Representation Matters—Even When It’s Not of Happy Families

Sometimes, the thing society most objects to about your family isn’t what’s “wrong” with it.

In my house, mental illness hid in the shadow of the showier word—lesbian—where it festered and grew. I loved my parents, but I wanted the yelling to stop. Still, I told no one—not my favorite teachers or even my counselor. Even as a child, I knew it was a forbidden topic.

Adult queerspawn whisper to me: “I can’t tell my story, because my childhood wasn’t happy.” We all worry about the neighbors who view our families as inferior, unnatural abominations. We keep our secrets and still our pens. We let the shiny people be the poster children for our movement.

But I have never been good at silence. My mom is gay and my family wasn’t okay.

There is deep love in there, composting with resentment and fear and laughter. Like most families—dare I say all? Yet we are not allowed the luxury of dysfunction—that’s for straight people, rich people, white people, all of the above and some of the below. But the problem with only turning our good sides to the light goes beyond its dishonesty. It makes us one-dimensional cardboard cutouts.

When I write about having lesbian parents who were also trying to reign in mental illness, I am often gently reminded that it is imperative that I make sure people know that most lesbian families are great, happy, sparkly, well-adjusted. I needed to qualify that my experience isn’t how it is for all lesbian families. If gayness was my ethnicity, they might tell me that I needed to be a credit to my race.

Certainly, I’m not the poster child they wanted. We must be smiley, happy people to appear nonthreatening.

Taking a survey of my objectors, the majority are straight, white women indignant on behalf of queer people—my people. Queer people, however, by and large, understand. “The problem is that the world is so incredibly hard on queer people,” one lesbian woman confided in me, “yet we aren’t allowed to let it break us or even wound us. We are expected to be paradigms of mental health—mentally stronger than straight people to prove our worth.”

I don’t write for well-adjusted people who had happy childhoods. Of course, I love when they can relate to my writing, don’t get me wrong—but I want to reach everyone who didn’t have a family that cherished them and protected them from the terrors of the world. I write for my queer community who isn’t allowed to speak about mental illness.

I can’t totally own the queer label, because the parts that make me queer are easily hidden. But that small distance creates space for me to tell my story. As long as queer people are being beaten and murdered, fired or denied housing based on their sexuality or gender identity, we won’t be able to hear everyone’s voices—but it is safe for me to write, and so I write for those who can’t.

What we need is more space on bookshelves for queer writers. We need happy stories and tragic stories. We need books by asexual, intersex, gay, lesbian and bisexual writers as well as other queerspawn like me. We need stories about people who refuse categorization, and we need more than just coming out stories. We need queer main characters and bit parts in novels and movies—mainstream stories where characters just happen to be queer. Only then will we have a three-dimensional view of a very diverse group of people.

I remember my drag queen roommate who moved in with me after his boyfriend hit him one too many times, how he said that the cops laughed and didn’t intervene because it was “a fair fight.” I remember the whispers of my lesbian friend: “No one wants to talk about abuse in the lesbian community, but I was abused.” And another: “She told me no one would believe me, because I’m butch.” And still another: “She took our children away and married a man. She wants to erase the fact that she was ever a lesbian.”

The fight for LGBTQ equality is far from over—but representation in pop culture can, does and will help society to catch up. The more easily we are seen as everyday people—friends and neighbors, teachers and mechanics, three-dimensional people with problems and struggles not unlike everyone else’s—the more easily we will find acceptance, and maybe even a space to tell these stories.

Or so we hope.


Lara Lillibridge sings off-beat and dances off-key. She is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College’s MFA program in creative nonfiction. In 2016, she won the Slippery Elm Literary Journal’s Prose Contest, American Literary Review’s Creative Nonfiction Contest and was a finalist in both Black Warrior Review’s Nonfiction Contest and Disquiet’s Literary Prize in Creative Nonfiction. You can find her on Twitter.