Over on Jim C Hines' blog, he is asking for guest posts on the issue of how important representation and diversity is. He is a fantasy author who is definitely on the good side of introducing better diversity into genre. This is a fight we need to win. [ETA: This has come, in part at least, because of Alex Dally MacFarlane's new column in Tor on post-binary gender, Larry Correia's wailing monstrosity of a response and Hines' takedown of it - if for no other reason than you should read them]
But my story about diversity and representation doesn't come from genre (OK, you might be able to make a case for the very end of S2..?) so I think it's more appropriate here.
I have a few stock answers for the question, should it ever be asked, of how I knew I was gay (I think it's unlikely people will ask how I knew I was queer). They range from "how did you know you were straight" and "I just knew" to the story I have constructed in my head that I doubted I'd ever tell anyone. Except that you need to know it to understand why diversity and representation are important.
As the young proto-queer Alex, I had fantasies. About girls obviously because that's who you're meant to fantasise about if you're a guy. Except it was a girl's attention to my (very idealised) body. Then other guys' bodies. Then it was other guys with each other.
At this point I was probably starting to get an inkling that there was something a little different going on, but I wasn't involved so... Yeah, I still can be this dense by the way.
Then, I was 15-and-a-most. And I saw trailers for Queer as Folk and, although nothing had quite clicked for me yet, Nathan was damn hot. Is damn hot. So I watched it.
That was me. Well, it wasn't. But it was.
Gay characters on TV up to that point had been completely chaste. Or they had not been gay characters but had been HIV/AIDS victims, had been suicide attempts, had been hate crime or bullying victims. The books I had read... they had been non-existent (I liked John Wyndham's cosy English catastrophes because they were available in the school library).
Stuart Allen Jones, Vince Tyler and Nathan Maloney, well, they were having fun.
Suddenly everything was clicking, somewhat, into place. I liked guys. I was gay*.
I was Nathan's age when Queer as Folk came out and am now Stuart's age (I can hear him shouting "Older!" from back then 8-). Ahhh.... nostalgia... another DVD set to add to the re-watch pile...
So, to Queer as Folk, I say "Thank you! Thank you for showing me who I was, even if I wasn't any of them (well, OK, maybe Vince...)".
But there is a second side already hinted at. It's no good including characters just to fit a quota, jor just to hit "message" as detractors of calls for greater diversity seem to think we want. The argument that comes up whenever representation and diversity are mentioned is "books are escapist and should be about the story, not any message you want us to put in there". To which I give a partial "hell yeah!". Stories shouldn't be about cramming in "message".
"Message" wouldn't have helped me. "Message" is what turned me off the US remake of Queer as Folk. "Message" is absolutely not what we want when we ask for diversity and representation.
"Message" is what you get if you're lazy.
Stuart, Vince and Nathan were people, they weren't storylines. They weren't the AIDS "message", the hate crime "message", the victim "message". They were people.
The way this was managed was by... increasing the diversity. OK, Queer as Folk is maybe an extreme example, but it worked. And as diversity increases, as more books look at these things, the extremeness of Queer as Folk won't be needed. You look at old Time Travel stories and so much goes into setting up elaborate Grandfather Paradoxes to explain what they are... but it's now such a part of time travel mythology/discourse that I can get away with just saying "grandfather paradox". Better diversity, even if to start with that's with extreme examples, will lead to better diversity everywhere.
But it has to start. It has to get beyond Left Hand of Darkness.
(* I now very definitely see myself as queer rather than gay)