What’s the way forward for queer representation in audio drama?

It’s Pride month, and I decided that I wanted to talk queer representation in media, in audio drama and elsewhere: what we’re doing right, what we’re not doing right, and why it matters to even talk about it at all. Full disclosure going forward: I’m bisexual and cis, and coming from both that standpoint and having learned about and from other people’s experiences that they’ve been kind enough to share throughout my life.

The tale is an old one: the media representation of marginalized groups, in this case queer-aligned people, is lackluster, grim, or straight-up missing.  And in podcasting and audio drama, we have found a new, semi-financially convenient way to bring queer voices into the light, and giving them the space in media they have long deserved. People like to say, including myself, that audio drama is extremely queer. We’re not wrong; it is! There are so many queer creators out there in indie audio fiction, creating the fictional stories we wanted growing up, ones with queer protagonists that don’t have to fear the cold.

What we’re lacking is intersectionality. It’s a symptom of a larger issue in the queer community, where the Black trans and queer women who started Stonewall get ignored or erased, as well as a lack of understanding of what it means to be queer and disabled, for instance, or queer and undocumented. There are several independent shows actively making an effort to include these lived experiences, and we salute them! I’ll be talking specifically about Kalila Stormfire’s Economical Magick Services a little, based on what I know from Twitter.

It is relatively rare for a gay or lesbian character to not be voiced by a similarly inclined voice actor — I say relatively because I couldn’t think of any, but I certainly don’t know everyone’s orientations or identities. And sure, some of you may ask: “it’s just voice-acting so we can’t see them or know their orientation! Does it really matter?”

Yes, it does.

I’m not going to go into a full-fledged lecture with quotations and references on why having representation in all media actually represented by people from that group is important, because we’ll be here until next year, but to sum up some important points:

  1. you shouldn’t have people “acting” to belong to a marginalized group, as it is horrible to even think about the fact that this is just something they can shed, like a snake skin, whereas people from those communities bring their lived, shared experience and knowledge to the role;
  2. you should be paying and hiring people from these communities because they have been shut out of media roles of all kinds for a long time due to their status as a marginalized community member;
  3. people belonging to those groups deserve to see and hear themselves, to see and hear people they can identity with on that level that you, as a non-member of that group, cannot understand.

So, hire queer voice actors, writers, producers for their stories. It’s respectful and supportive, and, if I have to get capitalistic about it, it’s good business. If people hear about your show supporting queer creators or actors in these ways, I guarantee people will come listen at least to check it out.

There’s another point here to be made: if there’s a disabled queer character or a Black queer character or a trans character, hire a person that meets that criterion. I’ll refer you to this article on the hiring process SyFy’s The Expanse went through to cast Bobbi. And this is where I briefly talk about Kalila Stormfire’s Economical Magick Services. In one episode, we get to hear about Desiree, a Black non-binary witch who comes to Kalila for help. Creator Lisette Alvarez took some extra time mid-release to rewrite some scripts and give Desiree a voice, so that she could hire Zayn Thiam, a Black enby photographer witch, to bring Desiree to life. And not just voice, but give feedback and thoughts from their experiences living their life.

And that’s the way you do it. If you’ve written something incorrect or flawed or just a little out of alignment, you need to make sure your actor or whoever is commenting has the comfortable space in order to do so. That you’ve told them, “listen, I want you to tell me if there’s something you would change, if it’s bothering you or you think it needs tweaking”, that you give your actors that positive reinforcement. (You should also be hiring a consultant for these matters, probably, but that’s another essay entirely). Listen to them, know that they aren’t attacking you personally, and incorporate. It will make your writing blossom.

There is a dearth of queer people of color in voice-acting and other realms of audio drama, of disabled queer people, of trans and non-binary actors or people on the a-spectrum — not just characters, but as parts of the whole. Not to say they are missing entirely, but it’s important to note that especially in the context of podcasting in general, it is still white and straight and abled and cis. This is why we have such initiatives as #SoundUpBootcamp (though I don’t think they were expecting 18,000 applicants), the subsequent amazing group of Women of Color Podcasters, and diversity-based scholarships for workshops or classes. We need to purposefully and with intent make room for these voices without tokenization. People flock together based on their identities and your work isn’t going to suffer from having to have two queers in it.

Like I stated a while ago in issue #3, diversity is a giant thorny issue with a lot of sides to it and a lot of nuance, so I haven’t even scratched the surface of what needs to be discussed. I’ve focused pretty heavily on voice-acting here since that’s what people hear, but I also hope I’ve made clear that we should be hiring and supporting at every step, in writing and in production and other aspects. Just because you can’t see it or hear it, doesn’t mean someone else will also not miss it if it’s not there. Feel free to reach out with comments or thoughts. I love you, and happy Pride!

This essay was originally published in Audio Dramatic Issue #7, June 4 2018.