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SFF and Queerness – We Need To Do Better
 

SFF and Queerness – We Need To Do Better

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Harry Potter Should Have Kissed Some Boys: An Argument For Queer Characters In Main Stream Fantasy

Harry PotterHarry Potter should have kissed some boys. Or Hermione should have kissed some girls. Even just some passing lip-action between any of the main cast would have been sufficient. Even just an obvious and mentioned crush would have been better than the great hunk of nothing we were dealt. Not fantastic for representation of a whole year group of teens at school.

Yet, alas, inclusion wasn’t exactly a top priority at the time (and although we should be way past the need for straight people to think deeper and to actually include LGBT+ characters organically, as if we’re a natural part of the world, or something…, yet again, I say: alas) and so the most we got was Dumbledore’s post-story outing in a way that literally had no impact whatsoever. It wasn’t even as if we could look back and see tiny wee hints that Rowling had indeed visualised Dumbledore this way. There was nothing.

Rowling announcing that Dumbledore was gay made no difference and felt far more like an afterthought than anything else. And, if we’re being generous and go with the idea that Dumbledore was indeed visualised as gay by Rowling the whole time, then surely a passing anecdote about a boyfriend in his youth or the suggestion that Harry being into boys wouldn’t have been outlandish to Dumbledore would have been easy to slip in. (Let’s face it: that conversation about Harry and Hermione? Come on. There was no chemistry or hint of a relationship between them at all, and any talk of relationships between Dumbledore and Harry would have been the ideal opportunity to slip in something personal about Dumbledore’s own sexuality.)

Ron and HermioneI’ve previously seen the suggestion that Ron should have been gay. I’m not so sure. I feel like making Ron gay would have taken away his relationship with Hermione, and completely removed his “I’m the one who got the main girl here” plot. In addition, I didn’t want Ron as the Gay Sidekick. It felt good that Hermione and Ron got it together. She was the smart girl and he was just the sidekick. Yet, Hermione saw Ron. They saw each other. Furthermore, it broke down the trope of the main character getting the girl as a “reward”. However, Harry on the other hand, ends up in what I always felt was a slightly clumsy relationship with Ginny. Now if Harry had been at least bisexual, we could have been given a very different hero to grow up with.

Even if Harry had been gay, the story wouldn’t have changed, because not much of it hinged on his relationships with either Cho or Ginny. They could easily have happened as passing curious phases, or even not at all. The Potter books are not especially full of romance, and so any changes to sexuality would have had very little impact on the result—which is precisely the point I’m going to make as I go through several books that could have easily been presented with LGBT characters as part of the main cast.

It’s great that we’ve seen an increase in queer inclusion (personally, I’m not a fan of the term, but short of writing an incomplete string of letters, it does express the sentiment succinctly in most cases, so I’ll use it here), but let’s face it: not many of these are really centre stage.

Alesha, Who Smiles at Death by Anastasia Ovchinnikova

And before you present a list of queer SFF—please don’t. Because that’s the point. Readers seeking queer representation should not have to seek out specific titles presented almost as a genre in and of themselves, as if sexuality and gender identity are some kind of niche market. Neither should be considered a niche market. Rather, they should be considered a natural part of any realistic representation of any world, ever. If you want to read about robots, then sure, robot science fiction can be a thing. A messed up world where everything is horrible? Dystopian has your back. Queer fantasy? No thank you, because being queer is neither a theme, a genre of lifestyle, or a trope. Which is why we should be way past marginalising queer characters into the niche of “queer fiction”. The fiction isn’t queer; just the characters. It doesn’t make sense. Furthermore, queer fiction comes with the implication, in my experience of research, at least, that queer fiction is borderline erotica. Not all queer fiction is, or should be, essentially 18 rated.

The Crown's Game (cover)There would have to be a very good in-world reason for queer characters to not show up explicitly. For example, there are no references to queer characters in The Crown’s Game, by Evelyn Skye (there are, however, elements of racial inclusion, with characters from the Kazakh Steppe; these characters are noted casually (as it ought to be) in passing as being different in appearance, with their eyes and hair being different to those of the paler, more classically European Russians of the Empire, this isn’t just a white and/or heteronormative book with zero representation), but in the setting of Orthodox Russia with also a very small cast of characters, we would never have discovered the romantic and sexual inclinations of most background characters either way. That’s one understandable situation in which queer diversity isn’t a glaring oversight when lacking.

Otherwise: we are here; we’re everywhere, and that’s because we’re real.

So why is the queer relationship usually a passing mention on the page? How come there will be mention of such and such a character being queer, but they never make up the numbers of the main cast? I’m generalising: there are queer protagonists and main characters, but they are not the staple of our fantasy and science fiction that they should be.

Why?

Well, for starters, we as a society are so very attached to our heterosexual romances. Young adult fantasy is full of fantastic romances between hetero-cis characters, only to then make a proud point of introducing a gay couple in the background as if it’s perfectly normal. Which is it. So why then are our heroes and heroes’ friends never the queer ones in question?

Of Fire and Stars (cover)In fact, in almost every book I’ve loved in the past few years, there’s been some favourable reference to a queer relationship or character, one way or another. But so very rarely are these characters centre stage. Always the pretty and supposedly symmetrical hetero-cis romance is cast into the spotlight. This is changing, of course, especially within YA SFF, where upcoming books such as Tara Sim’s Timekeeper (November 2016) and Audrey Coulthurst’s Of Fire and Stars feature M/M and F/F romances respectively. Furthermore, Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart A Doorway is a gorgeous offering which presents us with not only an asexual main character, but also a transgender one.

Not only that, but even Mark Charan Newton’s Legends of the Red Sun saw Brynd Lathraea take centre stage as a gay male lead. None of these books spontaneously combusted at the centre-stage inclusion of a queer lead, which proves it is just as possible to write queer characters as not. It’s just that people don’t do it as often as they should—and considering how many queer people live and exist within every single one of our own personal networks, it’s inexcusable and completely unrealistic that we’re still so invisible, or simply there as set-dressing.

The Escort by GorremIt’s meant well when queer couples are presented in the lesser orbits of our protagonists, as teachers or trainers, or the kindly couple in the kitchens—but it isn’t enough. It’s still just set-dressing. Many authors would benefit from going back through their work and seeing how heteronormative their work is. If there’s no queer inclusion: change it. This kind of method is more and more expected of authors, screenwriters and game developers in regards to making sure women are present alongside men, and that the default character, however minor, isn’t just White Male A. This needs to be done with queer inclusion as well.

To show how easy it would be, I’m going to suggest characters that could have been queer. And trust me: it’s really easy.

Naturally, I’m pulling from books I know and love, so that I’m not just pointing randomly at characters and saying “you could be gay” or “hey, you, go kiss another girl!”.

Celaena Sardothien from Sarah J Maas’ Throne of Glass series (or, She of The Many Names for those who read the series) should be clearly and explicitly bisexual. It’s actually a fairly popular assertion if you do a little Googling in the fandom, and that’s because it makes a lot of sense. If anyone is bisexual, it’s Celaena. Has she come across anyone yet who she might have been drawn to? Possibly. Probably not. Though she has two close female friends, these friendships lack the chemistry that would take them towards a romantic entanglement, or even simply a passionate tryst. That said, I can get behind a night of chocolate and wine between Celaena and Lysandra. Just one night. It would work. They’d laugh about it after.

Throne of Glass (cover)Still, there is no written law that a bisexual character must, at any point, demonstrate their attraction to both genders. As far as I’ve seen, Sarah J Maas hasn’t said that Celaena is bisexual, so I’m going with the fact that she’s not. Though I really wish she was. Similarly, Manon Blackbeak (also Throne of Glass) should have been pansexual. It would fit seamlessly into her character and because she is already different in her bloodline by being a witch, I feel it would have been an interesting observation to slow her to form attachments to (at least the idea of) fae, human or even just other witches of the same sex and/or gender.

Give me a bisexual Chaol (Throne of Glass) who maybe was once attracted to Dorian, but that was a passing crush and their friendship now is solid and true. No lingering sexual frustration. Perhaps he’s had flirtations with other members of the Guard, but has been reluctant to overstep his authority as Captain. Don’t give me a bisexual Dorian over Chaol—instead let the quieter, bookish prince be the straight guy and his soldier friend be the one interested in other men as well as women. Subvert, subvert, subvert!

In Sara Raasch’s Snow Like Ashes books, I’d have liked a bisexual Mather or Theron. It wouldn’t have taken much—just a remark in passing from Mather at finding one of the other Children of the Thaw attractive, if nothing more. Plenty of opportunity to even suggest some bi-curious feelings during the sparring and training. As for Theron, with his history it would have been very easy to slip in slight mention of a previous male crush, kept secret due to his station. Especially since, given the lack of sexual diversity in the first two books of the series, we have no idea how homosexuality is viewed in this world, and he is a prince with some heavy expectations placed on his shoulders. Sadly, the default is to go with one that mirrors our own when we’re not shown or told. I’m hesitant to say that Simon should have been gay, given that he is a lascivious character, but I think his being bisexual and not gay would have removed the chance of a raised eyebrow at the depiction of a selfish flirt used to getting his way. Boys and girls could have been Simon’s thing and that would have slipped into the story with just a single sentence. It would have worked. In a sense, it was ludicrous that he wasn’t bisexual. That read wrong to me.

The Name of the Wind (cover)Bast should be pansexual. Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles and The Lightning Tree fae charmer should definitely have been into girls and guys and anything else. He’s not human, yet sleeps with human girls. I’d imagine he also has had relations with fae as well. Evidently if he will sleep with humans, who are not fae, he is attracted to the person and not what or who they happen to be. Translate this to pansexuality (but not so he can be attracted to Kvothe), and we have a better Bast.

In Truthwitch, by Susan Dennard, we have a gay couple on the side lines, but I would have loved someone of the main cast to be queer. Give me a bisexual Safi or Merik (not, not, not to be paired with their respective Threadsister and -brother, please: we need, need, need strong friendships) or even better, Aeduan or Leopold. Especially as these two interact and have their own PoV narratives, wherein some glancing mention of finding the other attractive would have been smooth as silk to just weave in there. Again, easy. But that representation means so much. Though a passing character, Alma—from Iseult’s village and her mother’s apprentice Threadwitch—could have been a lesbian. It would have been a slight thing to change how Alma might have looked at Iseult as though attracted to her and/or to have been repulsed more so by the idea of Corlant’s lewd advances on Gretchya. A passing line of disgust about Corlant and the assertion that she prefers women. Bam. Easy. Lesbian representation.

The Diviners (cover)Libba Bray’s Diviners does display a diverse cast (race, mixed-race, queer and a disabled protagonist: boom—and in 1920s New York, at that), but it would have been incredible if Theta was bisexual, or even just bi-curious. Plenty of opportunity to have her even just think about other girls in a sexual way. Mabel, too, is just crying out to have been at least sexually curious. About Evie, about Theta, about any girl at a bar who happened to catch her eye—passing and innocent and curious. It would have just sung from the page!

Ink and Bone, by Rachael Caine, again, does, have a queer couple (and adult and long-term relationship, at that) but I feel there was a missed opportunity with Dario Santiago. A tiny, passing glimmer of his sexuality curiousness towards another boy would have given me life. Dario especially, because he is the literal example of a classic European macho boy, with an ego half a mile wide and the charm of a gentleman, in spite of his arrogance and snobbery. Dario having a frustrated and passing interest in Jess whilst still falling for the girl in their number with whom he does form a relationship would have been not only realistic, but refreshing and important. He’s a macho kind of character, yet takes care of his appearance and is a quintessential alpha male. Add in the queer curiosity and bam, plenty of stereotypes subverted, right there.

The Copper Promise (cover)Wydrin, from Jen Williams Copper Cat trilogy. You can imagine her fooling around with girls. I know I can, and I think I know her fairly well. This is definitely a “yes, but what if?” inclusion on this list-of-sorts, since with Sebastian being an actual, honest-to-all-the-gods gay character who is neither a side character nor who has a tragic ending, Jen Williams has already earned a lifetime of eternal adoration. But a bisexual or pansexual Wydrin? Yes, please. Admittedly, there is no direct mention of her sexuality, so I’m perfectly happy to continue on with the assumption that if Wydrin likes, Wydrin flirts, gender be damned.

Peter V. Brett’s Renna (The Demon Cycle) could have been an incredibly powerful bisexual or, in the very least, a sexually-curious character. Never mind the fact that this could have been incredibly empowering for her, it would have been great to have a character whose sexuality was fluid who wasn’t a) a Krasian married into a typical Krasian marriage, and therefore essentially wed to a man with more than one wife or b) wasn’t a male with a minor (slightly antagonistic) role or a Krasian with an Ajin’pal.

On the Wrong Sides by LAS-TAnd so on and so forth.

Obviously, I could go on forever, selecting a book I’ve read and shifting one or more character’s sexualities from (usually) implicitly straight, to bisexual or to “curious” in the very least. Easy as pie. Which is why we need to stop expecting our queer characters to be relegated to the roles of background characters and one-time sidekicks, or, worse, to the pages of specific LGBT fiction, when they should share the very same stages as heterosexual characters, fifty-fifty. LGBT doesn’t equate to sexy scenes and more mature content. Queer characters in kid-lit, in middle grade, YA, general SFF. Everywhere. Because, that is precisely where queer people are. In the world, right alongside the heterosexual people.

Title image by dorisdoris.

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17 Comments

  1. Avatar ScarletBea says:

    *showing some support*
    Thanks for this article, Leo – what you say would have helped a lot when I was a teenager.

    Especially because it’s just like you wrote:
    “LGBT doesn’t equate to sexy scenes and more mature content. Queer characters in kid-lit, in middle grade, YA, general SFF. Everywhere. Because, that is precisely where queer people are. In the world, right alongside the heterosexual people.”

  2. Avatar ArhiX says:

    Hello Leo!

    As english is not my native tongue – please – may you have mercy of me. All of you.

    I am a great fan of an approach: “Let the authors do what they want”. Everything else are just little wishes that will stay in a fandom area. And that should stay there.

    When I’m a fan of diversity, I hate when it’s being preached at. Not all things work everytime and saying “You must do this and put that into your work” makes me only want to put less of those things or even erase the ones I already have. It doesn’t work this way. Sometimes you need a “mistress in distress” and black lesbian warrior will simply not work.

    The world isn’t split into 50/50 hetero/homo+bi so you can’t really expect the same thing in fantasy. Right? Not ALL of them at least. We will propably see more – just like in the case of great women characters (and not only women that are – like in a greek theatre – men wearing women masks).

    Diversity JUST for the sake of diversity is nay. Like having a desk full of shiny things that serve no other function than just being shiny-shiny. It will eventually start to get in a way of computer/mouse/hands/cup of tea and we will end-up dropping some of them on the floor. Everything within a reason. Things that you put inside story must, or at least should have, a purpose a context a justification. Serve the story, not the other way around, because otherwise you will only have a soul-less construct, that fantasy becomes more and more for some reason.

    Let the authors do what they want. They know what they are doing.
    And if somebody wants more X and more Y but less Z, why not doing it yourself? Black or white, man or woman, straight or gay – You all look the same for me on the bookshelves. You can’t blame others for not making the kind of art you like.

    Make your own!

    And that what I wish for you Leo! To make the art we ourselves want and will love. That’s what for all of us.

    • Avatar B says:

      He’s not talking about diversity for the sake of diversity, but for the sake of reality, and if authors don’t think to put LGBTQA characters in their main casts, that’s not happening in a vacuum. It’s the result of unspoken, unconscious assumptions in our society that need to be actually talked about and thought about.

    • Avatar B says:

      Harry Potter was a bad example, though, because the series was started in the nineties, before Willow/Tara even existed. That was never going to happen, unfortunately.

      • Avatar Alphonse says:

        Well, in most cases when a TV-show choose to show us an attractive lesbian couple, I have a feeling it’s mostly done for the straight males, not lesbian females.

    • Avatar B says:

      There’s no excuse for not putting explicit reference to Dumbledore’s love for Grindelwald in the last book, however. As it stands, it just reads like a friendship/partnership between two ambitious, powerful young men gone wrong. We’d have no idea if JK hadn’t said something outside the text. I think JK’s a great person, but that particular thing was undeniably weaksauce.

      • Avatar SBaker says:

        I have to disagree with that given how the relationships between Dumbledore/Grindelwald and Dumbledore/Harry were.

        Firstly, Harry is one of Dumbledore’s students. And even though he’s 18 by the end of the series, I can’t really see a teacher casually dropping their sexual preferences to their students. Like, Dumbledore always kept secrets, so it’s believable that his personal love life isn’t something he discusses with a lot of people, and especially not a young student. Also, whenever he spoke to Harry, someone was usually dying/in trouble so dating chit-chat probably wasn’t a priority.

        As for his relationship with Grindelwald, that ended terribly and in the death of his sister. It’s not surprising he wouldn’t talk about his feelings for the other man in depth there, as when I read it it seemed as if he was quite ashamed of the relationship they had had. Not surprising he didn’t give too many details of that to Harry, it was obviously painful enough to talk about as was.

        I didn’t read their relationship as just friendship either, but I can see how some might.

    • Avatar BCLD says:

      Very well said, ArhiX. Let authors do whatever they will with their books. If an author doesn’t feel the need for a gay/lesbian character, so be it.

  3. Avatar jonnyboy says:

    I don’t think Harry Potter would have been anywhere near as successful if he was gay. Can’t imagine it gaining a huge family following, or parents reading it to their kids without second thoughts. Tolerance is not the same as endorsement or encouragement. Also, I resent the implication that characters would be automatically more interesting if they were gay. Some of the works you mentioned are already outstanding. Including aspects relatable to a minority of people would not necessarily have a positive effect, or conversely a damaging one. In most cases I don’t think it would change a lot. For me, it would be irrelevant to a quality story.

  4. Avatar Megan says:

    In response to the comment above that said “in most cases I don’t think it would change a lot”, for me that’s kind of the point. Making characters more diverse (in sexuality, race, gender, anything else) can be done without affecting the plot or the vision the author is trying to achieve, but gives readers – particularly young ones, the chance to see their reality reflected in fiction. Representation is important. People shouldn’t be made to feel like they are ‘other’. Like Leo said they are just part of the world.

    One book I think handles this really well is Goldenfire by AFE Smith. Don’t know if you’ve come across it (I rarely find anyone who has) but it has a variety of queer characters. Also a hell of a lot about male/female relationships. But none of it preachy, it just comes naturally out of the plot. I would have loved it so much when I was a little bit younger and still wondering why none of the characters I loved were anything like me.

  5. You should do what readers have done when they can’t find books that represent them. They write their own books. These days, a writer doesn’t even need the approval of a book publisher to get them into the hands of the readers.

    You should also recommend books that do have gay characters. Rick Riordan’s young adult fantasy series, HEROES OF OLYMPUS, has several gay characters. Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels adult urban fantasy has gay characters. I would go on, but a thunderstorm is heading my way.

  6. Avatar Patrick says:

    I found this article interesting. It is certainly true that there isn’t much evidence of diversity in a lot of traditional fantasy. Made me try and think of examples to the contrary. The main one i could think of was in “Quest for Lost Heroes” by David Gemmell, perhaps surprisingly. Where Finn and Maggrig’s relationship remains unspoken between the characters, but not to the reader. Given the nature of most of Gemmell’s work he wouldn’t be the first name on the list of including diversity (much as I love his work).
    I know one of the arguments against inclusion is based on a context based on a historical epoch that the fantasy is based upon. I am not historical scholar but that has always struck me as somewhat fatuous as I am sure there are many examples of diverse sexuality throughout history. Even where these were not accepted by the societal norms of the time and may have been suppressed I am sure they existed and if our genre can encompass many other tangenting from historical accuracy I am sure it can tolerate example of non-heterosexuality

    • Avatar Yora says:

      Victorian revisionism. Pretty much everything that is now common knowledge about the Middle Ages is a lie created by Victorian society to make itself appear more noble and enlightened and the pinacle of morality.

  7. Avatar Chris says:

    I think this can be a thorny issue for writers and artists. In good faith you can include more diverse characters but if people perceive them to be the wrong kind of gay character or wrong kind of female character or wrong kind of African American character you leave yourself open to accusations of homophobia, sexism, racism, or stereotyping. I thought Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series had many strong female characters but a lot of people see them as sexiest. The movie The Danish Girls featured a trans character but was criticized because the actor portraying her was a cisgender male. I feel greater diversity in media is both good and necessary but we need to give creators more leeway to do it without fear of a social media witch hunt.
    Great article. I would recommend The Steel Remains by Richard K. Morgan if you are looking for some good fantasy with a gay protagonist but its not for Young Adults.

    • Avatar Yora says:

      I think the only thing you can do is to just suffer through the complaints and keep including minority characters in whatever way you think best. Listen to the complaints people have, because maybe sometimes someone has a good point. And then you can take that into account for the future.

      But you can’t let the presence of complaints that you consider unjustified prevent you from writing inclusive stories. Having a debate about what is appropriate and harmful is still better for everyone than not having that debate at all. In German we have a nice expression of “killing it through silence”, for making a problem disappear by not mentioning it. (Of course, we have the catchy verb “totschweigen”, because that’s how German rolls.) Leaving a problem unresolved because we’re not sure we have a perfect solution won’t make anything better.

  8. Avatar Yora says:

    What? Wydrin is straight? When did that happen? I just can’t imagine her as limiting herself just to men. 😀

    More generally speaking, this topic is one that I am really struggling about. Mostly because I really just don’t like to write about romance. It doesn’t really really enter my considerations for a story.
    But at the same time, I feel like am owing it to myself to not write heteronormative stories. But how do I write about people of other sexualities without writing about sexuality? I think just occasionally mentioning a woman’s wife or a man’s husband in passing isn’t anywhere near enough.

  9. Avatar Misaki says:

    As a straight person I relate to straight characters. It’s hard for me to make an LGBT relationship take centre stage when I don’t relate to LGBT characters on that emotional level. I just can’t do it. I ‘m sorry if I come across as offensive but that’s how I feel.

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