This is a story about a boy named Michael. Follow along with me for a little bit, if you’d be so kind.
Michael was born in 1983, and he didn’t have a very happy childhood. He was smart, but he didn’t really seem to fit in to basically any social group. He was always a quiet boy, introspective, and he heard the word “gay” applied a lot as a pejorative. Often to Michael himself, and often by Michael himself, because he only had the vaguest idea what the word meant aside from “this is a bad thing.”
As Michael hit puberty, he understood what the term meant. But he knew that it didn’t apply to him. He was definitely attracted to girls. From what little he knew, that meant that he was safe from being gay because gay men followed a very specific set of traits that he did not have. He wasn’t all of the things that he thought signified “gay man,” and that meant that he was straight. And all of the heroes he liked and saw on television, in movies, in video games? They were all straight men. So that’s what he was, even if they weren’t… really like him.
It was hard for Michael to put that sense into words. We’re talking about someone at age 13, after all. But he knew that there was something different about him compared to these people. Frankly, even if he knew that, he kept it to himself. And Michael grew up, and he kept knowing that yes, he was straight, even if sometimes he saw men he thought were cute or handsome, even if he felt like there was still something wrong with him in a way he couldn’t really define.
It was there through his 20s, even as he found a long-term relationship with a woman he loved very much. There was something off, some distance between Michael and everything he thought that he was supposed to be and feel. He couldn’t articulate it, still, because while he was older he still had a picture of what these things meant. And sure, the characters he tended to like most were characters like Starscream from Transformers, characters with outsized personalities that didn’t fit into the hyper-masculine or effeminate stereotypes. But he didn’t think much about it.
Let’s just presuppose that Michael, later in life, realized that he could be attracted to men without being gay. There’s a much larger spectrum of identifications than just “gay” or “straight,” bisexuality is a thing (as is pansexuality and just shrugging about the whole thing), and while it might not have changed Michael being happily married to a woman, it meant that a lot of the major elements of his feelings and attractions up to that point made sense.
Michael’s life probably would have been a lot different if he had been growing up with access to Soldier 76 from Overwatch as a template of what a gay man looked like. If he associated “gay” not with “shallow parody of John Waters” but with this commanding, dignified, intelligent older man who was confident in himself and his skin.
Also, his name wasn’t Michael. If you hadn’t guessed that by now.
Whenever we get something like the news that a character has been announced to be gay, there’s pushback. That’s fine. But there’s also a lot of pushback from people who say that it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t affect their perspective or experience or anything.
Why make a character gay if it doesn’t affect anything? Why allow same-sex marriages or explicitly state them as non-stigmatized in Final Fantasy XIV if they’re the minority? Why provide a whole lot of lore about the normalization of same-sex relationships in WildStar if it doesn’t come up in quests? Why does this matter?
The reason is because it does matter, of course. It just doesn’t matter to you… except insofar as it does create a pattern. Let’s address both of those in turn.
When it comes to “it doesn’t matter” in terms of your personal preferences, that’s fine. But if it honestly doesn’t matter to you, there’s no need for you to say anything about it. There are a lot of things that happen on a daily basis that don’t really matter to me in any major way. If a major NFL team makes a push to make tickets available at lower prices for fans of a more diverse income range? Well, that doesn’t matter to me; I dislike football and thus don’t actually care.
Except, you know, it does matter. It might not matter to me, but granting more people who do care about it access it is a good thing. And since it doesn’t matter to me personally either way, the only logical response to it would be “oh, well, that’s nice.” Sure, I don’t have any personal skin in the game, but it’s a good thing.
More to the point, it creates a pattern. It makes for a wider pool of templates and references. This goes beyond just people who are growing up today, even though it matters that the Michaels of today can play a game in which they play a cool, confident gay man in the later years of his life. But it contributes to the image that his sexuality has nothing to do with who he is as a person, that his personhood and acceptance of same is not predicated upon orientation or identity.
If it really doesn’t matter, then having it there takes nothing away from you. In the case of Soldier 76, I assure you that a grand total of zero programmers were taken off of regular Overwatch development in order to confirm this bit of lore. You will not be told that Blizzard really wanted to do more esports events, but they just spent too much money on a short story in which a brief aside revealed that someone is gay. It doesn’t affect you; it gives something to people who do want it.
One of my favorite bits from Mystery Science Theater 3000 was when the writing team was asked if they were ever worried about people not getting the more obscure jokes. The answer, paraphrased, was very simple: “We don’t worry if not everyone gets the joke. The right people will get the joke.”
And that’s the case for everything. For people who don’t care about Overwatch, they will continue to not care. Those who don’t identify as queer in any way will probably not be affected by this. But for the fans who are gay men and had been deeply, personally hoping that this character was in fact like them? This means the world. This is everything.
It creates part of an image. It creates a regular message that this character is like you in some way, and there are other people are like you, and they aren’t freaks or wrong or broken or villains. They’re not punchlines. They’re just people, and it’s about what they do as people rather than who they define themselves as.
So if you’re wondering why this matters? It might not for you. But somewhere out there there’s a Michael who might see this and feel less alone, who can look at this and say “hey, maybe this is more normal than I think.” Who maybe looks back and talks to that first boy he ever has a crush on, who can admit that yes, I have a crush on this boy. And he can be himself, relieved of one burden of trying to find his identity.
I know it would have helped me a lot. But I was born in 1983, and… well, you heard this story.
As a small postscript, this was inspired by and in expansion to Jack Kerras writing an excellent and eloquent comment covering much of the same ground on the aforementioned announcement post. If you’ve not already read his post, I encourage you to do so.