When I was younger, I had this crippling fear of the future, not because I didn’t know where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do, but because of who I knew myself to be and how I believed that identity would permeate every aspect of my life. It is a fear I think many, if not most, queer-identifying people are familiar with—the fear of perpetual unhappiness.
Beyond the fear of coming out to family and friends, beyond the fear of rejection, beyond the fear of what others will think and how we will be perceived and treated, there is a fear associated with what sort of lives we can live once we begin to live openly as who we authentically are. I have heard the words from the lips of people I love and from countless strangers, as well as in media and in art.
“That’s no life to live.”
“No one will accept this, accept you.”
“You’ll end up alone.”
Regardless of the phrasing, the promise is always the same—misery.
Enough of those repeated promises, and I was convinced. I was convinced I would be miserable. I was convinced I would forever be an outcast, unloved and unsafe. I was convinced I would be alone, watching others have the happiness I never could, and that even if I found love, it would only be temporary. It would be a lie. It would be doomed from the start.
The media I consumed reflected these ideas and reinforced them. Hate crimes against queer people speckled the news, and even when I wasn’t quite old enough to truly absorb what I was seeing and learning, those pieces stayed with me. I sat in church with my family or watched sermons on television, listened over the radio, and heard all the ways the world and God would damn me for being who I secretly knew myself to be. It would be a cursed life, a dishonorable life.
Fiction offered me no escape. I could not run into the dreamy, cushioned arms of books and movies and find what I so desperately hoped to find—happiness. It wasn’t abundantly available for people like me as it was for my sister, who could find, on nearly any channel or in nearly any book, a depiction of what she hoped her romantic future would be.
I remember watching Fried Green Tomatoes with my mom when I was a kid and physically aching over these two women who, to me, were so obviously in love but whose love had to be kept hidden, kept quiet, and then I watched as they faced the kind of tragedy two people in love should never have to face. I watched parents express shame of their queer children and police officers refuse to help distressed queer citizens on episodes of Law & Order. I wallowed in the misery and shame endured by queer characters in novels like Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet.
I hurt for these fictional characters, these fictional romances, and I continued to hurt as I sought out new stories in secret. So often, they ended in tragedy. So many queer characters were ostracized for their love, torn down and torn apart. Often, they ended up alone or even dead. There was so much suffering, and that suffering only validated my fear.
No one was or is mass-producing romantic comedies for people like me. There are no queer princes or princesses finding happy endings on big screens, sharing fated kisses of true love that are not identical to all the ones we have seen before. There is not an endless collection of film or television or literature available to show the variety of ways people like me fall in lust or in love, to offer a dreamy escape, to feed a young queer audience hope of a bright, beautiful future where they find love and acceptance.
When queer characters and relationships are portrayed, they are most often tragic, and the struggles these characters and relationships face are so frequently tied to the fact that they are queer. Fictional queer relationships are constantly suffering all manner of homophobia, from backhanded remarks to physical violence and murder. Fictional queer characters are constantly dying, constantly being rejected, constantly being abandoned, constantly being denied lasting love or lasting success or lasting happiness. Fictional queer characters and relationships embody that enduring fear—misery, more specifically misery that is almost always related to the fact that these characters and relationships are queer.
Part of this, I think, stems from the fact that once we identify ourselves as anything other than heterosexual and share that identity with the world, it too often strips us of our personhood and our humanity. From the moment we come out, we are only queer. It becomes our bolded, blinking label, our one defining characteristic. No longer are you the girl with the best grades of the class; you are the lesbian of the class. You are the bisexual bartender from that one club downtown, the gay neighbor who lives on the corner. No longer are you Robert and Tanya’s oldest daughter; you are Robert and Tanya’s gay daughter.
All your characteristics, all the markers that have been used to describe and define you in the past and that you have used to describe and define yourself fade away in the wake of the world finding out that you are not heterosexual. Suddenly that’s all you are—not heterosexual. I call it ‘othering’. The world ‘others’ us, and it does it so acutely and so religiously that we begin to ‘other’ ourselves, and it reflects in mainstream art and media and in the art and media we sometimes produce even within and for our own communities.
So often, the characters created for us by the mainstream and even by queer authors are suffering in ways relative to their queer identities. So often, they are struggling with coming out. So often, they are struggling with rejection because of being queer. So often, they are cast aside by family and friends and lovers who cannot accept nor understand nor fathom living a ‘gay lifestyle’ or having an openly queer romance. So often, they must hide their love or hide themselves. So often, these fictional relationships are suffering hardships that revolve around the fact that they are queer.
The world forgets, and I think sometimes we forget, that we are people, not only queer people. We have hardships unrelated to the fact that we are not straight. We, like everyone else, struggle with financial stress and strain, with loss, with issues of health, with issues of career, with family and friends and parenting.
We also have a great deal of fortune and joy, not ‘despite’ the fact that we are queer, but simply because we are here and alive. We are experiencing life. We are learning and growing and loving and living much like anyone else, and we have happiness. We have relationships that do not suffer because of who we are. We have families who accept and love us for who we are. We have successful careers. We have hilarity and fun. We have joy.
We have stories that do not revolve around the fact that we identify as anything other than heterosexual.
I think it is important to recognize this. It is important to show this and to celebrate this. It is important to tell these stories.
That certainly isn’t to say that stories revolving around the specific issues and struggles queer-identifying people face on a daily basis are not important, because they absolutely are. They are eye-opening and educational and cathartic, and they are necessary. It is vital that these stories be told, not only to shine a light on the injustices we experience but to also remind those of us who are struggling with who they are that they are not alone.
Those stories do, however, abound, and the stories that do not abound are the ones that tell readers and audience members, young and old queer people alike who are experiencing the full force of that crippling fear of unhappiness, that there can be joy. There can be meet-cutes and hilarity. There can be fairytale romances and fated loves and stories of soul mates finding each other despite countless obstacles (none of which revolve around sexual or romantic orientation). There can be stories of hardship in which a character’s queer identity is not an issue, in which a queer relationship does not struggle because it is queer but rather simply because relationships are hard, because life is hard, because things happen.
When I wrote Popcorn Love, it was a large step outside my comfort zone. A romantic comedy was never something I imagined myself writing, but it was something I knew mattered to many people. It was something I knew many readers were seeking and craving, something that I, myself, crave on a regular basis—funny, romantic stories featuring people like us, featuring relationships like ours, featuring concerns or struggles or mishaps that can be overcome and do not revolve around the characters being queer. I wanted to step outside my comfort zone and write that story, and even as I wrote, even as I contemplated the issues my characters might face, the first hardships to pop into my mind were unsurprisingly homophobia and rejection. Both are things I am unfortunately very familiar with, as so many queer-identifying people endure both on a regular basis. But they are not the only hardships I or any of us have endured. Some of us have even been fortunate enough to have endured very little hardship at all.
I thought about the amount of joy and acceptance that I now have in my life and the many experiences that my wife and I have had in our relationship, both lovely and difficult. We have had an extraordinary amount of happiness together, and we laugh and grow and learn together every day, and I never thought I would have that. Nothing I ever heard from others in my life or read in books or watched in the theater told me that I could have that, that that was something I could ever realistically hope for, and that is a great part of why I took a chance on this story. It is a great part of why I think it is so important to continue to write stories like these.
It is important to write stories in which our characters and relationships do not suffer specifically because of whom and what they are. It is important to write stories in which the fact that our characters and relationships are queer is not a focal point at all but is simply another known aspect. It is important to write stories in which we are not ‘othered’, in which the most interesting or driving or damning thing about us is not the fact that we are queer. It is important to write stories that remember and remind all of us that we are people outside of these labels, and that we love and we hurt and we succeed and we break and we laugh and we live and we are just like everyone else.
KL Hughes is an American poet and fiction author writing in multiple genres. She lives in the United States with her wife and their Dalmatian. When not writing, she enjoys theatre and film, travel, visits to old cemeteries and haunted houses, putting on one-woman musicals for her wife, long walks and hikes, and family time.