Sunday, June 5, 2011

LGBT representation in fiction

(I had a conversation this afternoon via Twitter, in which I frustrated myself by failing clearly to express a minor point I was making, and therefore labouring it and making it sound like it was the crux of my suggestions. I'm going to see if I can do a better job without a word-restriction.)

The subject is homophobia in science fiction, and how to counteract (in a small way) this by improving the positive representation of LGBT characters in our writing. I believe there are several approaches we can take, and that a combination of these would be the best way to achieve what we're aiming for. I certainly don't think that any of these are better than others, or that everybody should try to use them all, nor that everybody should try to do something like this in all of their fiction. But they're ideas to try, and they might help.
  1. Write science fiction about explicitly LGBT themes: write queer and trans protagonists, not just as positive characters, but as an intrinsic part of the futuristic universe you're creating. Write stories about homophobia as well, and about other issues that LGBT people face; challenge your readers. Make a difference by reminding everyone that the world is ugly that we would wish.
  2. Write stories in which queer and trans protagonists are treated just like anybody else, where they don't even have to be pointed out because in the Utopian world you're creating no one thinks about them any differently; just like people with black hair. Show what we would like the world to be, what we think is possible with more tolerance and acceptance.
  3. If you don't want to do either of the above in a particular story, because it's a story about something else, not about LGBT issues, then just people your story with a representative sample of sexes, races, sexualities and abilities (just as real life is so populated). This can include:
    1. Protagonists/Viewpoint characters: if you start writing your story with the knowledge that your protag is queer (or whatever), even if you don't make a big deal out of it, it should, if you're a good writer, change the way that character works in some small ways. It may make her/him more careful in certain company, more comfortable around the opposite sex, have subtly different reactions to various stimuli or conversations (all of these non-sexual). Just having a positive queer viewpoint character is useful helps to redress the balance.
    2. Minor characters/walk-ons: the same is true as with protags, a minor character may come across slightly differently if you've chosen to write them as gay. But even if they don't, if they're too minor and walk-on for that, just having a few queer characters in the background makes your world more representative and realistic (and LGBT-positive).
  4. Write about a universe or an alien planet with radically different sex/ gender/ partnership/ reproductive alignments than the cis-heteronormative world we normally see. This is what Ursula Le Guin does in her best writing, and why science fiction is great for questioning the norms most people take for granted.
(For the record, what I expressed poorly in the chat, and by trying to explain myself ended up looking like I was suggesting we should do all the time, was 3.ii. Thanks, DD, for taking me to task on that.)


  1. Yes, yes, and yes! :) I think we are totally in agreement. I think I got hung up on my use of the word 'gratuitous' which seems inaccurate now for what you were talking about. Absolutely you can have minor characters be queer, it doesn't have to dominate the story. Am I understanding better now?


  2. Thanks for the note. Yes, I think we are in agreement, as I said earlier. Your comment about being gratuitous was perfectly in order given the poor example I came up with in a 140-char tweet of someone turning up in the car to give the protag a lift with his boyfriend. If it doesn't add to the story it just feels thrown on, as you said.

    I'm now interested to hear more about the story idea you had coming out of this. I hope you let us know when you write it...

  3. See--that's way too much to say in 140 characters! (-:

    Despite which, I enjoy Twitter.

  4. You could probably say the essentials of that in about 10 tweets. I tend to the long-winded when I have infinite space...

  5. Third try to post this, as Blogger does not seem to like me today. =^( Per your request on Twitter, I'm bringing up my suggestions here.

    If you really want to support diversity, you could start by buying and reading GL and B and T authors. Also, promoting us with your readers is a great way to support the GL and B and T causes.

    IF you're deciding to write about us to speak for our cause, to really get the perspective right, you should also talk to someone in the group you want to portray. Please don't assume that talking to a gay man will give you insight into a transsexual woman's mind. (Or a lesbian woman's, for that matter.) Recognize that we are all distinct groups with differing needs. Treat us as individuals. I shouldn't have to say it, but looking over some straight peoples' queer characters, way too many straight writers turn queer people into walking stereotypes for their straight readers to gawk and snicker at.

    In your beta reading group, find a reader who is in the same group as your character, and listen to them if they have complaints. Try to remember that you are a person of privilege asking an oppressed minority to speak up to you about things you might have taken for granted before. Which gives you a chance to correct your mistake and prevent sending out misinformation that could further harm the group.

    It may be unintentional harm, but appropriation, erasure, and misinformation can all be just as harmful when wielded by allies with good intentions as when they are use by our enemies. So please, talk to folks like me, have us beta read, and try to change your work if we're finding it offensive. Even if your straight beta readers don't think it's a big deal.

    Hope this does not come off as too preachy, but I'm kinda frustrated after reading this today: So as you can see, this is not just a problem for the GL and B and T factions. This is appropriation of race as an issue and an erasure of the real victims to instead let a white writer reflect on what a white character thinks about blacks. This is not helpful to the minority, and it is appropriation. Even though the writer has good intentions. There's an old saying about those, and we need to bring that saying back.

    So please, don't just try to imagine what it's like for a minority to be oppressed. Talk to them, and be prepared to be confronted with some hard truths.