By Sammi Jacobs
2022 was…an eventful year to say the least. It was my first full year outside of academia and I was able to focus a bit more on what I wanted in life. It was also a year when multiple friends and family members either passed away or were in life-threatening situations. I learned more about myself and dealt with emotions I hadn’t felt in years. I finally broke out of my shell, made some local friends, and we may-or-may-not have done some dumb fun things.
Like a character in a story, I’m not the same person I was at the beginning of 2022. But unlike a character in a story, fortunately, I wasn’t struck down by a bolt of lightning from the heavens for changing; or sent on a quest for redemption, banished to the depths of limbo, or forced to fight in a gladiator death match. Anyways, you get the picture. It’s never too late or too scary to change. Try something new. It may change your life for the better.
I was always the weird kid growing up. I was either too loud, talked too much, or was too excited about the nerdiest things. I had some school peers that somewhat understood my behavior, but those friendships didn’t last long due to them moving away or switching schools. Even when I had the chance to make stronger friendships, I never felt comfortable being truly vulnerable with another person. One of the ways I coped with this was by being highly engaged in various forms of media including TV, movies, video games, and comics. I felt like I could escape into these beautiful worlds through the lives of fascinating characters. Now, as a black queer non-binary woman, I am going back through the media I enjoyed as a child and finding new meaning by understanding why I was attracted to them. As I searched the Internet to find like-minded people, I noticed that most of the queer & transgender people talking about their relations to fictional characters were white & cis, which sometimes discouraged me from telling my own story. However, now I’m sharing my story in the hopes of helping others who are like me feel seen. Here are a few of the most impactful characters that have inspired me as I’ve found myself in new worlds.
Harpo Johnson from The Color Purple is the fictional character that affected me the most. Before I read the book for a high school English class on African-American literature towards the end of my senior year, I thought it was just an overrated page-turner that black people praised for no reason; but once I got into it, I couldn’t believe how wrong I was. I would describe The Color Purple as a look into race and gender in early 20th-century America from a black feminist perspective through an engaging narrative. I have read and learned valuable lessons from various books in my life, but this book was one of the few that personally impacted me in a way that made me reflect on myself, and my life, and improved it for the better.
What intrigued me the most about Harpo’s character is his non-traditional relationship with his wife, Sofia. Sofia is a black woman who is aware of her position in society but refuses to submit to the powers that be, while Harpo is an emotional black man who enjoys doing domestic work. Despite their non-stereotypical relationship, their early years were joyful, but when Harpo’s father scolds him for not being a proper man their relationship starts to become strained. Harpo goes to Celie for help (the narrator) with this conflict between who he is and what his father wants him to be. Celie advises him to beat Sofia because she only understands marriage as a master-servant relationship. Reading this, I felt deeply connected to Harpo’s conflict. As mentioned before, I was a weird kid, and as I started coming of age I was having problems with my gender and gender roles. The angrier I got about patriarchy, the angrier I got with myself and what was expected of me. I wanted to be independent, but I did not want to be this tough heteronormative man my family wanted me to express. Harp was the first character I met that made me feel seen. At the time, I didn’t realize how much his character would make me think about my own identity, but it was a start.
Even though Harpo Johnson is the most impactful character in my life, he wasn’t the first character to influence me. That honor belongs to Edd, or Double D, from Ed, Edd, n Eddy. In my early childhood, Ed, Edd, n Eddy was the only show I would make a fuss about when my parents tried to get me to stop watching it. This Looney Tunes-Esque cartoon about child scammers entangled me with its violent slap-stick comedy, but Double D always confused yet intrigued me. For the longest time, I didn’t know if he was supposed to be a boy or a girl because of his high-pitched voice and his polite-geeky behavior. Unlike the bonehead Ed and the scheming Eddy, Double D acted as the trio’s conscience but was always flawed by his own scientific interests. He was a different kind of boy—just like me. To put it in a modern context, Double D was the first non-binary presence I experienced and it made me feel okay about who I was in reality. The feeling became even more intense when it was revealed that Double D hangs out with Ed and Eddy because they were the only ones to accept him when he moved into the Cul-de-Sac. It was similar to my experience entering a new school the second time I took Kindergarten. I will admit that those experiences would have been better if there were more characters of color like Double D when I was growing up.
The next character was also one that I was also introduced to in my childhood, but I didn’t realize their impact until recently. Imagine this: It’s Spring 2011, you’re in 7th grade, and Camp Rock 2: The Final Jam premiered a few months ago on Disney Channel. It was okay, but after watching this franchise and similar ones like High School Musical, you start wanting something different. Then you see a commercial for a new Disney Channel movie called Lemonade Mouth, and one of the main characters is an Asian girl with a cool punk/goth aesthetic. The character’s name is Stella Yamada, played by Hayley Kiyoko, and you’re not sure why but you think she’s the coolest high schooler that ever existed. This is how I felt when Lemonade Mouth came out, but I didn’t want to share my feelings with others because I thought they would make fun of me for it. I repressed those feelings until a number of years ago when I discovered that Hayley Kiyoko has a very successful and outspoken queer music career (I swear didn’t mean for that to rhyme). Learning of her success reminded me of my old feelings and added some clarity to my aesthetic tastes. Since I was a kid, I’ve always been interested in alternative and punk culture, but my devout Pentecostal parents wouldn’t let me explore that side of myself because they thought it was satanic and “weird stuff that white people do.” Fortunately, I had an aunt and some friends that were into rock, so I was still able to listen from time to time. When I was exploring myself in college, far away from my family, I realized that I didn’t have to hide anymore. When I thought about who I wanted to be, Stella is one of the characters that came to my mind. Although her aesthetic caught my attention, it’s her character that stood out: a rebellious person who wasn’t afraid to do the right thing (even though her causes were super Disney-fied). She reminded me that I had to be a bit rebellious in order to finally express my true trans queer self. Even though Hayley Kiyoko is beyond her days as Stella Yamada, the character’s impact helped inspire a generation of queer people.
There are so many more characters that have helped me realize who I am, but to go through all of them would take way too much time. The point is that even though fictional stories may seem like nonsense, they give us space us express difficult emotions and thoughts. These experiences aren’t reserved for any race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or anyone that may be deemed “different.” We all have a right to explore ourselves the way we want to, and fiction is a valid way to do that.
Sammi Jacobs (they/them/she/hers) is a 25-year-old queer non-binary geek storyteller and a 2021 graduate of Morehouse College. They were born & raised in Buffalo, NY, and currently live with family in Baton Rouge, LA. Sammi currently works as a tech training consultant but aspires to be a storyteller in the film & animation industry in the near future. They enjoy creating stories and writing about experiences that make people like themselves feel seen in both joyful and critical fashions. Outside of work, you can usually find Sammi either playing a JRPG, reading some indie comics, or binge-watching anime. If you would like to see more of Sammi’s work, please visit their website or follow them on Instagram or Twitter.