“Where do you draw the line on what to relate to?” Lachlan Watson asked. By this point, they were deep into a discussion with actor Ian Alexander, comedian Sydnee Washington, influencer Stephon Mendoza, and moderator John Paul Brammer, managing editor of The Trevor Project. Everyone had come together to talk identity, representation, and Pride Month for MTV News’s Sound On panel, and spent two hours opening up to each other about their thoughts, feelings, and experiences within the LGBTQ+ community.
“Especially being non-binary — [and] I don't even know if I put that label on myself that early, but I always knew that I never really related to either of the cisgenders — I'd relate to Legolas in Lord of the Rings because he was the gender-androgynous alien,” they said, noting that in the absence of pure, incontestable representation, “you seek out the things that you want from that media.”
“Especially when you're young, you don't have the language to really communicate what it is that you feel,” Mendoza added, noting that he’s now teaching his parents the answers they couldn’t provide when he was coming of age.
Those answers were crucial to understanding his identity as a gender nonconforming person — one that was severely underrepresented in popular media. So, like Watson, he made the media work for him and found comfort in watching America’s Next Top Model’s Miss J and in Disney villains, whose negative energy, he believes, stemmed from the same kind of teasing, bullying, and ostracization that he experienced growing up. (For his part, Mendoza tries to manifest those experiences into positive energy.)
But where TV has largely failed to provide complete, accurate portrayals of all the different layers of our identities, social media platforms have become lifelines for some members of the LGBTQ+ community, providing comfort, knowledge, hope, and ultimately, pride. Alexander, for example, turned to YouTubers like Ty Turner and Alex Bertie, who inspired his thinking, “Oh, that’s me. I can be trans, and be successful and happy.”
It was an important realization: Before anyone can take pride in their identity, they have to find their identity. It was also the beginning of a lasting relationship with social media that would become a primary source of community.
“Social media, when utilized properly, is probably the greatest tool in the entire world,” Alexander said, thinking on the positive aspects of the platforms. For years, members of the LGBTQ+ community have found and created safe spaces for themselves in the digital world, where they can explore their identities freely and without judgement, and dive into subcultures they may not have been exposed to in their hometowns. “You can connect with people across the world in seconds, so you can find out what's going on in other countries that's not being reported on the news,” he added.
The easy spread of news that matters to the LGBTQ+ community can be both heartening — it provides easy access to images from every Pride parade in the country — or sometimes, really sad, as Alexander noted that Twitter is his primary source for learning about events surrounding the disproportionate violence against trans women of color and the struggle of being queer and undocumented.
While online communities often put the burden of spreading news onto its members, there is also an added sense of control over the spread of information. “It's up to us to put that information out there,” Washington noted, before adding, "I'm thankful for Twitter for always enlightening us and always making sure hashtags are out there and then giving us the awareness to be like, 'Oh we can donate here, we can give to this cause, we can actually know their name, know their life.’”
“I realized the power of social media when I realized that no one was going to speak for me and then I did not want anyone to speak for me,” Watson said. While they posit it might be a long time before a non-binary producer has a strong voice in Hollywood, they can utilize their voice on social media right now. “You can curate your own image and you can say what you want to say, you can speak to the kids in your DMs, you can tell them that it's okay to be who you are without relying on an institution that is stacked against us and has been forever,” Watson said. “It's giving the voice to those who matter, who are doing something different, who are standing up for change.”
Through that solidarity and sense of shared existence, it becomes a little bit easier to shed the can’ts and won’ts that may be preventing us from becoming our truest selves and feeling pride in every part of who we are. “When you're younger and trying to figure things out, [it’s] self-hatred and despising yourself and wishing you could change things,” Alexander said. “So, a big part of that process of becoming who you are and developing pride is just loving yourself and accepting yourself.”
But Pride Month is way bigger than achieving individual pride. “It's a celebration of us being able to do what we're doing right now in 2019,” Washington said, with Mendoza applauding the visibility of “those 64-color crayon box people” who “see every single spectrum that we can live in, that we can be in.” And it’s about letting the world know that the LGBTQ+ community is a whole community.
It’s a sentiment Brammer holds close to his heart, recalling a time before he had come out as gay, when an aunt said to him, “Oh, you know, there are other gay people out there, and they look out for each other.” Through the years, he’s thought back on that moment, and it’s become his lodestar as he’s found his place within the LGBTQ+ community.
“What I think pride means to me is sort of a collective statement of we exist, we’re out here,” he said. “Even if you’re not out yet, even if you don’t feel safe to come out, there are people here who are in your corner. And so even if you’re not at the parade, you can see that we’re out here, somewhere.”