One world… a few thoughts on GLBT characters in fiction

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One of the articles that has been traveling through my corner of the internet this week is this Genreville post about how Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith tried to find representation for a YA novel featuring a gay character. The reaction to it is, as I’d expect, furious but both the subject and how people have reacted has raised some interesting discussions in my own household.

In the interest of full disclosure, I identify as gay and live openly with my intersexed partner who presents as female. I work at a very supportive institution who’s never made me or my family feel any lesser because of my sexuality or my partner’s gender ambiguity (and yes, we’re open about that too). We (and our three children) live in Tacoma which is definitely a “live and let live” kind of city. We don’t get harassed in public, our children have never been bullied at school.

In short, I operate from a position of gay privilege. While yes, I’ve experienced difficulties in my life due to my sexuality, I’ve managed to deal with many of them. I feel that this informs this post in part and thus I wanted to say it.

As a lesbian author, the Brown-Smith situation was distressing to hear. However, it made me consider what I’ve read in GLBT YA and what I’d like to see more of in GLBT characters in fiction in general, as well as how my own desires informed the novel that I completed this year, The Universal Mirror.

GLBT characters in fiction are too often driven by their sexualities. One of my friends talks about being tired of seeing “the coming-out story” and I completely relate to that. It’s an important story, yes, but it tends to be a constant and consistent theme of GLBT fiction. It’s very rare to see a story in which there is a GLBT character who’s comfortable with their sexuality before the book even begins. I’d love to read more books with young lesbian protagonists who know they likes girls from the outset and have even had relationships. (Okay, I’d love to see more books with a young lesbian protagonist. But that’s a whole different issue and one not to be addressed in this post but rather by writing my own book.)

The other aspect that drives me a little nuts here is that so many of these characters are their sexuality and in a more prominent way than straight characters are. A lot of that feeling is personal bias–when I tell people what I like, it tends to be things like “lampworking” and “history” and “George R.R. Martin,” rather than “women.” (Okay, so “redheads” may slip in from time to time but we all have our foibles.) I’m not sure I think of my sexuality as a defining part of my personality–it just is. My toes don’t define my personality either–they’re just part of the bigger picture of me.

And so in my own novel, while I have a gay character, I don’t think that he’s defined by his sexuality despite the fact that the society he lives in isn’t particularly open to or conducive towards it. I was much more concerned about what his family life was like, why he carried a sword constantly, and what he had to do with the Council that he serves. His sexuality informed some of those decisions but it doesn’t define the character. To me, Felix was interesting because of who he was–not that he happened to be gay. Nor is his sexuality the driver of the main plot–in fact, it’s peripheral at best.

An author who did this beautifully (and is a better example than a novel that’s currently under negotiation) is Lynn Flewelling. Her book, Stalking Darkness, presents gay characters without throwing a ton of focus on their sexuality. The plot is involved and intriguing and the characters have a lot of interesting traits. For me, where that series actually started to fall down, was when the characters began a relationship and proceeded to spend the next books angsting about the whole thing. (But that is the point where it became a coming-out story which, as I noted above, I’ve lost some patience for.)

Other authors/books that deal with GLBT characters in a way that I admire include Octavia Butler, Karen Lowachee, and Maureen F. McHugh. Each one of them deserves a post of their own in regards to what they write. I wish that I had male authors on this list as I look at it–clearly, I need to reexamine my own reading choices somewhat. 🙂

To jump subjects slightly, another aspect of the Brown-Smith situation that bothered me was in how people in my associated internet circles reacted to it or rather, felt that they needed to react. I noticed that most of what I read of people’s feelings on this came in locked or filtered posts and I found that troubling.

The fact that authors felt that they themselves had to ally with Brown and Smith by sharing their feelings but not openly is disturbing. It validates that situation. Am I myself jeopardizing my own hopes of a novel contract by sharing these thoughts publicly on a site that is clearly mine?

Yet, I can’t help but wonder if it doesn’t exacerbate the problem. If publishers don’t see how many of us are writing about it–writing long blog screeds, in fact–how will they know that we want to see GLBT characters? And as I’ve said before in conversations of race and SF, maybe we all need to make more effort to put more of these characters in our own works, even just in the background, and encourage others to do the same. And by “encourage,” I mean, in part, nuture and coach for those trying to write about people that they aren’t rather than to tear them down for doing so.

Our world is not one race, one gender, or one sexuality. Let’s make it so in our fiction as well.