Welcome to Night Vale is a bimonthly podcast set in a fictional American desert town. The podcast is in the form of a radio show hosted by Cecil Palmer who spends every episode providing the week’s news. Sounds ordinary enough, but it’s not.
Night Vale is a town where hooded figures walk the streets, Valentine’s Day is feared, and dogs are not allowed in the dog park. If I had to categorize the podcast, I’d say it wobbles in between surrealism, mystery and a conspiracy theorist’s wildest dreams. However, it’s not just the conspiracies that make it special, but its wide variety of characters that are meant for more than just fulfilling a diversity quota.
From the get go Welcome to Night Vale has proved to be a queer friendly podcast. One of the central plot lines is the relationship between Cecil, the radio host, and Carlos, a new stranger in town. In the first episode itself we hear Cecil say, ‘He grinned, and everything was perfect, and I fell in love instantly’. Their relationship progresses in a healthy way, despite their uncanny surroundings. It has everything from stargazing on first dates to nicknames like Bunny and Pooh. Of course they have disagreements too but they work through them.
Another example is Michelle Nguyen, the owner of a record store. She becomes friends with Maureen, one of Cecil’s interns. They grow close and ultimately start dating. It’s interesting to see someone as sarcastic and antisocial as Michelle, fall for an equally sassy Maureen. Both of them are regular characters.
On other occasions, characters just pop in for a single episode. For instance, Basimah Bashara, a young girl who talks about her father leaving for the Blood Space War. During the episode, she mentions that she has a girlfriend and wears a hijab. However, the focus of the episode is on her relationship with her father. What’s important about this is that Night Vale doesn’t use queerness or being a person of colour, as something to move a story forward. It’s a part of her, but it doesn’t define her.
Sheriff Sam, is not the only non binary character in the podcast, but definitely the most prominent one. They are a recurring character who plays a major role in the story. When they were introduced, there was no special attention given to the fact that they used third person pronouns. It was a seamless part of the narrative. You wouldn’t make a big deal out of a cisgendered male using he/him pronouns, so why should Sheriff Sam?
The podcast often makes statements in the most unexpected ways. For instance, there is Megan Wallaby. Megan was born as an adult man’s hand. She is described as being covered in thick, dark hairs. Despite this, her parents love her unconditionally. Her mother says, ‘We do not know where she came from or why she is only a grown man’s hand, but we know that we love her’. When she is bullied in school for not having a body, they fiercely defend her.
Then one day, an enormous, bald Russian man with only one hand turns up in Night Vale. He offers his body to Megan, as a donor. The surgery is successful and Megan is now happy in the body she always wanted. Throughout her story, not once is her gender questioned. Not once does Cecil call her anything other than ‘a little girl’. Because that’s who she is.
Why is this important? Because Megan is a complex and multi-faceted individual. She faces a certain type of disability, gets bullied for not fitting the norm, and later transforms her body to fit her identity. Her story can be interpreted in so many ways, by so many people, and that’s kind of the point.
Amongst all the weirdness of Night Vale, gay relationships, lesbian relationships, queer people of colour, and a non-binary Sheriff are some of the most normal things in town. And for all the LGBTQ people listening to the show, this is a refreshing change. These characters aren’t written for being politically correct. They are natural and important segments of the show. For once, being queer isn’t the only interesting thing about the character. For once, the story isn’t just about the struggle.