Editor’s note: Most interviewees are noted only with their first name to protect anonymity
When poets and hopeless romantics lament about love, they often discuss that “lightning bolt” moment. The experience of seeing someone for the first time and thinking “Oh wow”. Some people inflate this moment as a sign of first love, some dismiss it as simple animal attraction, some refute its existence all together. I personally have felt this jolt but in a slightly different context.
When I was six years old, I was watching a series my mum had recorded on a VHS called Oranges are Not the Only Fruit. At first I thought it was only mildly interesting, mainly normal looking people walking about being stuffy, which wasn’t really my style at the time – I was just waiting for Mona the Vampire to start. But then something caught my attention. The young girl this series was following had a crush but not just on anyone, on another girl. Oh wow. At the time, my sudden interest in this programme didn’t really compute as anything out of the ordinary, I would watch those dustry VHS tapes again and again. Even though this tragic story was far from pleasant, I was just fascinated by it. Growing up this “strange fascination” happened a few more times: Carmen in Spy Kids, Jane from Tarzan, Lucy Lui in Charlie’s Angels, Velma from Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed – but I didn’t know why. Then I grew up a bit more and realised this fascination was in fact (spoiler alert) an attraction.
Everyone in the LGBTQ+ community has a story similar to this and when growing up in a world that prioritises heterosexual cis representation, having these lightning bolt moments can be confusing. And here lies the issue. In retrospect, these jolts were clearly a crush but most of us are ill-equipped to understand this, not because we don’t understand what crushes are but because we never knew we could deviate from the heteronormative.
I interviewed people in the LGBTQ+ community about their lightning bolt moments and while sharing, we discussed the lack of canon representation on our screens. One interviewee, Morven, says, “not having that regular assurance of ‘this is normal’ in the media totally impacted my acceptance of something that was, fundamentally, a part of me. I think that [LGBTQ+ representation] not being present in pop culture meant that people in my life weren’t tolerant, which in turn caused me to hide it.”
More accessible LGBTQ+ representation in media is an obvious solution and one that is helping hundreds of younger LGBTQ+ generations now. However, increasing the frequency of LGBTQ+ characters isn’t a fix all solution. When discussing how she searched for lesbian media on YouTube, Sarah, mentions that the content she was finding was either “incredibly damaging hypersexualized male gaze like Blue is the Warmest Color” or she found lackluster shows that she was told she had to like “regardless of quality”. Lewis Laney, author of The Little Book of Pride voiced similar concerns, saying, “The message of ‘it gets better’ and ‘it’ll all be ok’ needs to be shown more so that when young people who live in tiny conservative towns (and know no other gay people) see queer stories on TV and in film, they are given hope”.
Charmaine adds to this by pointing out the majority white and westernised bias in LGBTQ+ media, saying, “I do think that there needs to be a bigger pool of stories based around POC LGBTQ+ folk that not only addresses sexuality but also culture and heritage. Sometimes both don’t mix and cause issues, so it would be interesting to see stories written based on this and the resolutions to it, to show the struggles behind these issues.
“I think what’s needed now and what is incredibly relevant is POC representation in LGBTQ+ [stories] that are healthy, non abusive, and [have a] happy ending. That’s something so important to educate the public. I think one [example] that stuck with me was The Half of It. It was quite strange to think about but in asian cultures it’s still quite taboo to be LGBTQ and I’m not sure how Ellie’s father would’ve responded, but I’m glad her sexuality and race are not being judged.”
A lot of work still needs doing to give young LGBTQ+ folk the tools to realise their lightning bolt moment is more than just a fascination. This Pride Month, however, we’re celebrating our first tentative steps into the realm of understanding ourselves. Below are the characters, shows and films that first awakened that jolt of fascination in the people I interviewed from the LGBTQ+ community.
Rocky Horror Picture Show
“I realised I was bi when I watched “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”. I was scared, aroused, impressed and envious of Frank N. Furter’s gyrating hips as well as his subsequent shagging of both the male and female protagonists. Truly the sexiest non-sexy film of all time in my books” – Steph
“Agent Scully was my ‘oh shit’ character. By my early twenties I’d only ever dated guys and had denied and suppressed strong feelings towards a female friend. I was one of the “I’m straight, I must be” denial types. I started watching The X-Files a few years into its run and got hooked very quickly and soon realised that I loved Scully’s character. Strong, skeptic, redhead… and the crush got bigger.” – Sam
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
“I think my first actual gay awakening – once I knew what being gay was – was Buffy from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is probably a super generic one. I just liked how badass they were, I guess. I think I was pretty young when my dad first showed me it and I thought Willow was super cool right from the start and then the whole thing with Tara was super affirming and just really cool. It properly helped me figure myself out I think!” – J
The Incredibles 2
“The Incredibles 2 is this fempowerment tour-de-force – at least as far as family animated features are concerned. It meant a lot for me – a gender questioning AMAB – to see these women in such cool roles. Then, enters Voyd – “Oh my god, that’s me!” I think. Sexual dimorphism in The Incredibles is very defined, just look at Bob and Helen Parr (huge shoulders vs huge hips). So here’s this woman with a strong chin, broad shoulders and small hips, a character that has a more masculine body type. It felt like this clear message of, this character is trans and that’s pretty cool! On top of all that, the film is about how cool women can be, and that was an antidote to the internalised misogyny I, as with a lot of transfemmes, go through. I felt oddly empowered. Voyds’ speech at the end to Helen, about how she had felt like an outcast and Helen being herself had inspired [Voyd] to love herself, felt oddly prophetic.” – KF
“Seeing the subtext for the characters of Freddie Quill and Lancaster Dodd being madly in love but terrible for each other’s well-being was really formative in my awakening. Their final meeting together was the saddest break-up scene I had seen at the time and perhaps still is.” – Mike
“Shego is strong, smart (Dr. Drakken would be lost without her), witty.. and she has magical powers! She’s got these glowing green fire things! When I was young I actually used to pour soap into a bucket and pretend the foam worked in similar ways to Shego’s super powers.” – Laura A
“Cassandra Cillian was the one who had all the knowledge – the fact that she just gave off this modest intelligence. Also being very pretty helped. I think I knew I was attracted to her but wasn’t sure, but the more I watched the more the attraction grew. The character helped me come out to my Dad when I was 18. We were already watching the show and I was making lovey eyes at Cassandra during a scene and he was like “Wait what?” And I was like “Oh…erm…I kinda like women…” And then we just went back to watching it. End of conversation. It was quite nice actually.” – Megs
“Mine is very very niche. I remember around the ages of 10-12 being absolutely besotted with Nina from Casualty (played by the late Rebekah Gibbs). I had an entire page of my diary devoted to pictures of her, I would record the audio of episodes featuring her prominently on my MP3 player so I could fall asleep listening to her voice…yeah it was a lot. Also she was canonically bi and it was the first time I’d ever seen bi rep on TV! Her character was always incredibly gung ho, doing things her way instead of following procedure, she would throw out the rulebook if it meant being able to save a life. I just thought she was incredibly badass. It also helped that it was around the age I started being curious about sex, and there were a few very PG sex scenes here and there that involved her – it was all very…interesting to me.” – Christie
“My awakening was Famke Janssen playing Jean Gray in X-Men 2. It came out in 2003 and I went to see it at 13 years old. My insane confusion at having the same feelings about both Jean and Wolverine. I was brought up to believe that lesbianism or being LGBT was a sin, or unnatural, so it was a world bending experience. Jean was just enigmatic, it felt to me like she was glowing and powerful and I just wanted to turn around to everyone in the cinema and be like, are you seeing how cool she is? It was the first time I think I began to acknowledge bisexuality. I didn’t properly accept it for a long long time, but I will never forget those moments, where it’s like, “Both? I like them…both. Two. More than one.” – Redd
“When I first realised I was bisexual I was about 18, but I first really felt something for a celebrity when I watched the Star Wars movies and fell in love with Rey! It was so strange, feeling that flutter in my chest. It really felt like confirmation: I am bisexual.” – Leona
“Mine is the absolute worst ever because it’s ultimate trash and I saw it WAY too young. Fuck knows how I was even exposed to it but… Elizabeth Berkeley in Showgirls (don’t judge me). It was the blatant sexuality and I think at that age I still had that internalised homophobia where the only way to understand loving women was through that horrific male gaze. I knew I had that attraction from a very young age, and seeing a woman in a completely sexual setting confirmed it, because I was just totally fascinated by it.” – Morven
Pirates of the Caribbean
“Looking back, the first time I was super attracted to and in love with a female character (but was just too stupid to connect the dots) was Keira Knightly in Pirates of the Caribbean. I think that’s the perfect bi awakening film because it has Orlando Bloom. As a child that really threw me off because I was like, sure I wanna kiss Elizabeth Swan because she is a badass with a sword but I’m not gay because I also wanna kiss Orlando Bloom who is also a badass with a sword.” – Manon
“Honestly, I think Sailor Uranus was legit the first TV lesbian I ever came across, and my 11 year old bi ass thought “I just think she’s cool…” Funny story, she actually reminded me of a girl in my class, so as soon as I realised I had a crush on the girl in my class I realised I was also attracted to this soft butch lesbian cartoon character.” – Darcy
High School Musical
“When I was a kid, I related to Gabriella a lot. I had this deeper, emotional connection to her and still do. I thought she was really cool – fascination is a good way to describe it. There’s a part where she sings ‘When There Was Me and You’ and she gets vulnerable on camera; it’s kinda like another side to her we hadn’t yet seen.” – Charmaine
“The first time I properly fancied a girl was [when I saw] Jennifer Love Hewitt in the film Heartbreakers. I was about 12 and I used to watch it over and over. I obsessed over her hair, clothes and how great she looked. At the time I thought maybe I wanted to be her, it wasn’t until my late teens it really started to click that I fancied her. Even then though, I was still too afraid to accept my bisexuality. I actually feel like fancying girls in life felt too scary, but on TV it was easy.” – Jordan
“D.E.B.S. is a cheesy spy movie about a bunch of girls who go to a spy academy. There’s a ’villain’ who keeps reappearing who is a woman vaguely around their age, and one of the spy girls falls in love with her and decides to run away with her. Her friends think she was kidnapped and they ‘rescue’ her, but then eventually she tells them what’s going on and then the villain and the girl kiss and run away together. The other friends help them escape. It’s a very cheap movie and it is incredibly cheesy, but it’s fun and positive. I was around eight or nine perhaps, and it was the first time I saw a lesbian relationship.” – LD
“For me I’d say it was the character Eddie Kramer in Baywatch. He was in the show in the late 80s/early 90s, when I would have been about nine. The character Eddie, played by Billy Warlock, went out with Summer in the show (played by Erika Eleniak) they had that whole American Scott and Charlene vibe going on. I remember just being all loved up with them as a couple, thinking how pretty Summer was and what an attractive pair they were, living in the USA, by the sea with their perfect bodies… and the fact that they were good characters too – wholesome and ‘do the right thing’ kinda people – drew me towards them. I romanticised the idea of being in a couple and in love as I grew up and then I started to realise that in my head I was imagining being with Eddie… not Summer. I would just look at him and think about him and imagine being with him. They both appeared in teen magazines and I used to cut out the posters of them together and put them on my wall, but it was always Eddie I would look at longingly.” – Lewis Laney, author of The Little Book of Pride
“I just remember thinking Raven was really cool. I’d never seen a girl just allowed to be so moody and dark and kick ass – it felt the tiniest bit revolutionary at the time. She looked like no one I’d ever seen in real life before, and it really intrigued me! It was definitely a fascination. I constantly named myself on websites after her, and I have to admit that she was probably the only reason I even watched the show in the first place.” – Callie
Avatar the Last Airbender
“With a lot of my early instances of feeling attracted to male characters in fiction, I interpreted it through their female counterpart. For example, I think the first real time I was like “Oh they’re HOT hot” was [when I saw] Zuko in Avatar the Last Airbender, but I shifted [the attraction] onto Azula because I had sort of decided that any attraction to a male character was just a leftover interest from a female character associated with them, which is especially funny since Azula was clearly coded as wlw. The Zuko thing would eventually come full circle though: when I was 18 and in a relationship with my one (and only) girlfriend, we were watching Avatar and talking about how Zuko was hot and that’s when I was like “Uh oh”, so he was responsible for [my awakening] twice over.” – Josh
“The Clarke/Lexa relationship was enemies to allies to lovers. It kind of frustrates me to talk about it, because as soon as their relationship was physical they had Lexa shot and killed off in the same episode. It was the first time a character death really had an impact on me.” – Laura
“In terms of when my attraction to women started, it was awakened by Nicole Kidman’s character in Moulin Rouge. I had watched the movie at a neighbor’s house and was terrified of it after for quite a while. I tried to explain why to a friend and said it was something along the lines of Satine’s unsettling aura (read: my rising baby gay lust).” – Sarah
Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
“When I was 13, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo movie came out and it was the first time I think I was ever truly drawn to a woman in that way. Everything about Lisbeth Salander was so enticing. She was everything I wanted to be and I fondly remember the diary entries I made as a child promising that I’d be a leather clad, spiky haired, chain wearing goth girl. Lisbeth was all of those things so I both saw myself in her, and wanted her. She was so dominant and cocky both sexually and in her normal life; she seemed so intimidating and was so smart. The whole sex scene in that movie was stuck in my mind for years. I think that started to get the gears turning in my mind and led to my acceptance of my identity.” – Jade
“I really like Uma Thurman. I used to kind of fixate on characters and feel this weird attachment to them – it felt like I just related to them but I wasn’t like the characters in anyway, so I knew that wasn’t it.” – Harriet
Legend of Korra
“Korra is, to put it simply, super cool. She’s also absolutely shredded. I’m a big fan of the show in general – it’s more mature than Avatar the Last Airbender so it can explore Korra’s struggles in more depth. I like that she has good character development and has her deal of setbacks.” – Laura A