Batwoman will always be my favourite superhero. Greg Rucka and J.H. William III's Elegy is the reason I read comic books. Reading about Kate Kane's past, her grief, her struggle to find a way to serve and to make a positive impact in the world helped me get through some really difficult periods in my life. I admire her for her bravery, for her persistence, and even for hitting a personal low but getting back up. Later, in Marc Andreyko and Jeremy Haun's run, Kate is forced to recognize her own need for mental health intervention. Despite her reluctance, she still seeks out therapy. These comic books helped me in my own struggles and my own search for mental health.
There's one other reason, though, that I have long admired Kate's bravery, and it centres around one particular scene depicted in Elegy:
Kate was caught with a fellow female cadet and forced to make what could have been a very difficult choice: lie and save her position, or tell the truth and give up her lifelong dream of serving in the military. Kate immediately resigns, quoting the cadet motto: "A cadet shall not lie, cheat, or steal, nor suffer others who do so." She doesn't pause, doesn't take some time to mull over her next action, and doesn't even consider lying or hiding who she is.
I admire Kate, above all else, for that decision. Because, for most of my life, I wasn't brave enough to make the same one. Her bravery has continued to inspire me, to help me take baby steps to reach my own truth.
Like Kate, I hid part of my life from my family, my co-workers, and even some of my friends. I was never caught the way she was, but I have been in situations where I needed to make a choice: lie or be true to myself. Until recently, I opted to lie.
Early attempts at coming out weren't exactly well received. Some of my loved ones told me they thought me being attracted to those who identify as female was "gross", and others insisted that I simply hadn't met the "right man". Some people near and dear to me would make homophobic jokes or would speak out against marriage equality. As Facebook became increasingly popular, I would regularly see homophobic memes and derogatory slurs pop up on my timeline. I didn't want those loved ones thinking the same hateful, hurtful things about me.
After I graduated from college, I began working for a conservative law firm. While I know they wouldn't violate Canada's anti-discrimination legislation, I was worried about the potential ramifications of coming out. Once my son was born, I was pretty sure I'd just stay in the closet forever.
That changed the first time I read Elegy. While it may have taken a few years, Kate's bravery eventually inspired me to take the same step she did. Reading that page planted the seed; it told me that I, too, could be true to myself. Without that book, it's entirely possible I would have remained conflicted about coming out and choose to keep that part of me hidden away. It was seeing those panels, being exposed to her story, that helped me slowly step out of the closet.
So why now? Why, six years after I first read Elegy, am I coming out? For starters, bi erasure is still something that happens frequently in pop culture. I have primarily been in relationships with individuals identifying as men, "passing" as straight. It's always felt wrong to me, leaving me with the knowledge that I am, essentially, contributing to that problem. Another reason is that I want to set a good example for my son, so he understands that he doesn't have to hide who he is or who he loves. Mostly, though, I'm tired of lying to myself. If I, as a young teen, had been exposed to more queer individuals, lives, or even fictional stories, perhaps I would have come out much sooner. Maybe I wouldn't have felt like my identity was so easy to ignore or erase.
This is why representation matters so much -- it is so helpful for those who feel different to see someone else in their shoes. Growing up I had limited exposure to queer individuals -- a handful of celebrities were all I had. This was pre-internet, leaving me without the ability to seek out more people who felt the same. In fact, I'm pretty sure that the first time I became aware of bisexuality in pop culture was in a song sung by Phoebe in an episode of Friends:
"Sometimes men love women / sometimes men love men / and then there are bisexuals / though some just say they're kidding themselves"
Hardly the best way to see yourself reflected in the media for the first time.
Representation in pop culture, whether it be in comic books or television or video games, isn't just beneficial for individuals who identify as queer. The exposure to queer identities is helpful for the rest of the population, as well. Experts agree that exposure to queer identities in the media, through film, television, video games, and comic books, can help a person become more accepting. Professor Edward Schippa, a communication studies professor at the University of Minnesota, says that the repeated exposure won't "turn bigots into saints. But they can snowball." The result is that people find their once firmly held beliefs soften as they are forced to confront their own prejudices. These individuals become more accepting and less supportive of discriminatory policies or attitudes.
Coming out as queer, even to yourself, can be difficult. There may be familial, societal, cultural and/or religious issues you need to work though. Other obstacles include fears of losing the ones you love and losing the acceptance of your friends and family. These struggles are amplified when you have limited or no exposure to queer voices or stories. Batwoman may be fictional, but, for me, having access to her story was incredibly helpful. Others may draw similar inspiration and find solace in the stories of other characters or the lives of other individuals. Seeing yourself reflected in the pop culture you consume in an accurate way without stigma or farce is incredibly important to our own sense of self.
While there have been huge strides made in recent years, there is still a long way to go. The Big Two comic book companies (Marvel and DC Comics) have less than a handful of titles starring a queer character, and there has been continued controversy about the way television, in particular, handles their queer leads. Still, it's a start, and it's a start that helped me, and so many others, take those brave steps towards coming out.
Even now, as I write this and make calls to family members, I have that page open; I'm still drawing strength from Kate's story. Even after reading Elegy so many times over the past six years that I've lost count, I turn to that page when I need strength. Representation matters because, without it, we aren't as readily able to embrace ourselves for who we are or find the strength to express our identity to the world.