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The Evolution of Sexuality, Homosexuality and Gender in SFF: The chronology and detail of its literary evolution

The introductory article of this series promised that the first part of the real flesh of this series would talk about the linear evolution of the topic.

The examination of the topic will take us from antiquity, through to present-date consideration: from the first glimpses of “gay science fiction”[1] with True History by Greek writer Lucian (A.D 120—185)—cited as the earliest surviving sci-fi story[2], where in an all-male society, where men reproduce with men (via peculiar methods, such as through the thigh, or by growing the child by planting a testicle in the soil[3])—and the first lesbian vampire story, Carmilla (1872) by Sheridan Le Fanu, to the open homosexuality[4] in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey (1890), right up to the clear bisexuality of Maliverny Catlyn in Anne Lyle’s The Alchemist of Souls (2012) and the natural treatment of transexualism in Newton’s Legends of the Red Sun. (2009—2012).

This article isn’t just an examination of the sexual aspects of the topic, it’s also a consideration of the non-sexual: sexuality, homosexuality and gender are not exclusively about sex, they’re about relationships and interactions, and that’s the theme we’re going to go with.

A good starting place is to look first at the evolution of platonic and/or non-sexual relationships. If we first start with a relationship that many people know of—whether through the books or the movies alone—it will help put a fine point on the first notion I want to approach: that whilst inter-gender relationships (with help from writers who craft strong, believable characters with agency and personality, slowly trying to chip away at sexism, misogyny and anti-feminism within the SFF genre) have improved on one hand (this isn’t to say all writers have done away with sexism for sexism’s sake, but go with me) and have begun to flourish under the same open-mindedness that allows homosexuality to not be branded with a big, red “NO!”, same-gender relationships that are entirely non-sexual and platonic in nature are now as mythical as bisexuality seems to have become. Understanding the nuances of relationships seems to have fallen victim to understanding homosexuality and the idea of alternative genders. It’s all about the sex.

Except that it’s not; it’s not even always about attraction. There are relationships that veer towards what society now views as borderline homosexual, that it once viewed as perfectly normal with accepted social contexts. Let’s take Papa Tolkien’s Frodo and Sam. Their relationship supersedes what modern readers might see as “normal”, and at times encroaches on being “a bit gay”, in the eyes of modern readers who are unsympathetic or incapable of grasping the intricacies of same-gender relationships. If we take their relationship in a socially historical context—meaning when it was written, not the pseudo-Medieval England in which The Lord of the Rings appears to take place—it might be a little easier to see how our modern, socially-constructed morals might damage the intended effect.

A friendly proximity between two men used to be as accepted as two women being very, very close friends. Somewhere along the line, invisible and constructed boundaries appeared: men are afraid of being “seen as being gay” with another man with whom they just happen to share a friendly connection to a point that being perceived as gay can lead to unfavourable opinions and even professional trouble (think of the military). The irony is, if we think about the military—and then consider the new offerings of military SFF—this is the very place where these close relationships were first forged. Tolkien was a veteran and doubtless he had close friends, with whom he felt a sense of camaraderie and a true, heartfelt connection that superseded the modern idea of friendship between men. Men used to spend more time together; proximity nurtures deeper relationships. Frodo and Sam are very close, and it’s rare that we see a close relationship between two men that looks anything like this. It probably exists—almost everything does—but it’s about as big a “thing” as homosexuality was (and arguably still mostly is) a decade or so ago, where these issues are far too “ooh! Scary” to include within mainstream SFF, and are relegated and banished so far from the realm of “SFF literature” that they essentially become tantamount to fan-fictions or, worse; “special interest”.

A single modern example that underlines the point here is the relationship between Kvothe and Bast in Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind (2007) and The Wise Man’s Fear (2011): here, Kvothe and Bast share a close, platonic and entirely non-sexual relationship that demonstrates a very deep friendship. It is not a normal friendship; it is deeper, stronger than that. Bast strives to make his friend—tutor and companion—throw off the dull, obscure persona of the innkeeper—Kote—which Kvothe has taken to conceal his true identity. There is no sex. There may not even be “love” in a conventional sense, yet Bast acts kindly with Kvothe to a point of tending to him in bed (smelling his breath and watching him sleep, after Kvothe is hurt) and acting behind his back to bring Kvothe to the surface and banish Kote forever. All the while, he says: “I just want my Reshi (his own name for Kvothe) back.”

It’s a good time to jump deeper into gender, since we just considered one strand of the topic. When talking about “gender”, it’s easy to think in regards to male and female and that’s about it. It’s not so simple, as suggested in the introductory part of this series. Unfortunately, where homosexuality and different sexualities are finally not that scary, taboo thing in the corner (to a point), gender is still something that is avoided if it is unconventional. When it is considered, it is never in a modern or purely individual. It is entirely speculative and not related to persona or identity. It is a speculative, “what if?” Take Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), where sexual difference does not exist, or short story The Crime and Glory of Commander Suzdal (Cordwainer Smith, 1964), which presents—what are essentially—chemically (and later genetically) altered female-to-male transsexuals (women have succumbed to a plague that rendered “femininity carcinogenic”, as per the writer’s description). In a modern reading, Smith’s story is very awkward and tells an uncomfortable story of the altered race, seeing themselves as neither male nor female—calling themselves “klopts”—and of their hatred towards normal humans.

It is not surprising that only now we are beginning to see glimpses of alternative genders in SFF: literature reflects society, and since non-traditional genders have been one of the most concealed taboos, it’s no surprise that they do not yet feature as they should. The tip of the iceberg has been revealed, however, with a suggestion of the Fool (Hobb) as pangender, and through Newton’s Lan in The Book of Transformations. But it’s not enough: literature educates, and SFF has the ability to handle issues that skirt around on the sidelines of the socially accepted/mundane, so if any genre is fit to cease with heteronormativity and push for equal treatment of LGBT characters—not as a flag or banner to shout “hey! Look at this! This is different!”, or as a plot device to demonstrate a strange, alternate-gendered society, but as a normal character, whose gender has no bearing on the story, but simply is (Newton does this to a point in The Book of Transformations, but then passes up the opportunity of showing Lan in a normal life thereafter in the final book of the series, which is disappointing)—it is science fiction and fantasy.

Alternative sexualities receive a treatment that is progressively more positive, and despite the bold suggestion that homosexuality is now an “accepted and common feature of science fiction and fantasy literature”, its prevalence due to the influence of lesbian-feminist and gay liberation movements[5], it’s really not as simple as that and there is much further to go. Yes, it’s there, but not enough. Naively, I sometimes like to think there’s more inclusion than there is, but the truth of the matter is that there aren’t nearly enough characters that are bisexual or homosexual in comparison to how many alternative sexualities exist within real people and real societies. Homo- and bisexuality has always existed and is not a modern creation, therefore there is no excuse.

There have always been suggestions of homosexuality in classical literature, especially Greek mythology, and throughout history, the treatment of homosexuality has worsened. During the pulp era (1920s—30s) when sex was kept firmly outside literature—despite the often lurid magazine covers that depicted scantily clad women and betentacled aliens—even so much as a kiss between the men involved in “passionate friendships” in the work of writers like Edgar Pangborn was too much. Pulp SF especially paralleled the common prejudices of the society, and with any sexuality implied or disguised, alternative sexuality got as bad a treatment as it did in regular life[6]. Gay men were almost always handled as villains or as being overly effeminate and during this period, with the popular idea of the heterosexual hero overthrowing the “decadent slaveholding lordling” prevalent overall. There was almost no handling of lesbianism as either heroes or villains. When eventually lesbianism was considered, in the Golden Age (1940s—50s), it was through a caricature that presented “man-hating Amazonians” and similar, and when attempts were made at homosexual sympathy and acceptance, they were unfavourably received[7]. During this Golden Age the genre “resolutely ignored” the subject of homosexuality[8].

This non-acceptance of homosexuality continued, in spite of the New Wave era (1960s—70s) and the good work of Michael Moorcock (editor of the highly praised New Worlds), whose efforts to portray a sympathetic view of homosexuality and gender helped the topic grow as it moved (slowly) towards becoming commonplace[9]. But despite there being a catalogue of fiction thereafter that can be classed as sympathetic in its handling of homosexuality and gender—John Varley’s work, notably Eight Worlds (1974—); Robert A. Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love and Stranger in a Strange Land (1961); Elizabeth Lynn’s The Chronicles of Tomor (1979—80) and The Woman Who Loved the Moon (1981)—it wasn’t until present date SFF that the topic really began to receive a proper and equal treatment.

Post new wave offering such as Cyberpunk (circa. mid 1980s) are generally seen as heteronormative and masculine, yet within the genre exists LGBT stories that are considered feminist or “queer”[10], such as Mellissa Scott’s Trouble and Her Friends (1994) and Shadow Man (1995). The idea, by this point, still held that homosexuality was “accepted”, yet reviews of Scott’s work claimed it “too gay” for mixing cyberpunk clichés and politics[11]. In the same way that supposedly racism does not appear in SFF just because it has lessened in real society, the acceptance of non-traditional sexualities and genders is only accepted on the surface, whilst real problems lurk beneath the veneer of social niceties.

In the period between the late-eighties and nineties, something different altogether happened within the evolution of the topic: it became a niche market. Novels, shorts and anthologies specialising in “gay interest” came about, with stories of gay and lesbian vampires permeating the now sub-genre. The problem is blinding: how is the production of special, pigeonholed fiction doing anything better than the careful and considerate examinations of homosexuality and gender that the New Wave and post new wave eras had to offer?

When you consider that shortly after this period came the trend of slash fiction and “femslash” (the former usually pertaining to men/men and the later women/women), which essentially became a slightly more sexually interested vein of fanfiction, the handling of the topic still isn’t faring as well as it should by this point.

The goal is for the handling of LGBT characters to be completely and utterly unnoticeable, in that a reader would not study the handling of Sir Bob, a Knight of the Realm, and his penchant for riding horses on Tuesdays as not relevant to his eventual victory over the Dark Lord. As such, it also should not matter if Sir Bob enjoys riding horses with Sir Ralf at his side, holding hands and smooching (difficult atop horseback). If Lady Penelope enjoys late night walks by the Thames of Victorian England and likes to wait for the company of her becorseted Lady Imogen, with whom she will idle away hours swapping kisses and blueprints for some great machine, then it shouldn’t even be considered that a girl is kissing a girl if the machine will offer unlimited energy for the Victorian era. If Derek the paranormal investigator happened to be born Dorothy, but he’s over that now and happily signs “mister”, then it should be irrelevant—handled only in the same way that Newton handles Lan’s transformation in that those surrounding the character are—as reflects real life—prejudiced and offer conflict; but only if it enriches the story and is realistic and necessary.

We’re not there yet, but maybe we’re getting there. Next time, as promised, we’ll take a look at how LGBT themes are presented and how these varying presentations affect what kind of literature the work is considered as.

….

[1]Lynne Yamaguchi Fletcher The First Gay Pope and other records, p. 95, Alyson Publications:
[2]Fredericks, S.C.: “Lucian’s True History as SF”, Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1 (March 1976), pp. 49–60
[3]Dynes, Johansson, Percy & Donaldson, Pg. 752, “Science Fiction”
[4] Garber & Paleo, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” p. 148
[5]Garber & Paleo, p. x “Preface”
[6]Clute & Nicholls, p. 1088 “Sex”
[7]Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn Eds.,The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, “Science Fiction and Queer Theory”, Wendy Pearson, p. 153
[8]Joanna Russ, Introduction to Uranian Worlds: A Guide to Alternative Sexuality in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, p xxii, Ed. Eric Garber, Lyn Paleo G K Hall: 1983
[9]Dynes, Johansson, Percy & Donaldson, p. 752, “Science Fiction”
[10]Pearson, Hollinger & Gordon, p. 9,  121
[11]“Melissa Scott: Of Masks & Metaphors”. Locus Online. Locus Publications. 1999.

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9 Comments

  1. Paul Wiseall says:

    This is a brilliant article Leo, thank you!
    You’re absolutely right about still striving towards that time when things like gender and sexuallity just aren’t even mentioned. Take for example the recent gay marriage in the X-men comics. It was brilliant that Marvel ran with that arc and further broke that wall down, but the media circus surrounding it was ridiculous, tugging at some controversy that wasn’t there just to get sales/hits.

    These last few years I think we’ve seen a fantastic shift in the right direction with regards to this whole thing with, like you said, people like Mark Newton and Anne Lyle really flying that flag.
    An example which I think is important is Mieville’s Iron Council where a few characters are bisexual and the subject is touched upon so gently, so casually that it is normal, it’s life. The same goes for Iain M. Banks and The Culture where people can (over a period of time) change gender at will . Banks approaches the idea with the same normalcy and it’s all the better for it.

    I remember reading something from Ms Lyle (I hope I get this right) about when she started writing Alchemist… she hadn’t even realised her characters were LGBT, it just flowed in that direction. This is the way I hope SFF will continue to move forwards, with LGBT characters written simply because that’s who they are.

    Great article.

    • Anne Lyle says:

      You remember correctly, Paul! I didn’t set out to write gay characters, but as I began researching Elizabethan culture and particularly the theatre subculture, I began to realise it was a great setting to explore these themes. A theatrical tradition in which men play female roles in “drag” is bound to attract people of alternate sexualities and gender identities, even if they lacked the labels for themselves that we use today.

  2. Jenny says:

    Fascinating article, thank you!
    It made me realise how I haven’t tackled any gender or sexuality issues in my writing before and it really made me think. The reason I haven’t is because I write what I know but this article reminded my of one of my favourite modules at university about gender in archaeology.

    You’re spot on when you mention that often gay characters are portrayed as the villian. I immediately thought of the Devil (the ultimate villian) in God, The Devil and Bob who is incredibly camp while never defined as gay. Sadly, I wonder if this is because this means people will be able to laugh at him rather than be offended or scared in this animated sitcom.

    Other examples that immediately spring to mind are Hit & Miss, a problem about a transexual hitwoman and Sarah Waters’ novels, none of which are SFF. Or examples of the devil or demons in I, Lucifer by Glen Duncan or how about Crowley in Supernatural? But again, they’re the villians…

    SFF is definately a genre that should be able to explore gender and sexuality in its heros and protangonists without being shelved or hidden. I hope to see more in the future and in the meantime, you’ve made me rethink my own characters – maybe that’s why some of them just don’t work!

  3. Interesting read. Makes me think how would one relationship I’m planning for a novel be received. I call that relationship “straight woman who happened to fall in love with another woman” (and that other woman is bisexual). I think that “I don’t usually go that way but I know you feel special to me, gender be damned” would be something not as commonly seen in fiction, especially with women.

  4. Great article, thanks!

    If there’s one thing I would add to it, it is that SF&F writers are now doing better research. It used to be the case that most people who wrote about gender did not know any openly trans people (or in the case of Russ were, at the time, politically opposed to trans people). These days we have writers like Mark Newton and Elizabeth Bear actively seeking out trans people in the community for advice before writing trans characters.

    I should also note that we’ll probably have a reporter from Shout Out Bristol, our local LGBT radio station, at BristolCon.

  5. Good article. One interesting piece some people might not know is a story published in (I think) 1979 by George R.R. Martin called Bitterbloom. It’s a lovely story, which centres on a love/sexual relationship between two female characters without making any kind of issue of it – like a much later episode of Star Trek – DS9, the issue was about who you could have a relationship with, not what gender they happened to be.

  6. Steve Berman says:

    You should read some of Tom Cardamone’s essays on lost gay speculative works… in the latter half of the 20th century there were a number of spec fic titles released by gay men, such as Steam or Vampires Anonymous that were revolutionary but are now forgotten.

  7. Fascinating article, thank you for writing it. Your point that gay, lesbian other-gendered people have always exisated and should therefore be protrayed is an important one. I’m especially interested in the idea of the portrayal of platonic friendships, and the disappearance of same. I wonder how much it can be attributed to the fact that it’s easier to create sexual tension than any other kind. Ie. is it just from lazyness. Thanks for making me think.

  8. MO says:

    I read SFF voraciously when I was younger. We’re talking maybe a book every 3-5 days. (I read fast.) One that made a HUGE impression on me was Mercedes Lackey’s “Herald” books. Some Heralds were straight, some bi, some gay or lesbian… and it was okay. It was normal. Some of them had problems with their families because of it, some didn’t. They had incorrigible flirts, dedicated sweethearts, passionate lovers, and partners they spent decades with, just like any other character. I remember being so moved by the soul-crushing agony felt by one of a couple in the Queen’s Arrow trilogy when her partner was killed. People are people. SFF taught me that first.

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