Representation Versus Stories Told: Being LGBTQIA+ in Star Wars

Nessa

Weweje; original logo by Suzy Rice, 1976., CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons
Edited by Nessa (12/27/2020).

The matter of representation has become a prominent discussion point in the consumption of media. Representation is a matter of diversifying not only the faces in front of the camera, but also the faces behind the camera (so to speak, since the issue is pervasive in all forms of media). The importance of representation may seem small-scale–what matters is the product created for consumption, right? While media may often be seen as something we take in merely at face value, the vivacity and creative exploration that takes place every day in the Star Wars fandom is clear evidence that the media we take in engages with us on a very personal level, stimulating us to think and discuss and dream of a Galaxy Far, Far Away. 

As someone who grew up during a significant expansion of the Internet, I feel as though I’ve been granted the privilege of witnessing the growth of representation when it comes to seeing and reading about people like me in entertainment and media. I am queer (the Q in LGBTQIA+) and have been aware of my queerness for quite some time. However, I readily grant my awareness to the communities I found myself welcomed into on the Internet. I lived a fairly sheltered life, attended a private religious school, and grew up with a close-knit family that never really discussed sexuality. I distinctly remember my first experience with confronting queerness. I was a member of several oekaki boards (OekakiBBS, specifically). Oekaki boards were online digital art platforms where you could share your art in a forum, many of which followed a theme or just a particular fandom. On one of these art forums, I stumbled across fanart of two male characters from Digimon. It was earth-shattering. I remember being vehemently against it, at least at first… but it was all down (up?) hill from there. 

So, my introduction to this integral part of my own identity came from fandom itself. In my life experience, I’ve found that fandom and the communities that bloom from fandom have been pivotal in guiding me in understanding parts of myself and learning who I am as an individual. I am queer. I am nonbinary. These are terms I don’t know that I ever would have been introduced to at the shatterpoint moments of my life without fandom, and I credit fanworks, specifically, with giving me this knowledge. 

Fanworks, I have found, fall into two large (and diverse, but bear with me) categories: works that celebrate events in canon, or works that address the in-betweens of canon. While I could absolutely spend an entirely different article talking about my issues with the idea of canon, we’ll leave it at that for now. More often than not, I find myself engaging with the fanworks that addressed the in-between–the spaces where people who did not fit the image on the screen or the description on the page could find room for themselves. This is where I learned the words that detailed and explained my own particular queerness. Even today, well into my adulthood, fandom has continued to guide me in educating myself for my own benefit and for the benefit of others. Those of us in the LGBTQIA+ community and in the BIPOC community are able to find spaces for ourselves in our favorite media, using these gaps that fill in like tidepools, bursting with unique, diverse, and creative life. 

Star Wars holds a blessed little place in my heart as a piece of media that has been a constant undercurrent in my life, whether I found myself actively taking part in fandom or simply observing from afar. I saw The Phantom Menace when I was young and, let me tell you, my crushes on both Padme Amidala and Obi-Wan Kenobi were astronomical. As I have grown and returned to Star Wars, as well as to other media, I have found myself becoming more and more interested in not having to seek out those in-between spaces in canon. I wanted to see and read about people like me. I wanted to see and read about people not at all like me. While my creative fandom interests remain strong, I’ve found myself more closely scrutinizing the individuals on screen to see if the representation I saw there matched the diversity I saw in my life. 

However, what I found was almost more alarming. While diversity, representation, and inclusion were introduced as topics of discussion, these ideas became goals to meet rather than providing a guideline for further effort. Tokenism overtook diversity; one-note characters defined purely by the box they were supposed to check off were placed on screen or on the page and deemed a good-enough effort to achieve diversity. Tokenism is a bare-bones effort to simulate diversity through the representation of a single “token”–an individual who is meant to represent the scope of an entire minority community. While this may not necessarily be done with malicious intent, the damage done by tokenism remains insidious. And while these tokenistic representations of minority groups may seem harmless, there is a documented impact that consumed media has on an individual. The media we view impacts the way we view ourselves and the way we view others. Representation, therefore, becomes all the more important in popular media like Star Wars, and appropriate representation in Star Wars and other media can have a powerful impact.

Considering that Star Wars is created for all age groups, I find that a particular example provided by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) regarding diversity in media and its importance to children to be quite poignant. In a post for educators and caregivers of children titled “Diversity in Media and Why Visibility Matters,”[1] the ADL discusses the importance of anti-bias education and presents the idea of “mirrors and windows” when considering the media consumed by children. This article states: “Mirror books, or any other type of media from movies to TV shows, reflect to people who they are, so they can see themselves. Mirror books provide reflections of social group identity characteristics like culture, race, religion, disability, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Mirror books help validate one’s identity and experience when the portrayals reflect the complexity of people’s identities rather than perpetuate stereotypes.[2] To make it plain, when we see groups that we are part of or people who are like us in media like Star Wars, it makes it feel all the more accepted. It makes us feel seen. 

When it comes to “windows,” this article states: 

Window books (or movies, television shows, etc.) provide a view into other people’s lives and experiences for which people may be unfamiliar. Window books provide information about and insight into identity groups they may not know much about. Ideally, they provide complex portrayals of different people and complicate our thinking about these identity groups. Window books can help create meaningful connections between the reader and people from other identity groups.[3]

By seeing individuals who are not like us, we come to better understand those individuals. We contextualize their experience and it becomes more normalized to us. Placed in this context, it’s clear why there is a need for legitimate and real diversity and not just token ideas. If media provides accurate representation of minorities, then viewers are given the option to either see themselves in these characters or achieve a new perspective on others like them. Therein lies the problem with token representation. Token representation does not give the same clarity that effective window or mirror representation does. When a character fulfils a token role, they’re more or less there to only check a box. They are symbolic, rather than dynamic, and they mostly exist for someone to say look, there’s the ____ person you asked for. In opposition to true representation, token representation (“tokenism”) is a false representation that serves a creator more than the viewer. 

So, Where Does This Tie In with Star Wars?

Recently, I had the opportunity to take part in a delightful interview with Radio Adelaide for their “Pride and Prejudice” segment, an LGBTQIA+ show. Caitlin, my host and fellow Star Wars nerd, asked me about my first awareness of queerness in the Star Wars universe–and I found myself blanking. The only example I could think of was the fan favorite StormPilot (Finn and Poe Dameron) from the Sequel Trilogy. I am not well-versed in the EU, personally, beyond a few Clone Wars-era novels that I’ve read. I was told that there was more out there than I realized, which I can’t wait to access and review. In the meantime, I’ve conducted some research myself on confirmed and canonically LGBTQIA+ characters that exist so far in the Star Wars universe.

And, frankly? With more than four decades of material produced in the Star Wars universe, the list is comically short. What is particularly glaring is the fact that many of the characters on the list were confirmed outside of their source material, whether it be by their actors (Donald Glover and Billy Dee Williams discussing Lando Calrissian’s pansexuality and his gender fluidity, respectively) or by Disney producers (Orka and Flix of Star Wars: Resistance, for example).[4] These outside confirmations allow them to be forgotten or overlooked. These characters appeared on-screen, but their unique LGBTQIA+ perspectives were never shared on-screen. As mentioned in the 2019 article by Justin Kirkland on Esquire, these instances of outside confirmation feel “a little bit like a J.K. Rowling style-addendum than an actual plot point.”[5] We experience this odd contention between the necessity of including this information in the source material to allow for the mirror/window experience and of not wanting to shape these entire characters around just one factor of their personality in a way that shifts them into tokenism. 

Flix and Orka
Screenshot from Star Wars Resistance – “The Recruit”

(Directed by Steward Lee and Saul Ruiz, written by Brandon Auman)

Kirkland also notes, speaking specifically in the context of the Star Wars films: “For a series as progressive and iconic as Star Wars, not addressing that oversight feels regressive. There are thousands of named characters in the Star Wars universe that comprise every imaginable type of sentient being. At this point, including LGBTQ representation is not just a cultural step forward—it’s the statistically logical thing to do.[6] The presence, or lack thereof, of LGBTQIA+ characters has begun to feel like an intentional deletion in the Star Wars universe. We’re the Kamino of the Star Wars universe–a gap in the galactic map where a single planet could and should be. How embarrassing.

Perhaps complicating the matter is the fact that the Star Wars universe is positioned as a complex and diverse place where the differences that we see in today’s world have grown to just be facets of an individual; the end goal of our desire for representation is already achieved in the Star Wars universe itself. So, we face a situation in which we need to present these representations and stories in such a way that does not compromise the utopic setting wherein our unique experiences as LGBTQIA+ individuals do not render us as Other, while simultaneously still allowing viewers from another (our) galaxy to engage in mirror/window entertainment. In the galaxy where Star Wars exists, we are able to be queer, aromantic, nonbinary, lesbian, trans, gay, and/or many other defined and undefined sexualities/life experiences without those aspects of ourselves defining us. We don’t face the same potential risk of rejection or violence as we do in our real lives for these facets of ourselves. 

Where Does This Leave Us?

What Does Representation Look like in the Star Wars Universe?

The Star Wars universe has its share of individuals that fit our perspectives of different genders and different sexualities. However, it’s important to note that the creative media produced in the Star Wars universe remains influenced by the time of its production. Which is to say, the views presented in Star Wars reflect the views of those who create it in an official capacity. The first canonically queer couple to appear in Star Wars media was a married pair, Goran Beviin and Medrit Vasur (who, notably, is sometimes introduced in media with his husband’s surname). These two first appeared in the 2006 novel Boba Fett: A Practical Man, and were confirmed to be both male and married over the course of the novels Legacy of the Force: Sacrifice and Legacy of the Force: Revelation.[7] Other canon queer couples include Legends characters like Juhani (Knights of the Old Republic, 2003), who can be romanced by a female lead character; and Ferus Olin and Roan Lands (Jedi Quest and Last of the Jedi, 2001 to 2004 and 2005 to 2008), confirmed by the author after publication to be gay and married. In the Disney canon, representation has grown in dribs and drabs and, occasionally, a deluge. For example, the Aftermath series has given us a number of diverse characters, including Esmelle Susser and Shirene, Sinjir Rath Velus, Conder Kyl, and Eleodie Maracavanya. These characters provide us with new representation for genderqueer individuals, lesbian individuals, and gay individuals. In the E.K. Johnston novel Ahsoka, we meet Kaeden Larte, a female Human who ultimately shares the romantic feelings she holds for Ahsoka. Johnston confirmed later that Kaeden was bisexual (or possibly pans, given the diversity of the Star Wars universe), further expanding the representation available to the LGBTQIA+ community.[8] Johnston has also confirmed that Padme Amidala’s sister, Sola Naberrie, is aromantic in the novel Queen’s Shadow and, more interestingly, confirmed that her aromantic perspective was not uncommon in Naboo culture. Even more recently, we’ve had it confirmed that Vi, a representative of the Resistance in the immersive world of Batuu, is asexual. In the recent From A Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back compilation, several stories contain LGBTQIA+ characters, including “Amara Kel’s Rules for TIE Pilot Survival (Probably)” and “A Good Kiss.” Representation is undeniably growing in the written media available to us in the Star Wars universe, but we’ve yet to see the same representation on screen in our shows and in our movies. Further, it has only recently been deemed important to actually give us stories, rather than pointing at a random face in the crowd and assigning them a unique identity feature (that’s tokenism, folks). 

Sola Naberrie
Screenshot from Star Wars: Episode II
Attack of the Clones
(Directed by George Lucas, written by George Lucas and Jonathan Hales)

 Vi Moradi in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge
Image courtesy of Stephenie McGucken

                                                                                                                    

So here stands the most pivotal issue in the matter: just being present is not enough when it comes to inclusivity and representation. We deserve to have stories told about us that are compelling and unique, just like everyone else’s. As an example, I used to work in a bookstore, where two whole six-foot bookshelves were dedicated to romance novels specifically for straight readers. In contrast, the queer romance section was one shelf, entirely separate from the others, and located in the adult reference or sexuality section instead of fiction. By relegating our stories to a specific subsection, it further Othered our experience and made it all the more difficult to find reflections of ourselves in fiction. Things have changed a great deal since my days working at the bookstore, with queer stories becoming more accessible and advancing into more “mainstream” media for consumption by a broader audience. However, even the more inclusive stories we have access today suffer from missteps. LGBTQIA+ stories continue to experience pitfalls, particularly when it comes to the content of these stories.

Inclusivity has its own tropes, and LGBTQIA+ individuals are not exempt from their own unique brand. “Bury Your Gays” is an all too familiar trope to the LGBTQIA+ community, referring to the increased likelihood of death in characters who are queer as opposed to characters who are straight. As the TV Tropes wikia states, it’s a “numbers game.” Sometimes, people die. Star Wars is no exception. However, representation is in such a tumultuous state that “[e]ven when there is a perfectly valid narrative reason for the writers to chose to kill off the character, or it serves the story perfectly, it’s often the case that killing one queer character is removing the only positive representation within the narrative.” [9] It is a common thread for queer stories to end in tragedy, rather than in happy endings, and this storytelling hook of having us die early maintains even today. I remember being shocked by the gruesome and sudden deaths of two queer women in The Walking Dead, especially one who had survived for several seasons in an unsurvivable show. She survived just long enough to get a girlfriend and lose her in a grotesque way. Similarly, Star Wars representation has followed this same plot device. Take, for instance, in Bounty Hunters #4, Boba Fett violently murders a queer woman of color. T’onga has a spouse named Losha that she leaves behind to avenge her brother, only to be ultimately shot in the back by Boba Fett. [10]

And we get it. We get it

People die in the Star Wars universe. People really die when Boba Fett gets involved. But when so few LGBTQIA+ characters exist in Star Warsespecially LGBTQIA+ people of color, especially LGBTQIA+ people in happy relationships– brutally killing those characters off before they barely exist feels like a slap in the face. We’re not asking for Boba Fett to not kill. We’re not asking for the rules of the Star Wars universe to change so LGBTQIA+ characters can never die. We’re asking for the chance to be given a love story like Han and Leia’s. We’re asking for the chance to do what is right like Senator Amidala. We’re asking for the chance to be a Jedi, or the chance to fight in the Rebellion, or the chance to exist in Star Wars before we start being brutally killed off before our stories even start. Our stories are not diverse enough for us to be among the quickly lost one-note characters. We deserve the opportunity for happier stories before we can really engage with the stories of lost loves and sudden deaths at the hands of the Galaxy’s most renowned bounty hunter.

And our protests regarding T’onga’s death and its particular brand of senseless brutality have not gone unnoticed. Even in conducting my research for this article, I had to dig through Twitter feeds and Reddit threads of individuals mocking those of us who were bewildered and unsettled by her demise. Rather than engaging in empathy, we are taunted with questions about “safe spaces,” and laughed at for wanting more than stories of heartbreak and loss. And it’s exhausting. Because you know what?

I do want more. I deserve more.

People like me deserve more.

People not like me deserve more.

Deserve better.

Our stories are worth telling.

There’s a difference between what representation really means and what protestors of representation seem to believe it means. And while this may be a point that gets shouted into the void, what it comes down to is that we just want our seat at the table. We’re not trying to change Star Wars–we’re just trying to be part of it. The exclusion and the pushback against our inclusion have begun to feel–well. Kirkland puts it best: 

“But LGBTQ communities aren’t looking for Star Wars to morph out of space drama territory and into the gay romance genre; queer people just want to feel like they’re not being purposefully cut from the narrative. The one thing Star Wars fans should be able to agree on is that the series has always represented something greater than film. It’s an ideology, and excluding the character unlike yourself feels very anti-Star Wars in itself.”[11]

Our inclusion is, frankly, overdue. Granting us the benefit of representation provides an affirming experience for anyone watching Star Wars. When we come out as LGBTQIA+ individuals, it may not be a galactic-level event. It may barely rock the ship. Just a little hyperspace shudder. But on a smaller scale, these moments of clarity with our identity mean so much to us as individuals. To be able to look at ourselves in a mirror and know ourselves and to have others know us as we are, as our truest selves–it’s freeing. As mentioned early in this article, these mirrors of our experience are critical. Mirrors are validating. Mirrors enrich our imaginations and give us confidence in our own complexity, while also simultaneously allowing others with a different perspective to use the mirror as a window to see how diverse, complex, and amazing our experience can be. Being able to do this through the lens of Star Wars allows us to experience the fantastic, astounding joy that others do when they see someone like them on the screen. 

Hyperspace Tunnel
Screenshot from Star Wars: Episode VII The Force Awakens
(Directed by J.J. Abrams, written by Lawrence Kasdan,  J.J. Abrams, and Michael Arndt)

And this is the core of why it is so important to have LGBTQIA+ individuals in Star Wars: these Jedi, fighter pilots, bounty hunters, smugglers, and everything in between can function as mirrors for the LGBTQIA+ experience. Being able to see ourselves in dynamic and distinct characters who live rich, fulfilling lives is empowering–especially in outer space, yeah? Many a fan dreams about being a Jedi or being a Sith, or wearing Stormtrooper or Clone Trooper armor (and shout out to those of you who made that dream a reality). We as fans have imagined ourselves living in a Galaxy Far, Far Away for decades, but, for many of us, experiences that align with ours have existed solely within the gaps and cracks in canon. In the maybes and in the what-ifs. But our personal perspectives and our individual experiences are very real. To be able to look at someone flying an X-Wing in a Rebel maneuver or at a Jedi fighting for the good of the galaxy and think they’re like me–non-Human or Human, that experience can mean more than words can say. 

The world has progressed significantly, even in my own lifetime. When I was a teenager, the idea of a gay or lesbian or queer couple even being put on screen felt… impossible. Daring. That was avant-garde media right there. But now we have taken those first big steps. Shows like Schitt’s Creek and Steven Universe have told stories of the LGBTQIA+ experience in rich, complex, and unique ways. Pose tells the stories of LGBTQIA+ people of color. As writer Cadeem Gumbs mentions in an article published on RefractMag: “Representation of queer and transgender people of color in ‘Pose’ is important because it presents them as normal people with normal problems, and allows for their further integration into society.[12] Our stories make us real. We don’t exist in a vacuum. We aren’t brief glimpses in the void. We don’t appear in the background and vanish into the ether, arriving just long enough for someone to say see, there’s the representation you wanted. Telling our stories or telling stories like ours normalizes our experience. Seeing representations of ourselves, whether in the everyday or in the fantasy that is Star Wars, makes our experience feel a little more valid to both ourselves and to others. 

This is why we ask for more. Not because we want to replace others, not because we want to control the narrative, not because we want to penalize those who forget us intentionally or unintentionally. Because we want to feel like we exist. We want to share in that joy of being able to feel kinship with a character that is like us. We want to see ourselves as Jedi and have others see us as Jedi, too. We want to be in the Rebellion, the Resistance, the Senate, the Temple, the city, the town, the settlement, the Galaxy–we want to be part of the rich and beautiful story that is Star Wars, right alongside everyone else.

We just want to fly X-wings, too. 

Gathered Rebel forces for an attack on Lothal, including X-Wings
Screenshot from Star Wars Rebels – “Rebel Assault”
(Directed by Steward Lee, written by Dave Filoni and Steven Melching)


[1] ADL.org “Diversity In Media and Why Visibility Matters” – https://www.adl.org/education/resources/tools-and-strategies/diversity-in-media-and-why-visibility-matters

[2] Emphasis my own.

[3] Emphasis my own.

[4] Kirkland, Justin. Esquire. “Star Wars Has Always Been a Little Gay. It Just Needs to Come Out of the Closet.” https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/movies/a30119620/star-wars-rise-of-skywalker-lgbtq-character/

[5] Kirkland, Justin. Esquire. “Star Wars Has Always Been a Little Gay. It Just Needs to Come Out of the Closet.” https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/movies/a30119620/star-wars-rise-of-skywalker-lgbtq-character/

[6] See above. Emphasis my own.

[7] Traviss, Karen. Boba Fett: A Practical Man. Del Rey, 2006.; Traviss, Karen. Legacy of the Force: Sacrifice. Del Rey. 2008.; raviss, Karen. Legacy of the Force: Revelation. Del Rey. 2008. 

[8] ekjohnston, Tumblr. “So is kaeden lesbian or bi?” Feb 3, 2017 7:45 pm. https://ekjohnston.tumblr.com/post/156778274722/so-is-kaeden-lesbian-or-bi

[9] “Bury Your Gays.” TV Tropes Wikia. https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BuryYourGays

[10] Sacks, Ethan. “Star Wars Bounty Hunters #4.” Marvel. 2020.

[11] Kirkland. “Star Wars Has Always Been a Little Gay. It Just Needs to Come Out of the Closet.” 

[12] Gumbs, Cadeem. RefractMag.com. “FX’s Pose and the Importance of Representation in Media” https://www.refractmag.com/read/2019/11/26/fxs-pose-and-the-importance-of-representation-in-media. Emphasis my own.