What Does It Mean to Not Be Represented?

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Courtesy of CNN

I am a bisexual Asian girl. As such, I’m used to not being represented.

Growing up, my favorite movie was Legally Blonde, so I aspired to be the picture-perfect, Malibu-esque actress, Reese Witherspoon. Her flowing blonde locks and stunning blue eyes were almost identical to the famous faces of other Hollywood superstars: Scarlett Johansson, Nicole Kidman, and Naomi Watts. It was only until after I watched Mulan that I first wondered, “Why do I want to look like someone I’m not?”

Then, I came to terms with my sexuality. In a country dominated by cis/het white people, I have often felt out of place, even in my own skin. So, I never came out to anyone but my close friends, purposely excluding my parents, who I knew would reject my bisexuality as a teenage phase that I’d eventually grow out of. Which I never did.

The LGBTQ+ community barely has any representation in media as it is, but bi erasure is especially prominent. Not only can boosting representation help bi people feel more accepted, but it can also help their families understand their struggles and stories more, which would be an incredibly positive contribution to the bi community.  According to a report from the Human Rights Campaign, only “44% of bisexual youth said they have an adult they can turn to, compared with 54% of lesbian and gay youth, and 79% of non-LGBTQ respondents.”

I am part of the 56% of bisexual youth that can’t completely trust an adult. Perhaps I’d be more willing to come out to my parents— or even just be more open with them about my sexuality and sexuality in general —if they were exposed to more bi stories.

So, what is the impact of a lack of representation of bisexual people in media, and what does it mean not be represented?

Representation is immensely influential, especially to younger audiences. According to a Common Sense Media report, “interviews, books, and other social-scientific research, gender stereotypes in movies and on TV shows are more than persistent; they’re incredibly effective at teaching kids what the culture expects of boys and girls.”

For me, representation means my identity.

It means that my parents and my extended family in Indonesia and China likely won’t understand my sexuality if I ever choose to come out to them. It means that I probably won’t come out to them because of that.

It means that if I want to go to prom with a girl, I can’t share photos on social media for fear that my family members will see it and ask me an onslaught of questions that might have been answered by accurate media representation. It means that I have to hide the status of my possible girlfriend, pretending she’s only a friend if I ever introduce her to my parents.

It means I have to wonder, instead of know, if other Asian-Americans are going through the same thing. Every ethnicity goes through different experiences from others based on their culture. Being bi in China is hard— there are no domestic laws against discrimination based on same-sex relationships —and being bi in Indonesia is condemned by national leaders in a country where 90% of citizens are Muslim and have strict beliefs about sexuality.

For bisexual Asian-Americans with family living in Asia, how does one reconcile who they loved with who and what they came from?

Of course, representation isn’t everything. It won’t force me to sit my parents down at the dinner table and have the talk or dial the numbers of foreign relatives. It won’t immediately change the mindset of millions of people. But maybe it’ll give me the bravery to try to speak up. Maybe it will change someone’s opinion, reverse someone’s intolerance. At least it’s a start.

 

-Josephine Wu