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Drag queens and memes: What the queer representation in 'A Star is Born' means to me

February 24, 2019

A Star Is Born, featuring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, has received critical acclaim not only for its production but also for its celebration of queer culture. Before the film was even released, A Star Is Born became a 'gay Twitter' sensation and has since become known as one of the most meme-able movies of the last year. Despite the film representing a heteronormative storyline, in many ways, the LGBTQ community seems to have claimed it for our own. Much of this association likely has to do with the film's bisexual lead, Lady Gaga, but it's not just Gaga's on stage persona and iconic debut in film that makes her a legend in the queer community.

Since the beginning of her career, Lady Gaga has been a fierce advocate for the LGBTQ community. Being bisexual herself, she has fought for marriage equality and for the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Her activism doesn't just stop there. Gaga has created several culture changing anthems about sexuality; including the title track of her sophomore album Born This Way.

It comes as no surprise that there would be LGBTQ representation in A Star Is Born considering Gaga’s beginnings in the music industry. She has stated in interviews that she played at drag bars and that the gay community has always embraced her. These experiences are seen at the beginning of the film when Jackson (played by Bradley Cooper) meets Ally (played by Lady Gaga) in a drag bar. Almost autobiographical, this scene really harks back to her own history.

Heterosexual love stories are depicted the most often in film. It is only recently that movies like Call Me By Your Name and Moonlight have started to depict the lives of queer men more openly. Even then, LGBTQ representation as a whole is lacking. Trans individuals are often left out of the picture and other queer identities have yet to even be recognized meaingfully in mainstream film.

Nonetheless, the power that these increasingly inclusive films have is extraordinary. As a gay man, it is amazing for me to see these types of environments and people so candidly shown. In the past, strictly gay films were only considered cult classics among queer circles, but did not receive the reviews or praise that similar films are receiving today. When I was younger, I remember my cousin showing me To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. This was one of the only LGBTQ films I saw in my childhood because LGBTQ visibility and representation in films was extremely limited until the 2000s. Growing up, I started to find other forms of media entertainment that contained LGBTQ+ characters, from YouTube, where I’d watch Willam Belli’s The Beatdown to shows such as Shameless.

Since then, pop culture has shifted to become more accepting, leading to the rise of Ryan Murphy's Pose—which features the largest transgender cast in TV broadcast history—and the critical acclaim of RuPaul’s Drag Race—a show that features gay, bisexual, trans, and queer contestants. The popularity of Drag Race even spawned DragCon, the convention held to celebrate the drag universe, that is held semi-annually in Los Angeles and New York. This real life expansion of an inclusive TV show doesn't just accommodate for adult viewers of the show; it also celebrates the next generation of queer individuals, as kids are coming to these venues and are taught to feel okay being themselves and growing up to love all others.

These new pieces of media and avenues for community building are important because they make the histories of queer communities known and inspire others who feel lost. Seeing people like yourself or the people you love in a blockbuster movie like A Star is Born, even if it is brief, can mean the difference in a world that makes you feel so lonely. Hopefully, queer youth that are trying to find themselves will feel a little less lonely by seeing the unapologetic nature of celebrities like Lady Gaga and Shangela.

Overall, I am extremely hopeful for the future of the LGBTQ representation and inclusion in films and other forms of popular culture. We see queer characters being increasingly depicted more accurately in films; with complex storylines and with fulfilling interpersonal relationships. Crucially, we also see queer characters without damaging stereotypes of them and of their experiences. Although we certainly still have a long way to go, I am comforted by the current state of queer representation: LGBTQ narratives are being retold by queer people, for queer people. The representation of LGBTQ people in pop culture is often restricted to just gay men, but if this year's Oscar nominees are any indication of what's next, the future for more inclusive and diverse stories looks bright.

Federico Yñiguez is a GLAAD Campus Ambassador and sophomore at California State University, Long Beach studying graphic design. He is a proud member of his university's Queers and Allies club.

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