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Episode 26: You Can’t Be What You Can’t See (1/2)

In our interview with Elizabeth Reed, we discuss the media’s influence — for better or for worse — on LGBTQ identity, culture, and interpretations. We learn how “identities are constituted within, not outside of representation,” we discuss how to combat media invisibility, the ways that the LGBTQ community faces discrimination, and how the media is central in articulating everyone’s identity. Elizabeth Reed is a cultural sociologist and lecturer at Goldsmiths University in London whose research focuses on LGBTQ relationships and families, contemporary childhood, and the role of media and cultural representations in identity-making. _________________________________ To check out show notes from our podcast episodes and learn more about BBXX visit If you’ve enjoyed listening, please take one minute to write a review for our podcast. We would also sincerely appreciate it if you would give us your feedback using the link on our website or by emailing Any questions, concerns, ideas, or suggestions are always more than welcome!

The transcript wasn’t added for this episode.

In this week’s two-part episode we talk with Dr. Elizabeth Reed, a cultural sociologist and lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, whose research focuses on LGBTQ relationships and families, contemporary childhood, and the role of media and cultural representations in identity-making. We kick off the conversation by discussing Dr. Reed’s personal journey into her research theory before discussing the social and historical significance of the term “queer” and the struggles and discrimination faced by the LGBTQ community in the context of family-planning. 

Queer Theory

Introduced in the early 1990s as a new academic field born from the fields of queer studies and women’s studies, queer theory is a lens by which to analyze the “oppressive power of dominant norms, particularly those relating to sexuality.” While its applications are vast and ever-evolving, queer theory aims to question society’s myopic notions of what’s deemed “normal” and to deconstruct the binaries and ingrained discrimination that constitute heteronormativity. 

Why Cultural Representation Matters

Dr. Reed emphasizes the indelible impact that culture — both explicit and implicit — has on shaping our identities.  ”Everything that we can say or might say comes through that lexicon of ideas and images and values that we share and see in culture. And without that, we can’t say anything about ourselves.” In short, you can’t be what you can’t see. Dr. Reed has researched the ways in which limited representations of LGBTQ families in popular media breeds cultural and social invisibility among LGBTQ parents.

Representation forms and deforms all expression.

Richard Dyer, The Culture of Queers

The Need to Be Believed

LGBTQ individuals are often faced with disbelief and/or dismissal when they first come out due to the heteronormative belief that heterosexuality is the inherent orientation of all humans. For this reason, “coming out” is often an ongoing process of claiming, and affirming, one’s identity rather than a singular, revelatory event.

That repeated coming out is often about articulating a legitimacy. 

Reclaiming the Word “Queer”

While the exact origins of the word are hard to trace, originally the term “queer” was used to describe “strangeness” in whatever form. Over time, this became a derogatory term used to equate homosexuality with strangeness, abnormalcy, and even deviancy. Fast forward to the AIDS epidemic in the late ‘80s, where the word was radically reclaimed as a symbol of empowerment, resilience, and solidarity. Today, “queer” has been embraced by the LGBTQ community as an umbrella term to define all non-binary identities.

The idea of strangeness is very much present in the reclaiming of that term, but as a positive. So what if I’m strange? So what if I don’t quite fit? 

Creating Safe Spaces Underground

Historically, LGBTQ culture was forced to exist and evolve in underground communities to safeguard against discrimination, criminal prosecution, or worse, hate crimes. As an example, Dr. Reed mentions the book Fabulosa: The Story of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language, a fascinating look into the lost language created by Britain’s gay community in the first half of the 20th century.

Stigmatization of LGBTQ Adoptive Parents

Since the legalization of gay marriage in England and Whales in 2013, more gay couples and fewer heterosexual couples have been applying to adopt children in Britain. And while homosexual couples have been legally able to adopt in Britain since 2005, stigmatization of LGBTQ couples within the adoption and child welfare services still persists. 

From qualitative research data collected in interviews conducted by Dr. Reed, several non-binary couples stated that they felt hostility from doctors in the publicly founded national healthcare system. Furthermore, non-binary couples stated that adoption panels were more inclined to direct them to adopt older children as opposed to babies.

Risk Assessment in Everyday Situations

Dr. Reed highlights the common practice of “assessing risk” in everyday situations as an LGBTQ person, especially those who are parents. 

If I let someone know right now that I’m not heterosexual, what’s going to happen? Are they going to stop talking to me? Are they going to report me to the authorities?

Defining “Family”

In short, there isn’t one single definition of what makes a “family.” According to the Census Bureau, since 1930 “family” has been defined as “a householder and one or more other people living in the same household who are related to the householder by birth, marriage or adoption.”

While this definition seems broad enough, it’s worth noting the difference from the Census Bureau’s 1920 definition: “a group of persons, whether related by blood or not, who live together as one household, usually sharing the same table.” In the latter definition, we see the emphasis placed on the shared living space versus the former definition which emphasizes the nature of the relationship between individuals. 

What most families are is a mess of relationships, of responsibilities, of commitments.

Creating “Families of Choice”

In the LGBTQ community, the concept of “family” has a fraught history as many LGBTQ individuals have been rejected by their parents or families of origin. For this reason, many LGBTQ people rely on their “families of choice” for social and emotional support. “Families of choice” describes close relationships that are chosen, rather than defined by blood or marriage, to create a system of support, care, and intimacy. 

Family is about support, family is about comfort, family is about coming together as individuals with a shared value and care for one another.

Dive Into More Research 

About the Expert

Elizabeth Reed

Lizzie is a cultural sociologist whose research and writing focuses on LGBTQ relationships and families, contemporary childhood, and the role of media and cultural representations in identity-making. She is interested in exploring participatory research methods and connecting everyday lived experiences of families to wider social and political trends.