LGBTQ people have always expressed themselves through alternative forms of media. In the beginning (and to a certain extent, still) that was the only way we could circulate our stories — through punk zines, underground literary magazines and through comics distributed by hand to trusted members of the community. Even today, LGBTQ literature is often published only by LGBTQ companies, and remains relegated to single shelves in bookstores. If bookstores carry it at all.
That's why the internet is one of the greatest resources a queer content creator could ask for. Now, with a free platform to share our stories, LGBTQ people all over the world have access to a seemingly endless stream of content made by and for people like them.
Back in the early aughts, when I was a young, confused lesbian, I had upwards of 30 webcomics (comics published online, usually page-by-page) bookmarked on my computer — all queer in some respect. Since I didn't know any other gay people, nor did I even know for sure that I was gay, this exploration was a vital part of figuring out my identity.
One local artist, Emma Oosterhous, grew up in a similar era, in a similar form of isolation. She says of her high school experience, "I knew that there was something different about me, but I didn't know what to call it. And I didn't know anyone else who was like that."
Unfortunately, it's a feeling we are all familiar with. So in May 2015 when Oosterhous began an internship with Inside/Out Youth Services, our local LGBTQ youth center, she set out to create Alphabet Soup, a webcomic that collects and tells the stories of queer youth.
Oosterhous, who has always loved illustration, wanted to visually represent the stories of the youth who attended Inside/Out's programs. At first, it was tough to get submissions, so, she drew from her own experiences and the experiences of friends to create Alphabet Soup's first pages. But once she moved her comic to Tumblr (a free online blogging platform), the stories came pouring in.
"I get submissions from people all over the world," she says, "and it's amazing to see that a large chunk of my readers — their first language isn't English, they're in vastly different cultures, societies and situations. And it's amazing to bear witness to all these different stories."
She mentions one particular submission she received: A young person from Korea wrote in and identified as nonbinary (neither male nor female), asexual (without sexual attraction), panromantic (capable of feeling romantic, nonsexual attraction to all genders) and Korean, and that person didn't think there was anyone else in the world like that. After posting that comic, Oosterhous says at least 20 people came forward and said they felt the same.
"It's really cool to see people finding each other, and knowing that I can bring them together in some small way," she says.
Though "small" may not be the best word for it. Currently, Alphabet Soup's Tumblr page has almost 9,000 followers, and Oosterhous has, she estimates, 50 or 60 stories waiting in line to be illustrated and posted. (For perspective — if you're unfamiliar with Tumblr — in the seven years I've been on that site, I've cultivated a follower base of 323. Oosterhous' numbers are nothing to shake a stick at.)
Since she is also a full-time student at CU-Boulder, the response can be a little overwhelming. But the sheer number of submissions and people who interact with her work suggest there is a need out there for young queer people to be heard and to hear from others like them.
"Its an incredible honor that people are entrusting me with their stories," Oosterhous says. "It's an honor to hear the things they have to say. It's an honor to give them more of a voice."
Oosterhous dedicates anywhere between three and eight hours a week to Alphabet Soup and currently publishes a page about once every two weeks. Since this is her final semester of college, she hopes that she'll be able to return to her once-a-week update schedule after she graduates.
She knows how important Alphabet Soup has already been to thousands of young queer people, and she's determined to keep it going.
"What I'm trying to do is write the comic that I think I needed when I was in high school," she says.
And, with any luck, the people who need to see it will continue to find her.
Check out Oosterhous' work at alphabetsoupcomic.tumblr.com.