“We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalising rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there. Some will say that all we have are the pleasures of this moment, but we must never settle for that minimal transport; we must dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds.”
―José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity
For as long as I can remember, I dreamed of beyond. Somewhere, elsewhere, where the landscape was a question mark and I could be anyone. I could be anyone but me, a person who didn’t seem to fit in the world no matter how many times I moved houses or switched schools. My first favorite movie was The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy was swept over the rainbow. My preteen fantasies involved the Hanson brothers whisking me away in their tour bus, and the dream ended there; it was just the leaving that I wanted. And I spent years in the woods of New Hampshire with my brother and neighbors pretending to be Power Rangers, the colorful, active, chosen “teenagers with attitude” that took 1990s culture by storm.
With decades of hindsight, I can see the appeal Power Rangers had for me as a young queer, neurodivergent person. Found family connects these characters to generations of Rangers stretching across time (and universes), and that made me feel like something outside of a bloodline could hold me. The Rangers fight to save the world (or, more regularly, to just survive) without revealing their identities, and that mirrored my own ineffable desire to live in two worlds: the one where I could blend right in, and the one where I would be understood and treasured. And then there was the simple solidarity of a Ranger team and its androgynous aesthetics: their uniforms and athleticism erased the gender of the characters when they’re in action. These characters were strange and marginalized and special.
In 2017, my brother and I won tickets to an advanced screening of Saban’s Power Rangers—a reboot that updated the 1990s characters and plot for a modern-day audience. We dressed up for a perfect night of sibling nostalgia; him in a red t-shirt, me in a pink leather jacket, both of us glittering with excitement. My expectations were so high that I felt kind of shaky, and so sincerely silly for feeling that way. I was almost thirty years old. So what if it was disappointing? We’d groan, walk back out into the night, and laugh about it. It shouldn’t matter at all.
But it somehow mattered, and when the movie was tacky, campy, uneven, and ridiculous… I was so happy. It was a perfect little escape. We freaking loved it, and thanks to $5 matinees at my local theater, I went to see it five more times by myself—incredibly aggressive even for me, a person who often loves things hard.
I didn’t know why I went back to that theater to sit in the dark alone, again and again, to watch a movie about kids in dinosaur superhero outfits combatting aliens with martial arts. I didn’t stop to question why tears streamed down my cheeks during the scene where all five rangers sit around a campfire and spill their guts. In the scene, they aren’t even able to morph yet, and they have to if they’re going to save the world. They try to bond in case that’s the key to unlocking their powers, and their faces in the firelight are serious and scared. Zack (Ludi Lin) shares that he dropped out of school to take care of his mom, who’s fatally ill (and “the best!” he screams at the sky). Billy (RJ Cyler), who is autistic, shares that he loves country music and is grieving the loss of his father. Kimberly (Naomi Scott) and Jason (Dacre Montgomery) talk—or don’t talk—about how they’re recovering popular kids running away from the toxic world they were beholden to and found themselves perpetuating.
And then there’s Trini (Becky G) who says she’s queer (without saying she’s queer) and is scared to tell her family. She’s afraid of being really known by anyone. Convinced she has no real friends, she believes that once the Rangers save the world from Rita Repulsa, they’ll disband and they won’t mean anything to each other anymore. Her voice in this scene is a weighted whisper that dances around everything she could say, but also can’t. She doesn’t have the words for what she’s going through, or the words for herself. A lot of viewers, especially queer viewers, were frustrated by this moment that doesn’t confirm her queerness, not really. But then…doesn’t it? She can hardly look up from the ground as she talks. She’s sure that she’s uncertain. Different. Questioning. She can’t say more.
And I hadn’t said more either. My queerness at the time was a quiet thing. I’d recently switched my dating apps to women but hadn’t told anyone. I hadn’t even begun to question my gender, and wouldn’t until many years later—but wasn’t I still queer too, even though I didn’t have the words for it then? While out, bold, confident, joyful representation is needed and crucial to LGBTQIA+ survival, isn’t there still value, too, in the wordless subtext, in the downward glances and the uncertain? There was value in it for me, crying in a theater because I was scared of not being queer enough, of what and who I stood to lose, of being alone always, not just in the dark matinees. To some it seems the representation was crumbs. To me it felt like seeds.
That campfire confession moment is right there, and then it’s only embers. The characters share those beats of who they are—what they’re afraid and ashamed of and what they hope for—and then the movie storms on in flashy, action glory. It doesn’t hover on their trauma or identities, or let them be defined by the places they feel broken. They have to get back to morphin’. Their lives, and the lives of everyone they love, depend on it.
Action films don’t let their characters dwell too long on their personal problems or their identity crises. Their plots take these often-reluctant heroes and accelerate growth through high stakes, and catalyze the development of relationships and found family bonding. Superhero movies in particular are full of promises that feel like hope: the good guys will win, and these characters are worthy even if they can’t feel it yet. Each character is chosen and needed for their innate differences; in Power Rangers, there is no Megazord if any of the Rangers are missing. They might be an unlikely group of aching misfits but they’re bound together; they love each other, and no one gets left behind.
I couldn’t imagine it then, what would become of my life. What started as a private thought became a whisper, and over time, something loud. Undeniable. Six years later, I am married to a woman. Most of my friends are queer. I published a YA novel with two young lesbians on the cover, holding hands. I have lost much of what I had then, and gained so much more. If I had one wish now, it would be for teleportation, because my found-family is a constellation of queer people scattered across the world. I wish we could whisper things by bonfire light. I wish we could hang out with dinosaurs and aliens and flip into cool-ass costumes and fight something big together, and win. But for now we see each other when we can. We type our little love notes to each other in the glow of our phones. They tell me I’m loved, even when I voice the worst parts of me. I know I am indispensable. I am needed for who I am. I know I will never be left behind.
Returning to my younger longings, questions, and obsessions was a gift. In that dark theater, I learned to pay attention to the things I love no matter how silly, campy, or lighthearted. Maybe it mattered to me that the 2017 movie was good because I was protective of the childhood version of myself who was drawn to this world. Maybe it mattered because I still was that kid, on the edge of coming out, still dreaming of somewhere I could be myself, a question-mark-of-a-landscape where I could be anyone. Maybe I still am, only now I know I was always hopeful, creative, and worthy.
There was so much freedom in the question marks, in the wordless waiting.
Lambda Literary Fellow Jen St. Jude grew up in New Hampshire apple orchards and now lives in Chicago with her wife, daughter, and dog. Their debut YA novel, If Tomorrow Doesn’t Come, was published by Bloomsbury Children’s (US) and Penguin Random House (UK) in 2023