Representation Matters: The First Time I Saw a Character Like Me

I was 16 years old when I attended my first pride parade. Later that day I took to Instagram in an unexpected, unplanned coming out post. The label I had settled on was pansexual and for as long as it as it took me to figure that out, it took even longer to explain it to folx outside the queer community.

My closest friends thought I had made up the word. They actually thought I was mocking our other friend who had recently come out. I had to use an infographic I found on Tumblr to explain the different sexualities to my mom when I came out to her. For years I’ve received questions and jokes about my sexual attraction to kitchenware.

I think part of me made that coming out post so I didn’t have to keep explaining my identity to others. I knew this backfired when the first thing my family friend said when I walked into her house was, “So what’s a pansexual?” No greeting, no waiting for me to mention coming out, just a question that felt more like an accusation for some reason.

I longed for a one-size-fits-all explanation that worked for everyone. I desperately needed someone to take the burden of explaining off of me. And then came Ola Nyman.

Many fictional characters are rumored to be pansexual, my favorite theory being Luke Patterson from Julie and the Phantoms. But Ola Nyman from Netflix’s Sex Education was the first character I saw explore her sexuality. My experience was a lot like hers. I wasn’t a lesbian, but I definitely wasn’t straight - and bisexual as a word didn’t feel quite right. Ola determined her sexuality from taking an online quiz, which is honestly such a staple in the queer community. I can’t tell you how many quizzes I took hoping some combination of letters would feel right.

Patricia Allison’s character didn’t just help broadcast pansexuality as a term people should learn, Ola redefined the pan experience. To think if I had been born just a few years later, Ola may have been my first exposure to pansexuality. I might have seen a character embodying my essence and had an easier time finding my truth. If Ola had existed in 2016 maybe the only response my friends had to me coming out would have been congratulatory.

If you search it now, dozens of characters are pansexual - even more in (head)cannon. Love, Simon has that iconic “parts not hearts” line. I wish I could tell sixteen-year-old me in just a few short years, pansexuality would be more commonplace. I wish she could have seen twenty-year-old me coming out to my residents and immediately going in to explain when they interrupted me to share they have a pan friend and that they’ve watched Sex Education.

Ola Nyman taught me how important representation in the media is. Ola Nyman allowed me to share my identity without having to explain it anymore. And, Ola Nyman let me release the breath I didn’t know I was holding.