Those are big questions with complicated answers. I think the answer to the main one — Does it really get better? — is yes. And I think part of the answer to the last one — How does it get better? — is, believe it or not, television.
Wait — hear me out.
A couple of weeks ago my dad asked me for the bazillionth time how old I was when I knew for sure I was gay. It's something he worries about a lot, I think, because he knew I was gay long before I knew I was gay on account of he spent a lot of sleepless nights heating up milk for me while I sat on the kitchen counter and sobbed about how my best friends would rather spend time practicing blow jobs with their boyfriends than braiding my hair. He worries about it because he is convinced I knew, but wouldn't come out; worried that he and my mom hadn't created a safe environment in which I could be myself — because, seriously, how could I not have known?
The only times I ever heard the words "gay" and "lesbian" spoken aloud when I was growing up were when people were all, "Yeah, you know those g-a-y-s, always burning in h-e-l-l." Or, like, "My cousin told me how lesbians dress in men's clothes and then take turns brushing each other's mullets after their weekly kitten sacrificing ceremony."
And it wasn't like I was ever thinking about sex, even as a teenager, because I was Baptist and so I knew thinking about sex was the gateway action to punching Jesus in the face. I wasn't one of those closeted gays sneaking peeks in locker rooms. Like every other evangelical Christian teen I knew, I didn't even want to see my own body naked, so ashamed was I that it had rebelled against me and grown boobs (the evil body part whose sole purpose was to cause my brothers in Christ to stumble!).
I didn't want to spend eternity in h-e-l-l and I would never hurt a wittle kitten. Surely I wasn't gay! Gay people, in my mind, were social and sexual deviants. I didn't know any gay people. I'd never seen any gay people. And so I didn't have any evidence to contradict all the rumors.
But here's what I did know: I was different.
On the first day of kindergarten an uneasy weight settled onto my chest because I just sensed that something about me wasn't the same as all the other kids, and I spent every single day of my life — even in college — worried that someone was going to figure out what that difference was before I could figure it out, and I was going to be exposed as some kind of monster.
So I did the thing every person does when she wants to keep people from knowing what's really inside her: I started my own self-propaganda campaign. I was tall and quick, so I spun an entire persona out of being an athlete. It's who I was. It's all I was. And if someone started digging deeper, I handed out my backup propaganda pamphlet called: Also, I'm A Smartass. (The backup backup was: And I Love The Lord Jesus To The Moon And Back.)
I wish I could say I found the courage to search myself, to discover the thing that made me not the same. But I didn't. I spent so much of my childhood feeling alone and helpless and hopeless and afraid, that I couldn't bear the thought of looking inside of me and finding something that had the potential to isolate me even more.
I didn't look inside myself in middle school, in high school, in college, or even in my early 20s. I played basketball and when I left my scholarship after my sophomore year, I rewrote my self-propaganda and became a full-blown Minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There are some great stories there, stories of love and acceptance and miracles. And there are stories of myopic, uninformed cow-herd bigotry like something out of a dystopian novel. I continued not to think about how I was different because my growing suspicion was that my difference was going to leave a Heather-fist-shaped bruise on Jesus' cheek, and I couldn't bear the thought.
I left church because of the cow-herd bigotry thing, mostly, and I immediately went on a bender like Kevin McAllister in Home Alone — only instead of gorging myself on ice cream and cheese pizza, I gorged myself on all the things my church had taught me to stay away from. It started with Harry Potter (witchcraft!), continued with television (swearing!), really picked up speed with BBC's Big Read of Top 100 books (lust! deceit! murder! drugs! strong-willed women! hobbits!), and finally exploded into actual self-awareness with The L Word (girl sex! girl sex! omg, girl sex!).
My therapist said to me one day, "Why are you so broken up about Bette cheating on Tina?" I shrugged. "Your reaction to this television show seems strong, even for you." I shrugged again. She asked if I thought I was a lesbian and I laughed in her face. She asked if I wanted to marry a man and I laughed in her face even louder. She asked if I wanted to spend my life with a woman and I said, "Yes, of course. Like Bette and Tina." And then I said, "Ohhhhhhhh. I'm a lesbian."
I was never bullied when I was growing up, because I was never brave enough to be unique. I was never attacked, because I was never courageous enough to take a stand. But I was different. Oh, so different. And there were whole years I went to bed every night hoping my life was just a terrible dream, begging God to let me wake up in a different bed in a different home in a different school district in a different body, so I didn't have to feel so sad and so weird anymore.
And then it got better. It wasn't easy because the getting better meant I had to dig into my desires and dreams, that I had to to unearth every fear, plucking each one out of decades of detritus and debris. And I had to polish those differences. And I had to treasure those differences. And I had to display those differences for the entire world to see.
But you know what I had to have first? I had to have the language to describe what was going on inside me. I had to have the words and the images to understand what it even meant to be a lesbian. And you know where I found that language? Books and movies and television.
There are people who say that what we do here at AfterEllen.com — all this writing about lesbian pop culture — is superfluous, that it doesn't matter. But lesbian and bisexual women (including characters) on television and film and radio do matter. Not only because seeing a queer character on TV is tantamount to knowing a queer person in real life (thereby breeding acceptance), but because there really are women of all ages all over the world who have only ever heard the word "lesbian" associated with "hell" or "deviant."
So imagine being scared and alone and different and turning on your television to see Emily Fields on Pretty Little Liars and realizing that being gay doesn't make you a kitten sacrificer after all. Or imagine thinking you'll never find true love because you just can't make it work with a man and opening up a comic book to see beautiful, normal couple Katchoo and Francine in Strangers in Paradise. Imagine knowing you're gay and being afraid to come out and turning on your radio and hearing Chely Wright's story. Imagine being afraid of losing your career because you're gay and being reminded of what's possible just by flipping the channel to Ellen. Imagine equating being g-a-y with burning in h-e-l-l and seeing Sophie and Sian being in love in church on Coronation Street and realizing that loving another girl doesn't mean you have to stop loving God.
If I'd had any of those things when I was growing up — just one of them, just one lesbian or bisexual character to relate to — it wouldn't have taken me 25 years to stop trying to outrun what was inside me.
I received an email from an AfterEllen.com reader recently that affected me deeply and I asked if I could share her story with you. She told me that not long ago she was so lonely and terrified and exhausted from fighting a losing battle with being gay that she decided to take her own life. She stood in the bathroom with a gun in her mouth and right before she planned to pull the trigger, she had a single, fleeting thought: I should see see Skins before I die. She watched the third series in one sitting and found herself in Emily Fitch. She called the Trevor Hotline and she lived.
We, as a community, must continue to demand better from movie producers and television writers. We, as a community, must continue to celebrate the stories that really do reflect the joys and heartaches and normalcy of our queer lives. Because "Visibility Matters" and "It Gets Better" aren't just slogans; they're two facts that hold hands and make each other stronger.
It got better for me.
And when it's done right, TV and books and movies will make it better for all of us.