I’m delighted to introduce Avery Teoda, a wonderful writer of spec fic, teacher and academic in training. She’s put together for this blog a truly insightful and thorough piece on a topic that a lot of people approach with uncertainity. Worry no more. Avery’s here to lay down some brilliant guidance.
Please do head over to Avery’s site, which she describes as ‘A volcanic primal scream of queer feminist profanity-laced book reviews and cat gifs’. Trust me, it’s excellent! You’ll be browsing for hours!
Enough of me, over to Avery.
We’ve all seen more LGBTQIA+ representation in popular media in the past several years. Some of it is great (Good Omens) and some of it isn’t (too many to list). What distinguishes the good from the not so good from the absolute shit? How can you, as a writer, represent queer people with respect for their gender and sexual expression? I have some guidelines for you.
A little side note: I’m using the term “queer” here to denote those across the LGBTQIA+ rainbow. If you’re not familiar with queer abbreviations, or if you’ve always been too awkward to ask, here’s a brief glossary. There are many excellent, in-depth dictionaries of terms out there.
- Cisgender: a cisgender person is someone who identifies with the sex characteristics they were born with. Also written as cis.
- Cis-het: an abbreviation for cisgender and heterosexual.
- Asexual: someone who generally feels little or no sexual attraction to most people. This person may still enjoy sex, but in certain contexts. Also written as ace.
- Aromantic: someone who generally feels little or no romantic attraction. This person may still consider themselves sexual (or not). Also written as aro.
- Demisexual: someone who generally feels little or no sexual attraction to someone unless romantic feelings are present. Also written as demi.
- Non-binary: someone who doesn’t identify as solely masculine or feminine. Another name is genderqueer. Also written as NB or enby. I’ll be using NB.
- Intersectionality: a term to explain the fact that a person can have more than one important identity–for example, a queer person of color or a disabled queer person.
This guide contains advice from the perspective of myself, a queer person. Other queer people might have different perspectives.
The problem with a lot of fictional depictions of people outside of the dominant social power structure (i.e. white, straight, cisgender, male, wealthy, able, and in the west, Christian) is that they’re very often half-assed. Specific to queer people, there might be one gay guy or lesbian couple, or, if the writer is feeling extra generous, a trans person. This is often well-intended, but it’s a shallow gesture. Why? Three reasons:
- One queer character in a cast that’s overwhelmingly straight makes that queer character become the center of all that is queer. A white gay man can’t represent the concerns, thoughts, or dreams of a black lesbian, for example. Representation is super important, and one person isn’t real representation.
- These representations are often made for very mercenary reasons. A lot of queer people will watch a show or read a book if there’s a queer character, but one token queer person isn’t actually for queer people: it’s for cis-het people to feel good about the diversity of a cast. Isn’t that great? They have a gay character! This lets them off the hook: we gave you this gay character. We’ve done our duty. What else do you want? Uh, actual representation would be nice.
- Token characters of any type are often painfully shallow and stereotypical. They’re a cis-het person’s cursory interpretation of what a queer person is.
- Announcing that a certain character is queer or showing a brief queer encounter isn’t enough, especially if you draw out cis-het romantic relationships elsewhere. I’m looking at you, J.K. Rowling. Knowing that Dumbledore was gay and never seeing him being gay is not representation. Another, more recent example is Wendy from She’s in a relationship in the first couple of episodes she appears in, but then she’s single and nothing more is shown of her sexuality. In the meantime, the two other (straight) main characters’ relationship is shown in detail, including some bare-assed sex scenes.
No such thing as too many queers
I’ve always found the tokenized queer character weird for one simple reason: when we can, queer people tend to travel in flocks.
The amusing image of a rainbow bird flock aside, queer people really do tend to stick together, for obvious reasons. We get each other’s experiences, problems, and lives better than our cis-het contemporaries. I can count my close straight friends on one hand. The rest are super queer, and usually more than one type of queer. I also don’t know a single queer person who spends their time only with cis-het people being the sole representative of our rainbow flock, so it’s weird when I see only one queer person in a show or a book.
And guess what? Your entire cast can be queer.
Give queer characters a variety of roles and dispositions
This goes right along with tokenizing. Often, a tokenized queer character will take one of a very limited number of roles. Two common roles are the queer sidekick and the tragic victim.
- Queer sidekick: readers of a certain age will remember the “gay best friend” stereotype of early 2000s American TV. This gay best friend (usually male)’s entire role was to support the protagonist. If he did get plot of his own, it almost always related to his sexuality. He never got to be the hero. This is the perfect example of a token queer.
- The tragic victim: if you’ve seen Brokeback Mountain, you know what I’m talking about. This poor gay guy gets gay bashed to death. Another common scenario is a love confession followed quickly by the death of one of the partners. As a queer person, boy am I tired of being represented as a tear-jerking moment. How would you feel if you went into a movie or a book always convinced that the one person who represented an important part of your identity was going to be tortured or die for being queer? It sucks and it hurts.
This isn’t to say that you can’t make your sidekick character queer, or you can’t kill a queer character. I’ve killed and roundly abused queer characters, and I have at least one queer sidekick. My point here is this: make your queer characters more than either of these things. Make them likeable tertiary characters. Make them your protagonist’s parents. Make your protagonist queer, and have a queer sidekick, and give them a lover or friend who doesn’t die horribly.
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Remember that identities are intersectional
You’re not just one thing, are you? You can probably identify your gender, sexual, racial, religious, national, language, and cultural identities if asked. All of those things make you who you are. The same goes for any character.
Why is this important?
The intersections of identities matter. Being a queer, English-speaking, American-born white person is a very different experience from being a queer Filipino immigrant who grew up in a Catholic household. You could put those two queer people in the relatively liberal bubble of the Pacific Northwest, and they would still have different experiences. The Filipino Catholic immigrant has different vulnerabilities than the American-born white person. Filipino and Catholic social structures are at best unfriendly to queer identities. Add being an immigrant to the mix, and that person’s life is all the more complicated.
These two people would have different senses of themselves as queer people. Someone who grew up in Seattle seeing the Pride parade every year might have gotten the message that being queer is just fine. Someone who has had to hide their gender and/or sexuality to stay alive has gotten the message that being queer is dangerous, and their identity should stay hidden.
Let’s put these two people in a different scenario. For the sake of not having to type out their full labels, I’ll call the white, American-born queer person WAQ, and the Filipino immigrant FQ. Let’s assume both of these folks are 22 years old, and they were both kicked out and disowned for being queer (a common plot point for queer characters).
- WAQ speaks and writes fluent English. They have legal government ID. Things are getting really hard; they have to find housing, food, and a job. That fucking sucks and it’s hard, but they know they can walk into a shelter or social services building, show their ID, and hopefully get some support.
- FQ is in a new country. They may not speak fluent English (or any English). If they’re lucky, they might have a passport but probably no work visa, meaning they can’t legally work in the US. They could go to a shelter–if they knew about shelters–but what then? If there are any social services available, they may not even know about them. Assuming they have a visitor visa, after that visitor visa runs out, they’ll run a constant risk of deportation. Another possibility is that they’ve been brought here by a “fixer,” who promised a place to stay and a job, who then holds their passport hostage for free labor. They don’t speak English and now don’t have ID.
Both of these characters have a social problem based on their sexuality that is all too common among queer people. However, the expression of that problem and the existence of other problems depends on their additional intersections of identity and life statuses. As a writer, you can’t ignore this.
Intersectionality goes back to representation, too. I’m an asexual, non-binary person of color. I was born in the US, but other than that, I’m about as far from that stereotypical white, cis, gay best friend as you can get. He doesn’t represent me, and he doesn’t represent most queer people.
Queer people exist across all cultures and areas of the world. We always have. If you want some queer characters, don’t make them all white Americans. Keep in mind how different intersections can affect your queer character and be mindful of them, but don’t let that stop you from writing characters that are more than one thing.
It’s not about the L,G, and T
Don’t forget that queerness encompasses a pretty big set of identity populations. Write characters that are NB*, ace/demi, or intersex, or bi/pan, or aro. Those groups need representation too. They have different concerns and ways of interacting with the world than lesbians, gay men, or binary trans folks, so it’s extra important that you become informed about them.
* Most NB people I know consider themselves trans, but some don’t. Media most often portrays binary trans people: those who are assigned one gender at birth (male or female) and transition in some way to the “opposite” gender. NB folks don’t fit the transition narrative most people think about when they picture a trans person because there’s no “opposite” gender.
Show a variety of relationships
I’m not going to lie, I love queer romance. Pretty much any book I write is going to have a lot of it. That said, queer romance is almost never an exact copy of straight Harlequin or TV-style romance: sexual tension –> hesitation –> kiss –> bonking –> monogamous love forever. It’s okay to break away from that mold.
I’m not a part of the Good Omens fandom, but boy is it hot right now. I’ve seen some tension in fandom between people who feel slighted because the main characters don’t kiss or bonk in the show and some who argue that the show is nonetheless very, very gay and quite romantic. As a queer person, I absolutely do want to see more representation of queer characters being physically affectionate, and I’m an enthusiastic consumer and writer of queer sex. That said, not everything needs to be like that. There’s an unlimited variety of sexual interactions and arrangements. Don’t be afraid to break out of the mold.
- Characters can fall in love and do all sorts of romantic things without being obviously physically affectionate “on screen,” as in Good Omens. Some people prefer this, and that’s fine.
- You can write sex as explicitly or as euphemistically as you want.
- Characters can hook up and never be romantic. A lot of us are millennials and Gen Zers. We can handle non-romantic hookups.
- Characters can be polyamorous. Many of my queer friends are, and I am. Definitely almost all of my characters are. I love subverting the love triangle trope by just saying, “why not both? And a couple others too?”
- You can add in non-typical relationship models like BDSM. A lot of people in the kink community are queer. Like, a lot. If you ever read my books, you can expect to see very queer, very kinky sex.
- Queer characters can be–get this–just friends. I love all of my queer friends, but I only happen to be in a romantic relationship with one of them.
Show different ways of queer expression
Going back to the show version of Good Omens: it seems like people of my queer generation (I’m an elderly millennial) tend to see the show’s romantic elements much easier. I’m sure there are lots of breakdowns of those elements, but as I’m not a fan, I won’t try to lay them out. Suffice to say that we see certain interactions as queer, even when they’re not kisses or cuddles or sex.
Likewise, people have different ways of expressing their queerness. Some people want to make it really obvious that they’re queer, like me, and some are more subtle for a variety of reasons. Here are some real-world examples of ways people present their queerness to the world:
- Gay men of a certain generation are sometimes what I call “Barbara Streisand gay.” Their expression is flamboyant; they have certain mannerisms and tastes in pop culture. Dorian from Dragon Age: Inquisition is a bit like that. Some are a bit fussy and prissy. Some are what you might think of as the typical jock or bro types, or nerds or fashion-challenged average dudes.
- Some lesbians are butch, with short hair and masculine clothing and mannerisms, some are femme, and some are just average. Lesbians of the boomer generation and earlier often made certain style choices like shorter hair and non-femme clothing as a subtler expression.
- Some trans folks go full masculine, some full femme, some mostly andro, and some, like me, a mix depending on the day and level of safety. Safety is another element in queer expression, but I won’t get into that right now.
- Ask a queer person, especially an internet fossil like me, how many times they’ve been asked “so who’s the ‘woman’ in the relationship?’” and their eyes might roll out of their head. Granted, sometimes queer folks do tend to take on something approaching stereotypical gender roles (e.g. one partner is the “house spouse” while the other goes to work), but I think it’s less common. Partners don’t need to present as more masculine or feminine in their lives or relationships in order to “match up” with another partner.
If you write fantasy, you aren’t in any way bound by traditional gender or sexual expression. I really encourage you to break away from that structure. Fantasy and sci-fi are amazing chances to do that because we, as authors, create the worlds and cultures. They don’t have to mirror our own world. For example, in my current novel, The Taste of Fire, the fantasy race I created has a matriarchal, polyamorous social structure where most people are bi/pansexual and have multiple partners. It’s really, really queer. The one straight protagonist is seen as a tiny bit puzzling for not also sleeping with women. I made this decision because I wanted to create a society that celebrates queerness when our own society doesn’t.
That leads me to my last point:
Make queerness NBD
The best kind of queer representation is the kind that makes queerness no big deal.
“WAT?” I can hear you ask. “You mean, just ignore it?”
Not exactly. What I mean is this: normalize queerness. Make it such a seamless part of your story and your fantasy cultures that you don’t have to tokenize, and character storylines don’t involve some kind of homo-or transphobic violence. There’s enough of that already in fiction.
I’ve been listening to N.K. Jemison’s Inheritance trilogy on Audible. The three main gods are/were in a polyamorous relationship. Two of them were male, at least according to the way humans perceive things. They’re lovers, and they’ve reproduced together. That’s just part of the story world. The author doesn’t make a big deal out of the fact that they’re queer and poly.
Another example is Guild Wars 2. Three of the major characters are lesbians, and there are a few minor characters who are gay. They just are. No one comments on the novelty of their queerness. It’s just accepted as a part of their lives.
This is what I, as a queer person, think is true representation: queer characters aren’t bound by our real-world social structure, and so they get to have different concerns and conflicts. Cis-het characters are never questioned about their sexuality or gender expression. No one comments on it. They aren’t involved in storylines that make a crisis out of their sexuality or gender expression. They just are.
Give queer characters the same treatment. Give them the freedom to own their gender and sexuality and pursue other parts of their lives, but don’t forget to celebrate their lives and their relationships just as much as you would cis-het lives and relationships.
Who are your favorite queer characters in fiction? What do you like about them?
This post is cross-posted to averyteoda.wordpress.com. If you have questions about anything you’ve read here, please feel free to contact me at averyteoda at gmail dot com.
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