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SYFY WIRE Steven Universe

The Steven Universe special explores what it feels like to be queer when your family doesn't accept you

By S.E. Fleenor

“The Crystal Gems understand that I’m Steven and they support me and Connie,” Steven Universe tells his family member, Blue Diamond, who keeps calling him Pink. Blue is disgusted at Steven and Connie for fusing into Stevonie, but Steven feels no remorse. He believes in himself and in fusion, as do the Crystal Gems.

When I was first coming out, one of my family members told me to my face I was going to hell. She said it like it was nothing, like it was obvious. Like Steven, I was surrounded by a healthy queer family, and though I cannot pretend it didn’t sting, I knew that my queerness and my bisexuality are part of who I am.

In those days, I lived in Cambridge, Mass., and was in graduate school. My friends were every color of the queer rainbow. We were witchy and sexy and edgy and spiritual in ways no one talks about and relentlessly queer. We saw ourselves as the true embodiment of freedom, at once full of gravitas and frivolity. So when my own family member sought to denigrate me, my sexuality, and my community, I was hurt, but I was not shaken. I believed in me, as did my queer friends.

Steven and I have both had to learn how to live with family members who don’t accept us for who we are, without letting it damage our sense of our selves and our queer families.

Missing media item.Fusion has been a common element throughout Steven Universe, a surprisingly powerful animated children’s show, and it has served as a symbol for queerness that is open to many interpretations. It is both about queer relationships — Ruby and Sapphire are two gems in love who fuse to form Garnet — and about queer identities. Steven and Connie fuse into Stevonie, a non-binary Gem-Human hybrid who has a very distinct personality all their own. And that’s true of all fusions. They aren’t just the combination of two Gems or people; they are greater than the sum of their parts, or, as Garnet might say, they are an “experience.”

Under the Diamond Authority, an autocratic, authoritarian regime, the Gems of Homeworld have been colonizing space for millennia, but the Crystal Gems are a group of Gems on Earth who have rebelled against Diamond colonization. And, up until Season 5 of Steven Universe, Steven and all of the Crystal Gems (except Pearl) had believed that Steven’s mom was Rose Quartz, a common Gem turned rebel leader. In reality, Rose was Pink Diamond’s new form, though both gave up their physical forms when Rose chose to have a child with a human being. In some ways, Steven is his mother, but he also is not. He is Steven, uniquely and wonderfully Steven.

The whole series has been building up to the Season 5 finale, Episode 29: “Change Your Mind.” In this special hour-long episode Steven finds himself imprisoned by Blue and Yellow Diamond. When he explains to them how unhappy Pink, his mother’s first form, must have been on Homeworld, both find themselves compelled to help Steven escape the control of White Diamond, the meanest mama of them all. She doesn’t accept Steven and his fusion-loving ways, nor does she accept the Crystal Gems.

In fact, White is so certain that Steven is a façade and that Pink is his real personality that she pries Steven’s gem from his stomach, a horrifying extraction that nearly kills him. She expects Pink to emerge from the gem, but instead, Gem Steven comes out as the final form, declaring Pink “gone” and exhibiting powers unlike anyone has seen before. The two Stevens, whose perspectives are shown in a split screen, long to be reunited, slowly making their way toward one another. White tries to force Gem Steven into Pink’s form, claiming that she only wants Pink to be herself, but Human Steven and Gem Steven fuse back into Steven, laughing as he hugs himself.

This new form of fusion only deepens the queer resonance, showing Steven not as formerly-Pink transitioned to Steven, but as Steven who has always been so. Steven’s relationship to his body becomes a form of trans-ness, as he knows who he is, no matter what people remember him to have been. He goes on to change White’s mind by helping her understand that what she sees as defects, flaws, and imperfections Steven sees as new facets of life to be honored and explored — even if the flaws are hers.

“Change Your Mind” presents a hyper-emotional exploration of what it takes to survive when the people who should love and accept you for who you are don’t. As Steven demonstrates, their lack of understanding doesn’t change who you are. It only changes how you relate to them.

Being queer takes a certain kind of resilience. Some people have accepting families who celebrate their queerness. Others are kicked out of their homes when they have the bravery to be themselves despite living in a cisheteropatriarchy. For me, it was somewhere in between.

When I came out as bisexual and queer, my adoptive parents (whom I’d lived with since I was 15) told me they loved me and that I was their kid no matter what. But from then on, the topic of relationships was like a held breath. Everyone wanted to know what was going on, but no one wanted my answer to be queer. I was technically out, but I still wasn’t me.

Since then, beyond being told I was going to hell, I’ve experienced biphobia from my own family more frequently than I care to admit. I’ve had a family member not attend my wedding because our invitations had Harvey Milk stamps on them, and I’ve been misidentified as straight despite my protestations. One family member joked that one day we would laugh about when I used to be queer. And every time my adoptive parents come to stay at my home, I wonder if they would even set foot in my home were my partner a woman. I try not to stew on it, not to let it cast doubt on how I feel about my family, but it’s difficult not to know if my adoptive parents accept me for who I am or if they accept me because of who my partner is.

In time, I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t matter. There’s nothing I can do to make my whole family accept me. There’s nothing I can do to make them understand my gender identity or the importance of my bisexuality or why I’m not a “wife.” But maybe that’s okay. Do I deserve to be loved and accepted? Hell yes. And I am. By my queer family and my partner and my niblings and my friends and some members of my family.

At the end of the episode, after Steven’s Diamond family has healed those they injured and returned to Homeworld, he shares a song he wrote with the Crystal Gems. The lyrics are:

I don’t need you to respect me. I respect me.
I don’t need you to love me. I love me.
But I want you to know you could know me.
If you change your mind.

And as hurt and sad and, yes, sometimes angry as I am, I feel the same way. I respect me. I love me. But if my family wanted to know me, they could know me. All they’d have to do is change their mind.