m spending a lot of time talking about stuff I haven’t seen. Insert pithy comment about feeling like I’m hardly ever seen here. I’m pretty sure everyone in the GLBT community is used to this game: go through the hundred or shows on television on any given moment, cringing at the stereotypes and crass humor, bracing yourself for heartbreak whenever a decent gay, bi or trans character happens to emerge, and grasping at subtext wherever you can find it. Hoping against hope that Disney will just admit that the Mystic Force Pink Ranger is gay (short-haired tomboy whose one and only date on the show was with a girl and who openly and enthusiastically agreed with the guys that another female character was hot…come on, people), or that TNT will stop teasing us with Rizzoli & Isles, or that you weren’t just imagining that chemistry between Veronica Mars and Meg Manning. Writing fan fic about Kirk and Spock or Xena and Gabrielle (even if the latter are all but canonical).

I’m not going to say it’s okay, because it’s not. I can count on one hand the number of current TV shows with meaningful gay characters that I actually enjoy. And when it comes to stuff I’d want my future kids to watch? Stuff that would show them that, no matter who they are, there are people like them out there, and they’re beautiful and amazing just the way they are? It falls to just about zero.

I get that it’s annoying at times. I get that sometimes the reasoning isn’t great – sometimes the reasoning is actually insulting. And I guess I’m not really saying that flawed reasoning shouldn’t be challenged. But, at the same time, sometimes subtext is all we have. Sometimes subtext helps us cope. Sometimes it helps us survive. And it’s not enough. Especially not for the gay and bi and trans kids growing up now, struggling to come to terms with who they are, still developing those vital survival skills. But don’t begrudge us our icons. Don’t go telling us our subtext is wrong. Because God knows we need all the heroes we can get – textual or otherwise.

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The Ranting Fangirl: Sexuality, Sacrifice and Sainthood

As I grow older and, perhaps, wiser, I am increasingly convinced that there are very few objective truths – at least when it comes to human experience. There are only our individual truths, the thoughts and feelings and experiences that change our lives in great ways and small, in good ways and bad. This is a difficult thing to accept. The world would be easier to deal with, people would be easier to deal with, if we had cold, hard, unchanging facts to guide our lives. Even I am forced to confront some uncomfortable truths at times, some stories that fly in the face of everything I think I know and everything I prefer to believe.

Case in point: this blog post that popped up on my Facebook feed the other day, posted by an old, dear friend from my childhood in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I think I’ve mentioned before that I was raised Mormon; if I haven’t said it on this blog, then I’m sure I’ve said it on Twitter, and I know I’ve talked about it with several of my friends. I do not often go into detail about my time there, or why I left, but it’s part of who I am. It still informs some of the things I believe and some of the things I do, even though I no longer consider myself a Christian, let alone a Mormon, and even though I drink (very rarely) and swear (with moderate frequency) and am, generally, a scary liberal feminist transsexual lesbian who writes books about fairies and plays games full of vampires.

But I digress. I urge you to go and read the blog post in full, but in summary, it’s a personal account from Josh Weed, an active Mormon who identifies as gay but has been happily married to a woman for ten years. They have children, and he obviously loves his family, and his wife, very deeply, even though he feels sexually attracted to men. He makes it fairly clear that he doesn’t believe his choices are for everyone. He doesn’t claim to be ‘cured’. But nevertheless, he is happy. He doesn’t believe he’s living a lie. His wife, who knew all about this before they married, doesn’t believe that either.

My feelings about this post are complex, to say the least. There is skepticism: I firmly believe that human sexuality is a continuum, and that there are many shades of gray between gay and bi and straight. I find it difficult to believe that this is not simply a real-life example of “If It’s You, It’s Okay“. Then, too, there is worry: I worry that this will convince people that gay, lesbian, bi and trans folks can change if we just have enough faith and try real hard, and while I do believe sexuality is fluid, I also don’t believe it’s that fluid. I also worry that the post will lead young gay Mormons down a difficult and dangerous path – already, there is at least one comment from a young man who is about to go on his mission, a young man who was struggling with his own sexual attraction to men but now believes he can follow Josh’s example and fulfill Heavenly Father’s plan. Maybe he’ll succeed. Maybe he’ll fail, and hearts and homes will be broken. I hope he, and other young Mormons like him, move carefully down this difficult, treacherous path, and do a lot of soul-searching before committing to it; I fear they will not.

But I also find myself agreeing with some of what Josh has to say. This much is true: virtually every member of the QUILTBAG community is intimately, painfully familiar with choice, and with sacrifice. He and I made different choices under different circumstances. He chose to set aside his feelings and live the life the Church expected of him; I chose to leave the Church and find my own way.

He is content with his choice. That is his truth.

And I am content with my choice. This is my truth.

It was not difficult for me to leave the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and in all honesty, my decision to embrace my true identity had very little to do with it. I may discuss that in depth some other time. In my heart, I left the Church three or four years before I even admitted to myself who and what I really was. I stopped going to services, and I began exploring other ideas. The Church doesn’t really stop thinking of you as a member just because you stop going, though – maybe you’re an inactive member, but unless you’ve faced disciplinary action or asked them formally to strike you from the records, you’re still a member.

But during my freshman year of college, everything came to a head. I had long felt like an outcast – at church, at school, just about anywhere. I was shy and quiet and preferred the company of girls. I liked playing with dolls and ponies; as I grew older and got into games like D&D, I almost always played female characters, and I was fascinated by spells and magical items that could change a character’s sex. When puberty hit, I felt wrong and I had no idea why. I begged Heavenly Father, night after night, to let me be a girl, to transform me as I slept. When that didn’t work, I begged for a peace that never came. I convinced myself that my feelings began and ended with the torment I experienced as a child – if I was a girl, I wouldn’t have been teased or beaten, right? I learned about transsexuality during my adolescence, but even after I left the Church, I denied that part of myself. I tried to convince myself that I could be happy as a man, that I could find ways of expressing myself without starting the transition. When I first started seeing a therapist at school, in fact, I was looking for a cure. A way to reconcile my feelings with the ‘truth’ of my existence. That therapist didn’t judge me, didn’t pressure me one way or another, but just by listening, she helped me realize that my feelings ran deeper than I had ever believed. That those feelings were the truth of my existence, and by denying them, I was denying myself.

I couldn’t go on that way. The pain was excruciating. I have said before that I don’t consider myself brave for making the choices I did, because these were my choices: I could embrace who I was, or I could die, probably after a short and miserable life. And while I had stopped believing in the Mormon conception of God years before, I could not – I cannot – believe in a loving God who would ask that much of me. Who would make me this way and then tell me I had to twist and squeeze and pound myself into some torturous mold. I could not take my life. I could not go on living as I was. And so I made my choice.

While I didn’t particularly care what the Church thought of me at that point, I didn’t really want them poking their noses in my life, either – so once I’d made my choice, I went to my Bishop (in Mormon parlance, that’s the leader of a Ward – an individual congregation) to start the process of formally leaving the faith. At first, quite honestly, it went well. He understood why I felt I had to leave, and even, briefly, wondered aloud if I could leave during my transition, and come back when it was done, though he quickly rejected the idea and I was too polite to tell him I really didn’t see myself coming back at all. But then things turned to shit. There was the letter the Bishop wrote to me asking me to confirm my decision to leave – and also, not-so-incidentally, asking me if I’d ever had sex with men. I rather frostily responded that I had not yet had sex with anyone, but as I was leaving anyway, I didn’t particularly feel it was his business or the Church’s. There was the family friend in the Church hierarchy who gave my mother a blessing in which, among other things, he asked Heavenly Father to help her support me – only to call her up a few days later to tell her he shouldn’t have included that bit. And, eventually, though I still haven’t heard all the details, I do know that my mother was put under tremendous pressure to choose between her status as a member of the Church and her support of my ‘lifestyle’. She chose to support me.

I don’t think I’ll ever forgive them for forcing that choice on her. But then, to my knowledge, no one involved has sought my forgiveness. So I think that’s fair.

I couldn’t have made Josh’s choice. Obviously my circumstances differ greatly. There was really no way to reconcile my gender identity with the principles and demands of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. It was not as simple as finding someone I could love, because it was never about who I was attracted to; it was a fundamental truth about my identity that burned inside me until I could take no more. But there are plenty of gay and lesbian and bisexual Mormons out there who can’t make Josh’s choice either, who can’t choose a heterosexual marriage or a life of celibacy. He seems to accept that. I’m not sure all his readers do.

But the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints adapts with the times. Change can be maddeningly slow, but it does happen. And Josh’s post is another piece of a growing conversation about Mormonism and homosexuality. I hope the conversation continues. I hope it widens to include the whole spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identity. Though I don’t think I will ever again walk in fellowship with the Church, I hope that, one day, change will come again, and QUILTBAG Mormons won’t have to choose between faith, family, love and self. More than that, I hope this widens the conversation about the nuances of human sexuality, not only among Mormons but among all of us. I hope we recognize the complexity of the matter and move past this black-and-white, nature vs. nurture, choice vs. genetics debate into a new perspective that acknowledges and embraces our diversity.

And while we’re at it, I would like an actual unicorn.

A girl can dream.

State of the Blog

So – hey, folks.

You may have noticed I’ve been pretty quiet lately. Sorry about that. I started a new job not too long ago, and while I’m quite happy with it, it’s been rather exhausting, and it has altered my routine a bit. Bluntly, I can’t keep to the schedule I had before.

There are two main reasons for this. First there’s the matter of timing. I tend to be busy on Monday and Wednesday evenings, and by Friday, I’m pretty tired from the work week and don’t feel much like writing. Second, I put a lot of work into the average Media Mondays or Fangirl Fridays post. I spend as much time (if not more) gathering and editing photos, finding links and referring back to notes and source material as I do in the actual writing process. I think I can handle one fairly involved post a week. I’m not sure I can handle two.

So I’m going to experiment with the schedule, lighten my workload a bit, and see if I can’t get back to blogging regularly once more. Media Mondays and Fangirl Fridays will be rolled into one series of general posts on pop culture – sometimes I’ll blog about a female character I adore, sometimes I’ll review stuff I’ve read or watched or played recently, sometimes I’ll grumble about some character or plotline or character that’s been pissing me off. Those posts will go up over the weekend, when I tend to have a lot more spare time.

On Thursdays, I’ll talk about writing. I don’t expect those posts to change much from the Writing Wednesdays posts you all know and love, though obviously I’ll be giving them a new name. I’m leaning toward Writer’s Block, though perhaps I’m tempting fate with that title. I’ll figure it out by Thursday.

Finally, it seems like my rants on various topics tend to be fairly well received, and I do enjoy the variety, so I’m going to do more of them. On the first three (or, rarely, four) Tuesdays of the month, I’ll speak from personal experience. Talk about something that’s been on my mind in a fairly freewheeling, link-light kind of way. I can’t promise relentless logic or mountains of citations, but I’ll try to make it interesting, at least.

I’m hoping to start all this tomorrow – there’s a blog post that’s been making the rounds among my Mormon friends that’s stirred up a lot of thoughts and feelings, and once again, I feel moved to speak. I hope you’ll all be patient with me. Hopefully I’ll find my groove again soon.

As always, thanks for reading.