Diversity in fiction gives a reader the chance to see themselves in a character. It opens more readers, more consumers, to the work. Simultaneously, a diverse work reflects the actual world. None of us live in a state of white, straight, non-disabled people, all alike, no differences.
Reading about characters and lives that are unlike your own experience is important to growth, but when you’re considered outside the norm, and there’s no representation, that’s all you get. You’re given an experience that while different, never aligns to your own.
As someone who writes YA with diverse characters, I’ve been thinking about my own experiences with representation, so I want to talk about the Flash. Specifically, I want to talk about what the Flash meant to me when I was fifteen, when DC ran the Pied Piper’s coming out story.
I grew up in rural Oklahoma, with parents who shielded me from anything that they thought might increase my likelihood of self-acceptance. And while they did their best to inject my world with BB guns and tackle boxes, they overlooked the books, and I grew up surrounded by them.
While the stories I lost myself in provided escape and perspective, they also left me lonely. There was no representation, just hints, just subtext. I parsed Tolkien for signs that maybe Merry and Pippin were more than just friends. I ripped through Tad Williams’ the Dragonbone Chair, hoping without evidence that maybe the protagonist and the elf prince had a bit more going on than just companions in an adventure. There were hints, always hints, but I needed more.
I was happy and disappointed to read Gene Rodenberry’s novelization of Star Trek the Motion Picture where Kirk states clearly that he has no problem with homosexuality, but that he’s strictly heterosexual. On one hand, it validated me. One of my heroes accepted me. And yet it also left me still alone: one more person accepted, but did not understand me.
When I could find a gay character as a teen, they were usually evil, deviants or serial killers. Yes, I was missing a support system (this was a world before PFLAG or the Internet), but I was also missing representation and that crucial character to whom I could relate.
When Pied Piper came out to the Flash as he’s discussing rumors of the Joker’s sexual orientation, it was a very big deal. This wasn’t a time period when outing yourself was a casual thing, and more telling is the gossip Wally’s engaging in about the Joker. He’s a crazy villain, so let’s throw gay on top of his faults. It’s a trope that still persists in fantasy, that gay = deviant or evil.
For DC, Piper’s outing was a major step. He was taking a risk, that he might lose his friend by telling Wally he was gay. It was something I struggled with. Something I still feel (even if I couldn’t care less now).
Hartley, the Piper, wasn’t the first. Marvel already had Northstar, and DC had Extraño, years prior, but neither were characters I could relate to. Northstar was an asshole. Extraño was a flamboyant stereotype. Neither was a character I could see myself in. Piper isn’t a hero. He’s not an A-lister, but he’s there, and I clung to even that like a life raft.
As for the Flash, he faced his homophobia, and wasn’t afraid to put his arm around Hartley and call him a friend. It was acceptance from a major hero, and it was also representation. It helped that Hartley was reformed, that his orientation wasn’t tied to his villainy. Reading that issue made my tiny Oklahoma world just a little bit bigger. I felt a less isolated, I got to see that being gay didn’t have to make me fit a stereotype or cost me friends. I could be someone other and still be a part of the world and comics fandom. It gave me a place to run to when my real life squeezed too hard. That representation enriched my world, diversified the DC universe, and solidified at least one lifelong fan.
Piper makes his television debut soon. I’m anxious to watch, hoping they get him right. Comics are about big dreams, heroes running through a fantastic world. It’s always great to know there’s room in that world for someone like me.