Lesbian and bisexual women have long been fans of gender-bending females, at least aesthetically. But when it comes to the substance behind neckties, bowties and button-downs, many of us are unlearned, unconcerned, or just plain uninterested. The makers of Gay and Lesbian Alphabet Soup keep adding letters to the recipe — LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersex, and asexual) is the most recent incarnation — but even in the Bowl of Otherness, we don’t often encourage dialogue beyond the “B.”
In her book Gender Outlaw, Kate Bornstein says, “All my life, my non-traditional gender-identity has been my biggest secret, my deepest shame. It’s not that I didn’t want to talk about it with someone; it’s just that I never saw anything in our culture that encouraged me to [do it].”
Bornstein penned her memoir in 1995, and sadly, not much has changed. If female-indetified lesbian and bisexual women are shunted to the corner of the pop culture painting, then gender-atypical individuals are tucked somewhere behind the scaffolding.
So imagine our surprise when Franky Fitzgerald wandered into the frame, splashing our mural with vivid color.
“Franky” was the first episode of the much-anticipated third generation of the UK drama Skins, and within ten minutes of the fifth series premiere, we learn that Franky Fitzgerald is a gender nonconformist. She has an androgynous body, which she prefers to cloak in traditionally masculine clothes. She has short hair, doesn’t wear makeup, and chooses a pair of headphones over jewelry.
And she suffers for it.
At the bus stop on the first day of college, Franky is tormented by a group of young boys, one of whom says, “What the f–k is that? Is that a batty or a lezzer?” (Batty is a derogatory British slang term for gay men.) The verbal bullying turns to actual bullying. Franky escapes on a motorized wheelchair which she crashes in front of her new classmates, prompting queen bee Mini to ask, “Has the circus come to town, or what?”
In the months leading up to the fifth series premiere, I was asking those same questions — in a more polite and socially acceptable way. Is Franky a lesbian? Or is she bisexual? She’s certainly gender-bending with that suit! Is she transgender? And when Dakota Blue Richards said in an interview that her character was none of the above, my immediate shift was: Well, is she genderqueer?
The LGBT community’s umbrella may be vast, but underneath it, many of us cling to our labels. In our most benevolent moments, we use labels to create nurturing communities with like-minded people. But we are also guilty of retreating into definitions to mark off our own space. I am this. You are that. This place doesn’t belong to you.
Franky didn’t label her sexuality or her gender in her episode of Skins, which is an admirable and bold statement by the Skins writing team. It also poses a challenging question to the queer community: No matter how she identifies, no matter who she sleeps with, is she “other” enough to be like you?
After the rash of teen suicides last fall, the New York Times examined the phenomenon of youth bullying. Dr. Savin-Williams, a developmental psychologist and director of Cornell University’s Sex and Gender Lab, was quoted as saying, “Bullying is less about sexuality than about gender nonconformity. There are straight youth who are gender-atypical and they suffer as much as gay kids.”
His theory was corroborated by dozens of AfterEllen.com readers who reached out to me after Franky’s episode with a single message: I am a genderqueer individual who has been bullied as badly, or worse, than Franky Fitzgerald. When I look at her, I see me.
Loui Spence told me, “That 50 minutes of TV more closely mirrors and represents my experience than almost any other character or storyline I’ve seen in film or television before.”
AfterEllen reader ShadowCat agreed. Immediately after the episode aired she emailed me to say, “Franky is ground breaking. Whether or not she is ever identified as genderqueer, kids are going to be able to relate to her. I’ve seen those looks on people’s faces for years. I know what it’s like to be called a ‘thing’. People can’t place you and their confusion turns to anger.”
In fact, I have received more emails about “Franky” than any other single episode of television ever.
The real value of any narrative lies its ability to illuminate our own stories. Story-to-self and story-to-world connections are the highest form of narrative consumption. Our existence is validated when we see ourselves reflected on-screen (story-to-self), and society is forced to respond when confronted with a truth that is unfamiliar (story-to-world). In his essay on writing fiction, American novelist Charles Baxter said that characters’ masks will only fall when truths and desires are held up to the light, and when masks fall, entire social constructs can fall: “The reality behind the mask is like a shadow-creature rising to the bait: the tug of an unseen force, frightening and energetic. What emerges is a precious thing, precious because [it had been] buried or lost or repressed.”