One world… a few thoughts on GLBT characters in fiction

marriage - courtesy morguefile.com

Courtesy of morguefile.com


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.

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7 thoughts on “One world… a few thoughts on GLBT characters in fiction

    • The obvious is Hartinger though the books of his that I’ve read were just about being a gay teen which isn’t what I was looking for here. Jeffrey Eugenides and Middlesex but again, that’s a story about gender. I feel as if there are more but I’m not coming up with them off the top of my head.

      Wait, I take that back. John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War has a gay character that I quite like and he’s much more than his sexuality.

      TV-wise, I’d certainly give Caprica a lot of props for their treatment of homosexual characters and alternative sexuality but again, I’m not sure who’s at the helm there.

  1. The whole “I am my sexuality” is what bugs me so much! I cannot even possibly explain the level of “yes, that right there!” I had when I read that. It’s a conversation I’ve had with my roommate, who has been published in e-book format before and who I’m cowriting a book with currently. In fact, it was my biggest point about coming on as a co-author with her on a book that I knew would be submitted specifically to two lesbian and lgbtq publishers.

    Personally, I don’t read much (if any) lgbt fiction which is marketed as such specifically because I don’t care if the characters is gay, lesbian, bi or trans and I don’t want that to be all they are. I got enough of that with baby dykes when I was in college because I’ve noticed around coming out time your sexuality really seems to be everything you are, your whole focus and the cornerstone of your personality. And some people never grow out of that. Living in San Francisco, I knew gay men who only hung out in the Castro, whose entire social circle was comprised of gay men. I knew lesbians whose entire social circle was comprised of lesbians, who only hung out at specifically lesbian bars or clubs. I hate that mentality in people. I’m not one of those people and I have no real desire to associate with people who are.

    Maybe this is a case of wanting to see myself reflected in fiction. My sexuality is an afterthought much of the time. It is there, it is very much part of who I am, it informs various likes, dislikes, preferences and habits. But it is not the entirety of my identity. I am so many things above and beyond what gender I find myself attracted to. Like you, I would like to see more characters who are comfortable in their sexuality before the book starts. From what my roommate has told me those characters do exist in books that Bella Books and Bold Strokes Books publish (the two publishers our book, when finished, will ultimately be submitted to). I can’t vouch for that personally because, as I’ve said, I’ve been sort of stigmatized away from reading specifically lgbt fiction. (I think Rubyfruit Jungle was the only specifically lesbian novel I’ve ever read in its entirety).

    • I think that we’re exactly on the same wavelength. That’s not to say that I haven’t been involved with groups who support GLBT issues but I tend to prefer organizations and charities like Teaching Tolerance (Southern Poverty Law Center) that look at equality as a whole. I think there’s a real danger in being too genre-specific in terms of your audience and that goes for whether it’s gay fiction or African American fiction or… At the same time, there’s definitely something to be said for the argument that those books and those authors often don’t get published unless they specifically go to publishers who serve that niche. But I also don’t think that cycle will be stopped until people are out there submitting regardless and until gay characters are treated as part of a broader universe.

      Things are definitely getting better in terms of the publishing world. I feel that there are a lot more choices out there, especially if you go to e-publishing.

      There are some very good GLBT novels out there, I think, but I tend to go more for the ones where the plot is more central than the romance. I liked Affinity quite a lot, for instance (Sarah Waters), though that was in part because the book was so interesting in terms of twists and turns. It would’ve been just as good a book no matter what the sexuality of the main characters and perhaps to me, that’s the real test of any book. (Though I’m not a romance reader so mileage may vary for other people.)

      Excellent that you’re writing a book, btw! I’m excited to hear that–what’s it about or are you at the point where you’re not quite ready to talk about it? 🙂

      • I’m similar in terms of the test of a good book being whether or not it’s still good regardless of the sexuality (or ethnicity, for that matter) of the protagonist and other characters. I’m not much of a romance reader as a genre, but I do enjoy attraction tension in books. A lot of the time I’m not that interested in reading a relationship itself but a SO being around during the action or having that tension of unfulfilled attraction is fun for me, but usually ruined when that tension is finally resolved (example: I am dreading the new season of Bones because Booth and Bones finally hooked up and now Bones is pregnant, ugh).

        Tolerance and equality across the board – be it ethnic, socioeconomic, sexuality, disability, etc – is certainly something I embrace much more than getting on board for just lgbt presence or just minority presence. I don’t tend to focus on ethnicity of my characters much aside from cultural impact of it so I don’t tend to really register that much in stuff I read unless it’s pointed out.

        As for my book I’m writing with the roomie, I can talk about it, though e-mails a better forum for that for obvious reasons. And I have an idea for something I want to write solo but it’s in embryonic stages and I need to figure out the world more and get more of it on a page before I can consider whether or not there is a plot there worth writing, though there probably is.

  2. I’d add Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner as a title that has a main gay character and the story has almost nothing to do with him being gay. I think the story would be the same if the relationship was “straightened out”. But I can’t think of any male writers off the top of my head either.

    • Yes, that’s one of the ones I couldn’t remember! It’s a great book.

      I feel a little disturbed that Scalzi’s the only one I can think of who represents gay characters in a positive light. I can think of male writers who set negative examples (Orson Scott Card, anybody?) but I’m having a much harder time thinking of the positives here.

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