The Spectrum: “The real lezpocalypse” — Why queer women need representation

Zoe Johnson, Guest Columnist

This essay is part of The Spectrum, a weekly forum in our Opinion section for marginalized voices to share their perspectives. To submit a piece for The Spectrum or discuss story ideas, please email [email protected].

In the movie “Bend It Like Beckham,” two girls, Jess and Jules, played by Parminder Nagra and Keira Knightley, bond over their love of and talent for soccer. Jess is Indian, and the movie focuses mainly on her relationship with her family. Toward the end of the movie, Jess and Jules’ friendship hits a road bump: They’re both interested in their male coach. He and Jess get together, and her parents are pissed, but the girls reconcile, and both get athletic scholarships to a college in California.

Growing up, I loved that movie. There was just one problem: I didn’t understand why Jess and Jules didn’t end up together.

I realized I was a lesbian when I was 10 years old. It didn’t bother me at first, but after doing some covert research, I was terrified. According to the books and articles I found, I would be four times more likely to attempt suicide and three times more likely to suffer from depression or anxiety. I would be bullied and ostracized. Finding a partner would be statistically difficult, and, even if I managed it, I wouldn’t be able to marry her, adopt kids or share state benefits. In most states in the U.S., I could be denied housing, employment and/or services for being gay. Still, I was lucky enough to grow up in a liberal area, with accepting parents and white privilege that will keep me safer than many. I struggled with internalized homophobia, and still do, but I was better off than most.

Junot Diaz has a great quote about representation: “There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” Representation, the idea that if people exist in real life they should also exist in fiction, newspapers and school curriculums, is praised for having a dramatic effect on people’s ideology. But more importantly, it helps little baby queers like my 10-year-old self understand that we aren’t monsters, we deserve love and happiness, and we deserve to live.

Which brings me back to “Bend It Like Beckham.” After I realized I was gay, watching that movie really upset me. The two girls seemed to be moving towards a relationship, complete with flirting and awkward conversations with their parents. Then…the weird heterosexual ending. It made me feel like I was imagining things, like I was corrupting narratives to fit my own life. I felt I would always be destined to wish for true love rather than experience it myself.

Several years later, I was continuing my never-ending queer research when I came across a website called AfterEllen. AfterEllen, one of the largest and most comprehensive websites for the coverage of women-loving women in popular culture, had an article about “Bend It Like Beckham.” Apparently, the reason that Jess and Jules seem so gay for each other is because they were supposed to be. The original script ended with them getting together, but it was cut for fear of offending Indian audiences.

It was hugely validating for me to learn that I was not misinterpreting the insane amount of flirting between the girls. But it was also infuriating. If this movie had been made as planned, it would’ve been an iconic queer film, suitable for young children and adults alike. Instead, it haunted me.

AfterEllen has now been shut down. By this point, it’s a familiar narrative: a larger company, made up mostly of white heterosexual men, purchased the site, gave it time to prove its fiscal worth, then decided it wasn’t bringing in enough profit. What that company failed to understand about AfterEllen is that it created for us what we did not have in real life: a community that shared ideas, information and history, tragedies and joys, women in suits and female athletes’ abs and a common support and respect for one another. For now, the site will remain as an archive. The decision is an issue of sexism as much as queer erasure; gay men’s communities continue to grow as lesbian bars, bookstores and media outlets are closed. It’s what LGBT reporter Mary Emily O’Hara called “the real lezpocalypse”: the disappearance of our culture, media and safe spaces, just as we’re killed on TV — and in real life — and cut from movies.

Struggling with this knowledge, I’ve made a decision for myself: I’m not going to watch “Bend It Like Beckham” again. Instead, I’m going to create my own narratives. In my mind, Jess and Jules end up together. They’re hugely successful on their college team. They play for England in the World Cup. They win it all.

Zoe Johnson is a Medill freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a letter to the editor to [email protected]. Views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of the Daily Northwestern.