“We all need to see ourselves reflected in our culture. There’s something really validating, and it goes to—you know that hierarchy of needs they teach you in first year psychology class? It’s like food, shelter, community? You need some reflection of yourself. You have to be able to look out there and see some version of you. Especially an older, happy one, so that when you have your dark days, you can say, “There’s someone out there like me.” — Ivan E. Coyote
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs suggests that we need to satisfy our physiological needs first (food, safety) and then our psychological needs second. It suggests that the next two needs after the basic physiological ones are the need to belong/need for love and the need for self-esteem. We need to feel like we belong, that we are loved and are able to express our love, as well as we need to have a good self-esteem to feel competent and deserving of respect.
What this quote is highlighting is that we need to see some part of ourselves and our identities reflected in our culture and what this quote fails to mention is that we need this representation in the media as well. The media is very dominating of our daily life. It has become a part of culture for many countries. It’s pop culture. Our culture also involves our politics and law.
We clearly have this need to see ourselves in and to identify with some of the images we’re being shown daily. It satisfies two of our humanistic needs: to belong and to have self-esteem. If we do not see ourselves represented in politics and the media, we might not feel included; we might not get that sense of community we need. Furthermore, if we do not see ourselves in these images and are being given the message that these images are the “right” or the “normal” way to be, we will most likely have a lower self-esteem.
The problem is that this is exactly what is happening – many, many of us do not see ourselves represented in culture or the media. The representations of humans in pop culture and the media are majorly white, heterosexual, cisgender and able-bodied. Not to mention to narrow down these representations of white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied people further, they also fit into a very rigid idea of aesthetically “beautiful”.
Often LGBTQ people do not find themselves in these things and when they are found, they’re usually falling under some type of stereotype that harms the community. This is just in the media and pop-culture alone (media including advertisements, television shows, news reports and mainstream movies).
Then we have politics and law. We need to find someone who we can identify with in politics as well but the majority of North American politicians are white, heterosexual, cisgender men (and even if they’re ciswomen, they’re still white and straight). It’s a very small minority of people who are supposed to speak for the majority. Then the representation of humans is further continued by the bills that these politicians try to pass. The representation of human romantic love in politics is in our marriage laws. Same sex couples may not see themselves in these representations for obvious reasons, in some states or entire countries the law only recognizes marriage as between a man and a woman.
Then there are laws that legally make it okay to discriminate against trans* people. They have to go through a long process to change their sex on government documents. They can lose their jobs for coming out as trans*. In Canada, a trans* person can be declined to board a plane if their sex marked on their identification does not match their physical presentation. For example, a pre-operation trans* person, who has not yet been able to change their sex on their identification, may present themselves as the sex they identify as but they can be refused access to their seat. It’s particularly harmful for trans* people whose may never choose to have any of the required operations to change one’s sex on a government I.D. It’s considered a safety measure but with it being so difficult to change government identification, it makes it difficult for a trans* person to travel – which whether it is intentional or not, is discrimination and the denial of rights that other Canadian citizens exercise freely.
These are not reflections of us though, they’re representations and they’re very inaccurate. Are all humans straight and cisgender? No. If the laws are there to protect human rights but often fail to protect all humans, then the people that the laws aren’t protected by, with the idea of representation in mind, would be considered not human at all. Otherwise, these laws would reflect all humans by working in favour for all humans simply because they’re human rights. Our politicians wouldn’t all be one very specific type of person to speak for all people. Point being, LGBT*Q often cannot see ourselves reflected in politics and most of us cannot see ourselves reflected in the media, at least not in a positive way.
Since Ivan E. Coyote so aptly suggested we need to see some version of ourselves out there, to meet these human needs then it’s safe to say that since many people don’t, then many people are not having their needs for well-being met.
This isn’t even touching upon the need for self-actualization which is the need to fulfill our own individual potential. It’s another need also not satisfied for so many people because the system doesn’t give them the opportunities (like the fact a company can discriminate against a person for being gay or trans* making it difficult for them to find work).
In summary, we need to see a reflection of ourselves in our culture and the majority do not and will not. As Ivan E. Coyote said, we need that, to give us a sense of well-being and happiness; we need to know that things can get better for us. If we cannot relate to these images, ideals and laws, we often feel like we do not belong and if we’re told one way to be is the right way, we often do not hold ourselves in high-esteem. We need to be loved, respected and accepted socially for our mental well-being and the media and politics are denying us that state of well-being. LGBT*Q people are at risk of being significantly less happy then straight and cisgender individuals and it’s nothing to do with an inherit unhappiness in being LGBT*Q in general.
It’s time LGBT*Q people had their needs met. Having identified the problem, we must come together to make change. Some solutions are to write to local television stations or television providers. Ask for LGBT*Q exclusive channels or express your opinion on harmful stereotypes in T.V. shows. Demand equal rights, vote for politicians that will provide them. If you see an advertisement that positively reflects any member of the community or group in the community, write to them to express your appreciation. Many companies rely on feedback; don’t just let the ones who are doing wrong know, let the ones who are doing right know as well (for example, JC Penny’s newest Mother’s Day/Father’s Day ads). On an individual level, it goes without saying that we can search for gay and trans* friendly media sources like magazines and newspapers. We can seek out movies that we feel reflect us and we can identify with well-known LGBT*Q people that are out in the media. Our happiness and well-being matter.
Author’s Note: Trans* with the asterisk is used as an umbrella term for any non-binary or non-cis identified individual.