Graphic by Kelly (She/Her)
“Is there a name for women who like women?” my six-year-old daughter asked me recently. “Not like a friend ‘like,’ but like they want to marry each other,” she clarified, in case I wasn’t sure what she was talking about.
We’d talked about it before, but she enjoys being able to ask me questions repeatedly, perhaps to verify that my answer stays the same.
“So why are there no cartoons about them if there’s a name for them?” she asked after my answer. “Are there movies I can watch with lesbians in it?”
I began to mentally sort through numerous lesbian-centric movies, trying to find something age-appropriate for her to watch. Most of them were not kid-friendly and none were cartoons. Most are rated R or TV-MA, many times merely because they involve queerness. But often, lesbian-centric mainstream stories involve some sort of graphic love scene that seems more for shock value or for the gaze of cishet males.
The best I could give her was “Out,” a short film that Disney was so progessive as to produce about a gay man coming out to his parents which involved him turning into a dog because… well… how do you make a grown-up coming out to his older parents possibly appeal to younger audiences? Turn him into a dog, of course! And have him pee on the floor. And bite his mom. All to avoid them discovering that he’s gay. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very moving short. I cried my queer tears over it. It was not about lesbians, and it was not ideal, but it was all I had to work with on such short notice.
This whole thing got me thinking. We’ve all heard the phrase “Gay Agenda” thrown around; those of us who are queer have all heard some cishet person declare, “I mean, I don’t care who you love, but it doesn’t have to be shoved in our faces.” And yet that is exactly what has happened to every one of us with straightness since the day we were born. Movies and TV shows, books and news articles, social media and advertisements all push hard for us to learn that “cis boy + cis girl = love” and anything else is tolerated (or not) but is certainly not “the norm”. Anything else involves struggle and hurt and suffering and rejection; you can’t just have a fairy tale where everyone lives happily ever after with queer characters. The Straight Agenda insists that only straight characters get that.
LGBTQ+ stories of any kind in mainstream media usually revolve around something tragic: a struggle, guilt, hurt, pain. We always die at the end, or watch someone die, or lose our family or are rejected by friends or are kicked out of somewhere or are beaten or raped or… or… or… the list of unhappiness and loneliness that flows across movie screens and TV series when involving queer stories goes on. While there is nothing wrong with telling these stories — in fact it is necessary that such narratives are not silenced — we do deserve happily ever after as well. We deserve fun, lighthearted movies; we deserve cartoons that idealize our love; we deserve queer heroes of all ages and for all ages. We deserve queer main characters who can just exist in the world and have fun and be happy, stories where the conflict that drives the stories have nothing to do with our queerness. But the Straight Agenda won’t allow that — like an insecure, jealous overlord, it refuses to lose its followers to equal representation. If kids grow up seeing only pain and suffering for those who are not straight or if they don’t see any queerness at all, they won’t want to be anything but straight, right? Even if they’re not… straight? Right?
This was certainly the case for me. Growing up, my family silenced and erased all the queerness within it using the usual Straight Agenda language of “roommate” and “friend” to reference any of the possible romantic partners of my queer relatives. There were side-eyes and scoffs directed towards these family members and the trans members of my family just hid uncomfortably in skin that did not belong to them for the comfort of those who disapproved of “that lifestyle.” I grew up learning through all of this that my own queerness was not okay, that I was broken and something was wrong with me. While I crushed hard on girls and always classified myself as a tomboy, I felt deep pressure to like boys and to be as feminine as was expected of me. I pretended to like the boys my friends liked, but still was confused by their boy band crushes and always felt uncomfortable and out of place.
Even the language was absent for me; I didn’t have a parent that answered questions about anything that made them uncomfortable so it wasn’t until high school that I heard words like “lesbian,” “bisexual,” “transgender,” or “non-binary.” I felt as though I had been gaslighted my whole life; all I was taught was that straight was the way to go, to be happy and successful, to have a family, and to be a good, upstanding citizen. It took me a long time to shake the idea that you could have a family and not be straight, so long that I ended up with two kids from a straight passing relationship that I tried so hard to make work. My heart was in no way straight, but I felt as though this was the only way to do it right. And if I was unhappy with it, then I was broken. Now I know I am not alone in this feeling, in this internalized homophobia, but then I felt so much shame and isolation.
When you grow up seeing happily ever after only offered to cishet couples, what are your choices? You, the viewer, can have childhood crushes on the prince or princess or both, but you won’t see your queer self represented there. Only Disney princesses falling for Disney princes will show up, superheroes always end up with the reward of a cisgender person of the opposite sex fawning over them, the cis girl always gets the cis guy and vice versa; Gaston has his blonde, busty triplets swooning over him, even if LeFou is a better choice.
Just looking at Disney films alone, there is enough fuel to make any queer or questioning kid shrink into their internal closet. Even in Toy Story, a movie centered around toys coming to life when no one is looking, there is a romance between the main character, Woody, and a porcelain lamp, Bo Peep, as well as the hint of romantic interest between Buzz Lightyear and Jessie, Woody’s sister. The inescapable Ken and Barbie also make their appearance in the show, to place a symbolic cherry on top of this straight-pushing film. There was absolutely no need to have any romance in any of the four movies or the dozens of shorts revolving around this story, and yet it is there, loud and proud. And they lived happily ever after.
Yet anywhere that there is a hint of the possibility of a character being anything other than a cisgender heterosexual, they are left without love, alone and seeming uninterested in romance. There was rumor that Elsa, from Frozen, was perhaps gay; speculation was raised by her hit song “Let it Go” as well as the fact that she had to be locked in her room so that no one would know she was different, so that no one would know her secret. Queer fans everywhere saw their own closets indirectly represented there and an excited chatter began around this character. But in all the Frozen shorts and spin-offs and sequels, she remains celibate, so concerned about what makes her different and how it may be hurting everyone around her that she doesn’t have time to find a love of her own. But her sister does! Twice. Once with a deceptive self-centered man, and after with a man whom everyone praises exorbitantly because he has basic human skills like respect for his partner and the basic ability to respect boundaries and bodily autonomy. So, the cishet girl once again gets her man and Elsa, the possibly queer one, continues to be single and troubled. Again and again straightness equals living happily ever after and not-straight equals turmoil, guilt, and loneliness.
Even outside of the blaring issues with Disney, the Straight Agenda is everywhere, pushed on us again and again. Look at all the famous straight couples that we all get to know from a very young age: Kermit and Miss Piggy, Barbie and Ken, Gidget and Max, Spiderman and MJ, Gloria and Melman, Branch and Poppy, Superman and Lois Lane, Bugs Bunny and Lola, Hiccup and Astrid, Fred and Daphne, Shrek and Fiona, Wesley and Buttercup… Even Santa has a Mrs. Claus. And this is in no way an exhaustive list; the straights are everywhere you turn, crowding our minds with their straightness, hugging and kissing and pretending to have a happily ever after in front of everyone, without a moment’s thought or hesitation about their open affection. Meanwhile, Bert and Ernie are relegated to separate beds and the ubiquitous status of “roommates.”
But that’s not all, folks! Even children’s songs — those innocent ones that you sing to your developing child under one — are loaded with aggressive straightness. “Baby shark” has a daddy shark and a mommy shark. In “The Wheels on the Bus,” mommies shush their babies while daddies tell the babies they love them. Even the anthropomorphic dish running away with the spoon in “Hey Diddle Diddle” are implied to be a straight couple. “Sing a Song of Sixpence” has a king and a queen, and “There’s a Hole in My Bucket” has dear Liza and dear Henry who parry back and forth about the technicalities of fixing the broken bucket. There is even a Straight Agenda variant of “Where is Thumbkin?” in which you name each finger as a member of the family: Daddy finger, Mommy finger, Brother finger, Sister finger, and Baby finger, further enforcing the straight family model. And, of course, there’s “Jack and Jill,” which does not directly place them as a couple but continues the trend of cis boys and cis girls being explicitly paired together.
Alongside the strict binary, heterosexuality is literally “shoved in our faces” from the moment we open our eyes. The moment we come into being, we are played songs and read stories that tell us inadvertently that families are made up of a mom and a dad, cisgender being an unspoken given. Anything else is inadvertently taught to us to be simply “something else” which requires a preface, a side note, some sort of indicator before it, almost like a disclaimer or an R rating: not appropriate for all ages. It’s not just a family but a GAY family or a family with two moms or the family that started with a mom and a dad but now has two dads, whatever descriptive variant necessary to identify the “otherness.” However, straightness is so ever-present as the norm that it never requires the signifier. We never hear about the straight family or the straight couple or the straight man/woman/person. Straight doesn’t need to be specified. This aggressive straight-pushing begins so far back in our minds that we almost… almost mistake it for being the “natural state of things.” Why are there even still closets? Why do queers of every age still hesitate to come out? Because no matter how much society pretends to be more accepting or tolerant (such an awful word!), they still have in their heads, drilled deep in their minds, that straightness is the right way even if it’s not the only way.
As a queer parent, the Straight Agenda has become glaringly obvious. I’ve become hyper aware of how little queer families are represented, especially in younger kids’ media. Finding stories and books, songs, tv shows and even clothing that doesn’t either push the Straight Agenda or the gender binary is very difficult. Unless you make a huge effort, your child will simply be assaulted with endless straightness.
In the end, my daughter decided that Raya and Namaari got married even if Disney didn’t show it in the movie. She got her lesbian moment even if she had to make it up. Good for her. But too many kids don’t get that; they don’t get to see themselves or their family represented by “wholesome” companies such as Disney. Why is this? On one hand, there is a movement for inclusion and diversity, yet on the other hand, there is still a push that straight is the “right” way. Resistance to placing more queer characters in media that children access is justified by saying it is inappropriate to sexualize children’s stories. Two moms picking up their kid from daycare in the background of a scene in Toy Story 4 was met with outrage and was called a scandal. If you blink, you miss it; even with my gay spidey senses, I missed it the first time I saw it. And yet this innocent act of parents picking up their child was called inappropriate and too sexual. But Ariel marrying Eric when she’s 16 and she’s only known him for three days is just fine. Snow White was 13 when she was dead and couldn’t give consent to the prince who thought it was a good idea to kiss her without her permission. Anna meets a guy and after one song about liking the same sandwiches decides to marry him. Advertisements with boy toddlers kissing girl toddlers are adorable and Monster High dolls that wear crop tops, platform shoes and copious amounts of makeup are acceptable. But the possibility that the movie Luca is about a prepubescent crush between two boys or two women picking up their child from daycare in the background of Toy Story 4 is too sexual for children.
Once we’ve all admitted that the Straight Agenda is real, that it is a problem which keeps people closeted and teaches homophobia from a very young age if left unchecked, we can perhaps move on. Once adults can freely accept that stories like the one my six-year-old daughter made up about Namaari and Raya getting married are beautiful too, then perhaps we will see the end of the reign of terror of the Straight Agenda. But until then, don’t talk to me about my gay agenda being shoved in your child’s face when all I see are straight couples aggressively promoted and pushed on my children every day. There is nothing wrong with being straight; any love is beautiful, but the Straight Agenda leaves children of all ages feeling like there is not much of a choice; you are either straight or something else that is deviant, something that is not normal.
Marian Wright Edelman said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” While this is not completely correct as you can be queer even if you don’t see it represented around you, the point is this giant gap needs to be filled where queer representation is lacking. By the time kids are old enough to access some of the available queer media, the Straight Agenda has already planted itself firmly in their minds, the straight norm has already been established. Queerness needs to stop being treated like a taboo; it needs to be extracted from the label of “a special children’s story for queer families so that they can feel included but no one else needs to read because it is clearly labeled as having LGBTQ+ content.” Elsa needs to come out (when she’s ready, of course), the producers of Luca need to find the courage to admit that this is a wonderful story about a crush, Raya and Namaari need to get married on screen for all the little eyes to see. We need new and exciting stories where the main character is queer. We need the spoon to run away with the spork, dammit! We need queer representation for children to overturn the Straight Agenda so that we can all be free to discover who we are without its ominous influence. The agenda should just be you.