Dark Art as an Access Need

Or: why being able to find dark, challenging topics in queer art is as important as being able to avoid them.

When I was a much-younger, more-naive little Ada, I used to worry that I would hurt people by being queer. Not because being queer is inherently, directly harmful - I’d gotten past that already - but because someone might be upset or in distress or lose their relationship with me if they knew I was queer, and isn't that in some sense me hurting them? Did I have the right to upset other people and make them distressed about their own morality, just so I could gratify my own desires? That didn't seem right.

I think about this a lot when I think about dark content in queer stories.

When you are queer, you grow up knowing that your real self and your real feelings will be upsetting to straight people, and that many people will not want to see or hear about them, or to be reminded that they exist. Regardless of what kind of queer you are, that knowledge leaves its mark. (Some other kinds of marginalization - trauma, mental illness, and neurodivergence among them - produce a similar effect.)

So it's upsetting in a very particular way to see the way the queer community turns on queer creators, writing about fictional queer selves and feelings, and tells them that these fictional things are too upsetting, that other queer people don't want to be reminded they exist, and that you are harming other queer people by expressing yourself in this way.

Increasingly I see this framed as an accessibility issue - we need to make our work accessible to queer people with PTSD, or to younger queer people, or to sex-repulsed asexuals, or to some other group, by making sure they can read our work without encountering anything that triggers them.

As a disabled queer author who thinks about accessibility a lot, here's why I think that's wrong.

Here's What I'm Not Talking About

Discourse on the Internet can lose its context pretty quickly, so let's pause here to define our terms.

I am talking about art.

I am not talking about art that unthinkingly displays the author's bigotry (racism, sexism, or many other -isms). I am not talking about art that teaches incorrect lessons about what queer people are like and how you should treat them. I am not talking about art that treats trauma as a joke. These are all separate discussions, and there is room for nuance in them too, but they're not what I am talking about today.

When I talk about "dark content," I am talking about:

  • Art that portrays traumatic events happening, or the aftermath of trauma;

  • Art that's gloomy, angry, otherwise emotionally complex, where a happy ending is not guaranteed and what's right and wrong is not necessarily clear-cut;

  • Art where queer characters are "messy" - having major character flaws, making bad decisions, expressing anger or being unpleasant, not fully understanding their queer identities, falling for the wrong people, etc;

  • Art that deals with taboo interests and fantasies, such as BDSM;

  • Many similar things along these lines.

These kinds of content are not straw men. When I see people saying that they want to be protected from dark content, many of them are, in fact, talking about these things.

I am also not talking about content warnings. Content warnings are great and are a nice thing you can do to be courteous to your readers. However, it's very difficult to write a set of content warnings that perfectly covers absolutely everything. In general, I'm not talking in this article about requests for content warnings - I'm talking about readers who request that distressing content should be taken out, or should be kept to private journals and not published, or that the work should be structured so that all the distressing things are "skippable."

Finally I’m not addressing the many other reasons why people might say that dark content in art is important (to make readers grow by challenging them, for instance). We can talk about those arguments later, but there are enough of them for many articles, and in this article I am only talking about accessibility.

Conflicting Access Needs

In the disability community we talk a lot about conflicting access needs. Sometimes it is not possible to meet everyone's needs - not because it's too much hassle, but because different people's needs directly contradict each other.

Imagine you are creating an event for autistic people. Do you make it quiet so that people prone to sensory overload can attend? Or do you allow people to be loud and make the movements and noises that are natural for them? Both of those choices exclude some fraction of autistic people. Some people can't deal with noise; some people can't help but make it, or else they get understimulated and upset when there's silence.

You can be creative in response to conflicting access needs. For instance, you might allow people to make noise in the main room of the event, but have a well-maintaned quiet room close by. These kinds of solutions won't perfectly meet everyone's needs, but in many circumstances they will help you to accommodate as many people as possible.

On the other hand, there may be events where giving people options isn't always really viable. If the name of the event you're running is the Joyful Shouting Samba Drum Lesson Dance & Rave, All Skill Levels Welcome, then the people who hate noise might just need to sit this one out. (They might get their own event later.)

It is vital to have access to art, culture, media and leisure. Everyone should have that.

But it is not necessarily vital to have access to a particular work of art - or even to the work of any particular author.

If I say "Oh my God, The Dinosaurs In Space Book is amazing, you have to read it!" - I am not telling the literal truth. You do not, in fact, have to. Plenty of people, disabled and otherwise, will live long, full, happy, literature-filled lives without ever once glancing in the direction of The Dinosaurs In Space Book.

And the inherent fact about art, one that every experienced person in the industry knows, is that not every work of art will resonate with every person. This may be for disability reasons or for a whole host of others. To expect that one work of art should be accessible to everyone is to set literally every artist up to fail.

Dark Art as an Access Need

Okay, you say, blah blah. So not every piece of art is for everyone. Fine, but what does that have to do with dark content specifically? Isn’t it a bit of a cop-out to say that about your dark art, when you know there are specific demographics - such as people with PTSD - who will be disproportionately driven away? Why would you bother putting dark things in your art when you know it will have that effect?

Here is why: because for every person who cannot enjoy dark content, there is a person who cannot find meaning and value in art without it.

For every traumatized person who must avoid any mention of their trauma, there is another traumatized person who needs to read nuanced fictional accounts of traumas like theirs, as a part of their healing, so as to process and contextualize what happened.

For every sex-repulsed asexual or abuse survivor who cannot read about sex, there is a queer person who has survived attempts to beat their sexuality out of them, who needs to read stories of queer characters enjoying transgressive sex so they can remind themselves it's possible.

For every frightened, uncertain young queer who needs a clear and unambiguous message of support, there is an older queer who's had a complicated life and a complicated relationship to many queer ideas, and who won't get the joy of connecting meaningfully to a work of art unless it portrays that complexity.

For every traumatized person who needs pastel gentleness and non-violent communication, there is a person whose trauma came to them wrapped in those kinds of pastels, with a smothering toxic positivity that prevented them from expressing how they were hurt, and who paradoxically needs to see something sharp and raw before they can know that they belong and are safe here.

For every queer person full of moral shame, who needs to see positive queer role models to remind them that being queer isn't wrong, there is a queer person with a messy history who won't feel that they belong in the queer community unless they see that mess reflected in queer art.

This isn't a question of traumatized people's access needs being pitted against the mere tastes, or whims, or pleasures of more privileged queers - or even against the elitist desire of artists to “challenge” their readers.

This is a question of two sets of access needs.

Both sides of each of these dichotomies are access needs.

Both sides contain queer readers who are traumatized by anti-queer bigotry, who are hurting, who may have various other disabilities apart from the trauma itself, who have lived difficult lives and who need to connect with art that approaches them in a certain way.

What bothers me, when this discourse comes up, is that one of these sides is treated as a set of access needs and the other is not.

We assume that if someone says "I cannot read dark content," this is a real accessibility need. If someone says "I need to read/write dark content," this is somehow more suspect. We are much more likely to try to test that person's claims in very invasive ways, to try to interrogate them about what kind of trauma they have and whether they're sure this is the right thing for it, and whether they're seeing a therapist, and whether their therapist has signed off on what they're reading, and wouldn't it be better to just read and write in a journal in private - we are much less willing to believe that the need to access dark content can be real.

We are much more willing to accept one of these claims than the other, because there is some nasty little part of us deep down that still sees queer art as something suspect and potentially harmful. Something that should only exist if it doesn't upset people too much.

Which, in itself, is anti-queer.

The Grass Is Not Greener

When we talk about this, there's a tendency to be dismissive of the kinds of queer people who do need to stay away from dark things. There's a tendency to infantilize them or assume that they are wrong about their own needs somehow. I see this a lot from queer authors who have built their brand around dark content - there are a lot of people who sneer at the very thought of "pastel colored comics" or "children's cartoons" being a meaningful way to explore the queer experience, or who seem to think authors who write light, fluffy things have sold out somehow.

It's worth noting that these people are wrong. In a way, they've committed the same intellectual sin as their opposites. They're assuming that, because something is not accessible to them, then it can't be a good way of writing a queer story.

Light, fluffy queer authors don't have an easy time, either. For one thing, this kind of discourse over dark content is still very specific to certain social justice corners of the Internet. Straight people who control access to big publishers are a whole different ball game. Authors who prefer light, fluffy fiction have to deal with the presumption that their art isn't "real art," or isn't as meaningful or deep as other people's work, or that it can't "speak to the queer experience" if its characters aren't suffering deeply. And light, fluffy queer authors are still queer - they still have to deal with all the bigotry and bullshit that the heteronormative world cares to give. There is no way of making art that exempts you from this.

But if one work of art cannot meet everyone's access needs, and if everyone deserves access to art, then it follows that we need a multitude of works of queer art, of a multitude of kinds. Light, dark, and a whole glowing rainbow of all the colors in between.