Today I was on a plane experiencing mildly traumatic turbulence and I distracted myself by reading an old Entertainment Weekly that I had asked my mother, who subscribes, to save for me, because the cover had this on it:
The issue came out several weeks ago, cleverly timed to coincide with Chris Colfer’s Golden Globe win and the sudden dramatic ascent of Darren Criss into cultural relevance. (Speaking of which, a prediction: By this time next year, Darren Criss will have five times as many Twitter followers as Chris Colfer. Just reading the tea leaves here.)
But the article itself (which I don’t think is online, but you can see their walk-through of 25 significant gay TV teens from years’ past here) focuses a lot on Rickie Vasquez from My So-Called Life, which is a subject that is near and dear to my heart.
I watched My So-Called Life when it originally aired on ABC, which happened over the course of my sophomore year of high school. In many ways it felt like I was watching a TV show that was about my life precisely as it was happening at that moment. Angela Chase, who was also a sophomore, dressed like me, acted like me (yes, I was that much of a brat), had her first real boyfriend at the same time I did (she didn’t later realize she didn’t actually like boys that much, the way I did, but hey, the show only lasted that one season, and it ended before she got to see what a bore Jordan really was). My best friend at the time even started doing her hair and dressing like Rayanne, in homage to Angela’s best friend.
I was Angela. My best friend was Rayanne. Sadly, we didn’t have a Rickie.
But back to Rickie. He was the one aspect of the show that was completely alien to me when I first watched it. There was no one at my high school who remotely resembled Rickie. At least, not to my eyes.
Worst of all, most of Rickie’s storylines went completely over my head when I was 15. I didn’t realize there was any significance to the sight of a boy putting on eyeliner in the girls’ bathroom. I had no idea he was anything but straight until Angela, in the pilot, announced to her parents that he was “bi.” And I took Angela at her word on that point until the show’s final episode, in which Rickie, for the first time, used the word “gay” to describe himself. (Hence, that whole storyline in the last few episodes about Delia being attracted to him because he was unavailable? Yeah, I had no idea that was what was happening the first time I watched. I thought we were seeing the beginning of a Rickie-dates-Delia arc, right up until the scene where he came out to her.)
I had no idea Rickie had a crush on Jordan, either. But watching it now, it’s really obvious. Even the oblivious Angela figured it out by the end of the show. But for the duration of the show, it never occurred to me that Rickie might be interested in any boys except the hipster artist kid (and I’m not sure I even knew Rickie liked that guy until Rayanne specifically pointed it out).
The Christmas episode, when Rickie’s aunt and uncle kicked him out after he came out to them? I had no idea he’d come out to them. It wasn’t shown or explained, so I was totally clueless. I thought the physical abuse was all there was to that story. I didn’t realize the coming out had happened until way after the show ended, when I read a magazine article that at long last explained it all to me.
And the really obviously gay drama teacher, who agonized about how to help Rickie and finally took him into his home? The one who the female math teacher threw herself at, only to collapse in mortification when she realized why he wasn’t returning her advances? I had no clue that guy was gay until we saw him at home with his partner, talking about the fact that they were gay.
The truth is, I knew nothing about gayness at all at that point in my life. And My So-Called Life didn’t really illuminate that much for me. Though I guess it did introduce me to the concept of the fag hag. Which is a concept I think I’d have been better off knowing less about, actually.
The summer after MSCL went off the air, when I was 16, I went away to one of those smart kid camps, with various smart teenagers from all over the state. And that was where I met the first openly gay people I’d ever encountered. And that was what made me see what this whole gay thing was really about. Because this was 1995, and I hadn’t had the Internet. I hadn’t had books like the ones the questioning teenage girls of today read to understand themselves (which is primarily Keeping You a Secret, I gather, with a side of Empress of the World). (Yes, I could’ve read Annie On My Mind, if I’d known it existed. Though I doubt it was available at any libraries or bookstores in my hometown, and I had no other way to get books if it wasn’t in one of those places.)
Nope. All I had, up until that summer, was Rickie on My So-Called Life. And I had no context for understanding Rickie.
As the EW article points out, after MSCL was canceled, five years passed before another gay teenager showed up on network TV. And those five years made up what was left of my own teenagerdom. By the time Willow and Tara started exchanging Significant Looks, I was already in college and was convinced I knew everything I needed to know about girls and gayness (ah, naiveté).
Now, I did, after all, manage to figure this stuff out as I went along. It’s not like there was ever a time when I was sitting around thinking “If only I had gay pop culture role models to emulate!” or anything like that. And hey, I did have Ellen DeGeneres. Except that she was annoying and everyone made fun of her, so I didn’t want to emulate her. (And to this day she continues to annoy the hell out of me.)
But getting back to Rickie. I think it’s worth noting that the reason I didn’t pick up on all that stuff during the show’s initial run wasn’t entirely that I was dense. It was also because most of his storylines were never actually explained on a textual level.
I mean, nowadays we have Glee, on which an on-camera scene showed an openly gay teen character requesting that his father read up on gay sex techniques (which is absurd and completely unrealistic in and of itself on a story level but for the purposes of this blog post I’m just focusing on the cultural implications). And we also, according to EW, have the show Degrassi, which has an openly trans teen character, plus seven other LGBT teen characters (and I can only assume Degrassi has one of those massive rotating casts like on Law & Order or something, because seven? Seriously?).
But most of the significant stuff with Rickie on MSCL either (1) happened offscreen or (2) was implied but left unsaid between characters who were starting out with a greater grasp of the situation than I was.
If I’d actually seen Rickie come out to his aunt and uncle on TV? I would’ve understood that. It would’ve made a difference in my understanding of gayness. It would’ve made a difference in my straight friends’ understanding, too. The impact of a scene like that would have been overwhelmingly positive for everyone I knew at the time, even though the scene itself would’ve been really sad.
But I didn’t see it. It happened off-screen. We never even got to hear it described. And I’ve never heard anyone involved with MSCL talk about why that is.
Now, I’m sure one could come up with a perfectly reasonable explanation of why it made story sense to start with the aftermath of the coming out scene. One could say that what really mattered was how Rickie coped with it and how it affected the other characters, and that special guest star Juliana Hatfield’s contract required that she get a certain amount of screentime, and that viewers really just cared about whether Angela and Jordan were going to kiss that week, and whatever else.
But I’m pretty sure the ultimate reason we never saw that scene was because the creators and writers of MSCL knew the network wouldn’t have allowed them to show it. They could touch on the gay stuff, but it had to be on the periphery; it couldn’t be too obvious to the audience what, exactly, was going on. I suspect something similar was at work when Angela described Rickie as “bi” in the pilot, even though it was very clear that the writers knew from day one that Rickie was gay. Using that word might’ve bought them some leeway with the network. But it confused the hell out of me as a 15-year-old viewer.
And yes, things have evolved since 1995. Now we have Kurt, and everything is good with the world and la la la (or the EW article certainly seemed to think that was the case, anyway).
But speaking of Kurt, I’m just going to point this out: Yes, we now have a mainstream show on which gay-related storylines have been prominently featured for the duration of its run, and which features three LGBT regular teen characters (I’m counting Santana and Brittany, so there) and two significant LGBT recurring characters. But the fact remains that we have seen exactly one same-sex kiss on the show. And that kiss was nonconsensual.
Of course, I’m sure if you asked the people involved in creating Glee they would say that that was done entirely for story reasons too. As was, undoubtedly, the censoring of the word “transsexual” from the Rocky Horror episode. (ETA in April: I now retract my criticism of the lack of same-sex kisses on Glee, as that clearly was being done for story reasons; however, the Rocky Horror criticism still stands.)
Which is all to say that I’m glad there are a fairly decent number of books published each year now for YA audiences with LGBT protagonists.
Except for the part where it’s still hard to get LGBT YA books published. And the part where when they do get published, it’s hard for them to get serious promotion or distribution, and it’s not at all uncommon for them to be challenged. Meaning that often, the first time a kid hears about a LGBT book, it’s because that book is being taken away from them before they’ve even had a chance to read it.
So I don’t know what the solution to any of this is. But I knew examples of both fictional and nonfictional gay teens are incredibly important to kids growing up, whether the kids themselves are gay or straight or something else.
And I know I’m going to keep coming back to my My So-Called Life DVDs when I can. Got to make up for lost time.