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Rebecca K. Reilly on How Being Queer Has Changed in the Past 20 Years

Posted on 22nd May 2024 by Mark Skinner

One of the most acclaimed debut novels published so far this year, Rebecca K. Reilly's Greta and Valdin charts the coming-of-age of two queer siblings in present-day New Zealand. In this exclusive piece, Reilly muses on how grwoing up queer has changed in the past two decades - and whether all those changes have been for the best.   

In 2000s New Zealand, the only queer show on TV was The L Word and it was on a channel called Prime, which mainly showed an eclectic mix of programming: 1970s sitcoms, Australian gameshows, and the cricket. Prime only worked in some people’s houses and only if you held the aerial just right could you see most of the picture, often in greyscale. But, of course, if you were a closeted teenager you had to suffer in silence about this indignity in order to get a glimpse of a fuzzy scene about the professional tennis circuit or selling a screenplay but arguing with the studio executives about its execution. 

This is the sort of anecdote that people preface with an apology about how horribly old and unrelatable they are, but I am very grateful to have been alive at that time – and not humiliated to talk about it – because it was much more mysterious and thrilling than whatever we have going on now. You used to not get a text back and not know if the other person hated you or if they’d gone out of signal or already had twenty texts so couldn’t receive any more. 

Recently my friend told me on the phone that she’d been seeing an older woman and I told her I thought she was straight and she said that it had been a misunderstanding with herself. This was not nearly as explosive as when I was thirteen and a girl took each of us aside before the Scout variety show to tell us she was bisexual and had drunk a Midori and Sprite at the Rainbow Youth meet-up. 

These sorts of bombshells were being dropped daily. Lindsay Lohan was dating a woman DJ. There was a Franz Ferdinand song that insinuated men were dancing around together and wearing leather. My friend brought a print-out of Mika’s Wikipedia page to form class to show me a quote that said he’d neither confirmed nor denied his sexuality in a ‘lengthy interview with Out Magazine’. Yes, we were all suffering from internalised homophobia and every single piece of media somehow managed to be fatphobic, but, you know, we had fun too. Sometimes we have to admit it.

It’s really hard to tell if things are overall better or worse now than they were twenty years ago, but nothing seemed as bad as it does now because we had no way of knowing what everyone thought about every topic. There was the news, what people told you directly and blogs. I don’t know if this was a form of ignorance that kept us protected from some of the cruelty of how other people think about things, or if now we truly have too much access to other people’s opinions. Additionally, there was no pressure to perform yourself for an audience of strangers. Even having an actual photo of your face on MSN instead of a jpeg of a spoon or the Weezer logo seemed like too much, too forward, too unsafe in a dangerous place like the Internet. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a child growing up now with so many documented images of yourself. We didn’t use our real names and messaged each other to describe the search terms you needed to download a live version of Green Day’s King for a Day on Limewire, and began texts with ‘I’m nt gay or nethin but’ and then some commentary about how there was this one video shop in a posh suburb where you could get out But I’m a Cheerleader on DVD. Not funny like Napoleon Dynamite but still pretty cool.

Every new piece of information was a secret you had the privilege of choosing to share with others, and I think there was a sort of special quality to that for queer teenagers that doesn’t exist anymore. We all get served up the same stuff by an algorithm that’s determined to show us that Americans call chicken sandwiches ‘chicken salad sandwiches’ even if there’s no lettuce to be seen and arguments between two people totally unknown to us about what time Doctor Who should be on. It’s probably not good for us. We don’t need to know how many favours a student in Florida thinks is reasonable between recent friends or read a thread about whether a programme we watched once three Christmases ago infantilises women through historically inaccurate costuming. We should return to tradition and get all our rules of etiquette from terrible sensationalist magazines that you can impulsively throw on top of your groceries at the supermarket. We should return to having our own extremely localised slang that someone’s brother made up. It feels good to be accepted, I guess, but it’s weird to read a sign that says you’re allowed here in the window of Specsavers. We will refill your contact lens prescription even though you went to that party and did that hand stuff.

Sometimes I think it’s possible to claw our way back to the way things were, to relive being eighteen and watching repeats of Ellen at midnight, Ellen DeGeneres’ sitcom from before her talk show, and before she got cancelled the first time, and texting my friend this must be the week, this must be the week where they show gay stuff. It feels inevitable that the world has become too big and must shrink back down again to small, shared experiences that no one else hears about it. For now, we have to settle for if I Saw the TV Glow doesn’t get released here I’m getting on a boat and never coming back; yeah fair enough, did you see that discourse about untrained guide dogs; yeah of course I did.

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