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The Evolution of Sexuality, Homosexuality and Gender in SFF – Part Three

Arguably one of the main issues hounding the progress and subsequent filtration of LGBT themes into “mainstream” SFF is something that mirrors the treatment of “alternative” sexualities and genders in real life: acceptance. Sure, people rally for marriage equality (well, the cool people do) and acknowledge the lifestyle choices of LGBT people, but… That’s not really the same as viewing people who are born different in their preferences or who identify with a gender that conflicts with their biology, is it? Acceptance should not come into the equation at all, as though people who are of a LGBT persuasion are asking. They are not.

BookstoreThis same sort of issue is reflected within SFF through the sorts of literature in which these themes and topics are most commonly found.

I want to talk about the presentation of LGBT themes and how the various sub genres handle them. I want to address the problem with only ever really seeing LGBT characters in Paranormal Romance and in “gay interest” literature. There is the underlying implication that straight readers with classic gender identifications are not interested in the same things as LGBT people.

What are straight people interested in that gay people aren’t? What makes someone who was born a female but identities as male want to read about different things, different stories, to someone who was lucky enough to be born nicely settled in their gender?

So we’re doing away with the idea of “gay interest” right now. Actually I’m going to hazard a guess that someone who wants to read about sword and sorcery or werewolves and vampires could not give less of a fig if the characters are gay, straight or pink with blue spots. What they want—like any reader—is a story.

Yes, some stories are built around character and perhaps their gender or sexuality has a greater bearing on how the story will unfold. But character is just that: the person you’re reading about. All a segregation of literature does is allow for those not open-minded enough to care if Bill used to be Betsy to avoid what ultimately elicits a reaction that makes them uncomfortable. Their problem.

Unfortunately, books are money and if people don’t read them, for whatever closet-bigot reason, then it’s bad news for the writer and the publisher. That’s why you won’t see many authors whose books include well-rounded, normal LGBT characters advertising that their story is a little more true-to-life, socially speaking. No, really: how many of your friends or acquaintances are gay or bisexual? How many are transgender or used to be the opposite gender?

Alchemist of Souls (cover art)It’s not the fault of publishers for not being more open about it and in a sense, why should they? Unless it’s relevant to the overall story that Anne Lyle’s Maliverny Catlyn is bisexual, it really has no bearing on the blurb.

We addressed a related problem in the previous article of this series, talking about how throughout its evolution the handling of LGBT themes has never been treated normally: the goal has always been to show they exist and to exhibit their normality (when handled favourably) and to work away at existing prejudices. That’s commendable, but aren’t we past that? Or are we just pretending?

I don’t seek out LGBT SFF; I simply read stories. The fact that I am equally comfortable with reading about a man who loves a man and a woman who loves a woman as I am a heterosexual relationship—or even a transgendered romance—has no bearing whatsoever on the kind of story I want to read.

This is where the slow trickle of LGBT characters becoming more of a feature in Paranormal Romance becomes problematic. I don’t want to read romance any more than I want to curl up with an anthology of lesbian or gay vampire stories. I want to read about those as much as I want to go and buy the latest literary fiction bestseller. I don’t.

Paranormal Romance should not be the prevailing genre in which a whole percentage of normal, regular people are represented. I like romance as much as the next guy (probably more, as I’m a softie) and whilst I like reading about saving the world and getting the girl (or guy) I like the saving part best. And the swords and magic and general fantasyness.

A lot needs to change and the stories handled by the big and respected publishers (let’s face it: the big boys set the standard that everyone looks to and talks about) need to include LGBT characters and themes before people get well and truly bored with the run-of-the-mill personalities presented. It happened (and still is happening—slowly) with the representation of race and ethnicity when people got sick of white, white, white—and it needs to happen with straight, straight, straight. In most SFF, the romance is the side-story and takes up little time, so if it’s so irrelevant overall to the story, why is everyone still straight and why are their friends still straight, too? My friends certainly aren’t! Are yours?

On the Wrong Sides by LAS-TBut it’s not all doom and gloom and there are writers, many of whom have been previously mentioned throughout this series, that understand how to write a balanced representation of a fantasy community. That’s what writers do when they create a world and populate it. Even if we strip the argument down to plain statistics, the numbers don’t add up—too many heterosexuals!

It doesn’t take much: a sly glance from a gay serving girl towards the female lead, which she may then ignore or act upon, should she so wish; the groping of our hero’s derriere when he’s crossing a crowded room. You know, real life stuff. All it takes is a little thought and it can have as little or as much bearing as the writer so chooses. Easy.

Luckily, there are those who already know what’s what: those who slip in details like an unmarried noble being so because he’s gay (Stephen Deas’ Meteroa in A Memory of Flames) or an assassin’s contact dallying with a younger man (Jon Sprunk’s Shadow’s Son), even a passing remark that the reader may read into should they wish, a la a conversation between the male and female lead in Gwenda Bond’s Blackwood about liking “brooding vampire twins” when addressing a Vampire Diaries boxed set. Sure, Phillips probably doesn’t say he crushes on the TV actors, but the implication can hold water.

All this and no “gay interest” in sight. No dark and brooding covers with leather-clad women and men with their shirts off.

Let’s run with the last example and talk about YA fantasy. We’ll start small and talk about the subtlety of Cinda Williams Chima and the lesbian relationship between two of Raisa’s guards. It’s gentle and only relevant because it’s who and what they are. Nothing more.

Of course sometimes it can and should be something bigger (like with Lyle’s work where it concerns character and relationships, or with Newton’s display of a minority with his transwoman), though the less a writer does with the character, the closer they become to the Token Black Guy who always dies—a pretty concept but ultimately considered irrelevant by the writer. It’s all about balance and how much the writer wants the LGBT element to be part of the story and not just the backdrop. Either is fine.

Pantomime (cover)But then something special like Laura Lam’s upcoming Pantomime comes along and there’s hope yet. My review of Pantomime does not exhibit any spoilers but offers a good commentary on just why, regarding LGBT themes, it is so important. It is a YA novel that sees the writer explore all that is LGBT, whilst still veering from the tackiness of homosexual anthologies packed full of vampires (binders full of vampires?!) and the more seductive, personal relationships explored in Paranormal Romance. It is a fantasy story that remains so, even though girls like girls and guys like guys and gender is not always black and white, physically or mentally.

If you go online and check out fanfiction you’ll find that a great many of the stories available involve some kind of sexual or romantic element—and they’re not always bad. Some fanfiction is actually very good and is written by talented writers. You’ll find a lot of slash fiction, both male/male and female/female in nature, exploring different potential relationships and romantic encounters between characters that readers are fond of. People do this because they feel dissatisfied with what they’re offered.

Yes, they also do it for fun, too, but they do it to express a view they feel is perhaps lacking in the setting or world. As well they would when reading a novel and seeking themselves and their friends and experiences within its pages. It’s difficult to constantly read about heteronormative people and their heteronormative lives and equally as frustrating when anything that casually depicts an alternative is dubbed as pointless, along the lines of calling a story whose characters are not heterosexual “an excuse for a bunch of gay men to hang out”. Now that’s just plain silly when some fantasy can be billed “an excuse to rape and demean pretty girls”. Next time we’ll take a look at the evolution of gender in regards to how men and women are depicted in fantasy, in a romantic and non-romantic sense, since this topic is just another branch of how gender and sexuality are depicted (this will make up part of the concluding part of this series)—and as we said before, it’s not always about the adult content. Gender, whether alternative or traditional is still a constantly evolving concept that doesn’t have to involve LGBT issues.

SFF goes some way within itself to offer new perspectives, but it doesn’t quite commit just yet and readers, especially younger readers, will quickly grow bored of what is on offer. This is only one layer of why eager young writers try their hand at fanfiction that turns gender and sexuality on its head.

Harry Potter Great HallTake Harry Potter. Oh, yes—well done displaying the differences in ethnicity that children and subsequently teenagers in the United Kingdom can expect to interact with whilst we’re at school—but where’s the developing homosexuality? Consider the age of the characters by the very end of the series: someone at Hogwarts is gay. (We’re not considering the completely irrelevant notion that Rowling saw Dumbledore as being homosexual—she revealed this outside the books and it does not count. It’s like a note on his character sheet.)

But we are stepping in the right direction and as the previous articles in this series have demonstrated, considering its evolution and how it began, the treatment of LGBT themes by the genre as a whole has come in leaps and bounds. It just needs to go that extra mile and stop trying so hard to shoehorn or exhibition a perceived minority—it just needs to be natural and think sensibly. It needs to take a look around at the community in which it exists and see how real life evolutions of sexuality and gender have evolved.

In the concluding part to this series we’ll look at everything not already covered and try and paint a picture as to where the genre might take the idea of LGBT and how it might evolve even further.

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4 Comments

  1. AE Marling says:

    Part of the brilliance and benefit of reading is that it allows you to see the world through the eyes of an alternate perspective. It’s been my long suspicion that constant readers are more sympathetic people because they’ve developed skills to place themselves intellectually into another’s shoes. Stories that switch perspectives between characters can further illuminate who different people can have a chasm of a different interpretation of events, how breakdowns in communications can occur, how a simple statement can wash over one person but insult another unilaterally to the core. In sum, I love how reading can be a consciousness-increasing experience, and for that reason I too think SFF deserves to have more variety in its characters.

    I particularly like your suggestion that more chance-encounter characters be LGBT, the barmaid who winks at the heroine. I hope to add elements of this in my own writing. If the protagonist is straight, this places her in an interesting place emotionally. In Dragon Age III, bi characters of the same gender would hit on the protagonist, which made some gamers uncomfortable (at least as the forum trolls would have us believe), but it’s just this sort of awkward, socially ambiguous experience that adds interest and emotional depth to characters. And if the heroine was bi or a lesbian herself, well, if she ends up saving the village from the dragon who could begrudge her a little dalliance on the side? And as more people read about more varied relationships, the more normalized they will become. And as far as viewing others with respect and consideration, “normal but different” is a good place to start.

  2. John says:

    I recently started reading the Alchemist of Souls and very quickly put it down again. While I don’t care if two men love each other, I have no interest in reading about it either. Any time a book or TV show tries to push an agenda, some times in spite of the story, I get turned off. I realize with some authors there is no agenda and that’s fine, I personally prefer a classic love story (if at all) that I could more easily relate to. Does that make me a bigot?

  3. E.E. Ottoman says:

    I’ve been pondering this whole, should we be working toward a representation of LGBTQ characters where they’re sexuality is alluded to so as not to make a big deal out of it, issue. It was brought up here and in the article before this one. I think it really comes down to the author and how they write sexuality in general. Some author’s the sexuality of there characters across the board plays very little role. In some author’s work though people are getting hot and heavy every other page. If you’re the kind of author for whom sex and sexuality is more incidental than anything else then yes, it would be strange and Othering it be overt about the LGBTQ characters’ sexualities. On the other hand if you’re straight characters can’t keep their hands off each other and you have a healthy romantic subplot going on about them then it’s going to seem just as weird if your gay character only get’s one smoldering look that one time in the stables and is pretty much asexual for the rest of the book.

    I’m not saying there aren’t perfectly find situations were that might happen, people are different and see there sexualities different so I think it would be perfectly fine if you’re lesbian character is saving herself for marriage but her straight travel companion likes to relax after a quest by taking home whoever is hot and willing in the tavern that night. I just think you need to be very explicit and careful about it.

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