No, not like that. I haven’t made much of a fuss about this before because (as I’m going to talk about) I feel that doing so somewhat undermines the point—and yet over time I have become increasingly aware of how important it is to openly talk about these things and explicitly ‘come out’ as a supporter of (for want of a better term) alternative lifestyles (the ultimate goal, of course, being to make the ‘alternative’ part irrelevant). Like a certain T-Rex, I got opinions, and also like T-Rex I sometimes get confused and distracted while voicing them, so I’m relying on my old friend BOLDED TITLES to help me through this.
SO WHAT’S THIS ABOUT LGBT
LGBT stands for Lesbian Gay Bi Transexual, and it’s sometimes criticised for being a little exclusive (in the sense of excluding people). QUILTBAG does something to remedy this, standing for Queer (or Questioning), Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Trans, Bisexual, Asexual, Gay, and there’s the kind of fun but ever-so-slightly dismissive LGBTetc which attempts to include everyone. GLBT also exists as a variant and you can add on all sorts of acronymical letters and numbers to indicate various identities but really the point of it is to more accurately describe the increasingly inaccurately named ‘gay community’.
BUT OF COURSE YOU ALREADY KNEW THAT
Quibbling about definitions, although fun, isn’t the point of this thing. What I really want to talk about is the issue of LGBT characters in fiction. Let’s be frank, non-straight non-white characters are woefully lacking in all areas of western fiction—Hollywood movies are perhaps the worst offenders but just take a look at the fiction bestsellers and count up all the non-straight non-white protags. Not a lot there. Any present could be considered what I think of as ‘splendid freaks’ (a term I picked up from an interview with Alan Moore, where he used it to describe the (unexpected, baffling, wonderful) popular success of Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman”), very much the exception; far from the rule.
SO THERE’S NOT ENOUGH LGBT FICTION OUT THERE
There is FAR from enough LGBT fiction out there, ESPECIALLY genre fiction—and often what IS out there is overtly labelled and shuffled into what’s commonly referred to as the ‘gay ghetto’, a specific section put aside for anything that might offend more ‘normal’ sensibilities. There are arguments for and against this—if people WANT that sort of thing then they should be able to easily find it, and if people don’t want it they enjoy a measure of ‘protection’ if it’s segregated—
AH THAT’S A BAD WORD THOUGH
It IS a bad word. Well, not natively. But the implications are, I feel, not good. Segregation leads to marginalisation, it reinforces the notion that this is something different, that it is not part of What Is Normal but instead part of What Is Different and thus Not To Be Casually Accepted. To my mind this isn’t particularly positive.
OF COURSE THAT’S MORE OF A TRADPUB THING
It is, but in a lot of ways it’s even harder for indies—I’ve seen some tentative talk of using labels to identify books as ‘gay-friendly’ but there again, even just the word, ‘labels’—it’s such a tricky area. I don’t have a clear answer, except to suggest that with time and effort and everyone pulling together, it might end up not being a problem at all.
Here’s the thing, and I’m going to veer off a little here so, y’know, bear with me. As I said before, there’s not enough LGBT fiction out there, especially genre fiction. I want to see more diverse characters doing more diverse things. YA adventure is especially lacking in this area, I want more non-straight non-white characters.
SO WHAT ARE YOU GONNA DO ABOUT IT PUNK
For a start, writing about LGBT characters for whom being LGBT is not all they are—and whose stories are not always about the conflicts that being LGBT might bring. Don’t get me wrong, I love an ‘issues’ book, and coming-out stories can be great. The hardships of being different in a world that celebrates conformity is a theme that is close to my heart, and any book that explores this in whatever capacity is likely to be one that I enjoy—and more than enjoy, take something away from. But as great as coming-out and issues and the-hardships-of-being-LGBT stories are, they’re just not what I usually want to write—which is more along the lines of conflicted but determined characters doing everything they can to protect those they care about in the face of overwhelming adversity, often with pirates and zombies and other such menaces, and in such situations sexuality does tend to take a back seat.
THAT DAMN BACK SEAT SEXUALITY
I think including characters who are LGBT or otherwise outside the norm but not having their sexuality (or lack thereof) define their character is absolutely vital. I also think it’s important not to make a big fuss about this—this may feel self-defeating, but there’s a certain cultural tipping point beyond which ‘tolerated’ becomes ‘accepted’, and once you’re past that you can move on to the far more important goal of ‘celebrated’. Because that is what is necessary; diversity needs to be celebrated.
SO THEN WHAT
The way I approach things is like this: my straight characters don’t make a big song and dance about their sexuality, so why should my non-straight characters? Sexuality is part of who a character (or person) is, but ONLY a part. If an author is listing ‘gay’ as a defining character trait, I would submit that they’re doing it wrong. Too often (especially in movies and on TV shows) we see characters for whom being gay IS their character, camping it up and doing nobody any favours. Not that there’s anything wrong with campiness, but if the sole purpose of a gay character is to be a big joke then, no, that’s not okay.
LET’S HAVE A POSITIVE EXAMPLE
One that immediately leaps to mind is Scott Pilgrim’s Wallace Wells. He’s gay, and this is shown not through fabulous fashion sense or camp mannerisms or a love of musical theatre, but mostly through sleeping with dudes. He’s very much his own character, one of the best (and most popular) in the series, and while being gay is part of this it’s absolutely not all that he is.
WHAT ABOUT THE HATERS
Yep, they’re out there. People who’ll slag a book (or whatever) off simply for daring to include something that’s outside their personal comfort zone. I don’t personally care if someone doesn’t read a book (mine or someone else’s) because of LGBT characters. That’s their choice. Well okay fine I DO care a little bit, but I’m not going to point and say “Oi! You! Read that!”. See above about the tipping point into acceptance. You can’t force people to change, it just doesn’t work like that.
I SAY THAT IN THIS LIFE
It might seem callous to say this, but the bigoted narrow-minded never-gonna-change types are (given time) all going to get old and become less relevant and eventually, inevitably, die. And those who come after them will (hopefully, with enough positivity, with enough cultural support) be a little more accepting, a little more open, a little more understanding, a little more compassionate. A little more accepting. A little more willing to celebrate that which is different. Things are changing, and it’s my feeling that they’re changing for the better. Perhaps slowly, but that’s okay. Gradual change is often the kind that lasts.
LET US NOT FORGET
So to sum up, I think that it’s important to include LGBT characters even in non-issues books, and especially in genres that are currently dominated by non-straight non-white characters (ie all genres). I think that it’s important not to let a character’s sexuality define them, no matter what it might be. More than that, more than being ‘important’ I just think it’s fun and interesting—and in fact I don’t have much say over the sexuality of my characters, it’s just something that I realise somewhere along creating them, “Oh, she likes girls, he thinks men are delicious, she’s not really a particularly sexual person”, these come up like hair colour or a love of apples or that their favourite colour is puce. Part of who they are; not all they are.
THERE IS HOPE
I think that things are getting better, but that every little bit helps. We all need to push together to get society over that ‘tolerance’ hump and into the valley of ‘acceptance’. From there, it’s a long but clear road to the ideal of ‘celebration’.
THERE IS HOPE!
I love works with LGBT characters. Love them all to pieces. Love experiencing different viewpoints than my own, love finding those new perspectives, love learning about struggles and hardships and conflicts that might never otherwise have struck me. The world is a huge and wonderful and spectacularly varied place, and the best thing about it is that there’s room for all of us, no matter who we are. Fiction that embraces this is always, always welcome.