Queer Representation in SFF
One of two things happen when you raise the issue of queer and gender rep in speculative fiction: The first is we’re told it’s not important, that unqueer people don’t care, and that they do not want it “shoved down their throats”. Second, we’re given a blithe, well-meaning shrug and told that people are not “bothered about diversity”.
Let’s just quickly address what I hope most people mean by that second statement. They’re perfectly fine with the inclusion of queer characters. Well, firstly, how magnanimous! Second, whilst they might think that’s what they’re expressing, they are, in fact, saying, “I am indifferent to diverse queer rep” – which essentially translates as: I don’t care because this isn’t about me. (Neither was Frodo and the one ring. That didn’t matter then so it shouldn’t matter now.)
Additionally, we might be then met by the argument of sexuality and queerness being irrelevant. If it’s not integral to the plot, then why does it need to feature on the page? Then, if presented with the fact that queerness is a large part of our identities, we’re given that look and told, in a superior tone, that we shouldn’t define ourselves by our queerness alone (thanks for that, chap – we don’t). Ignoring the fact that, very often, we are forced to define ourselves by that same queerness, lest we be conveniently erased and forgotten, it’s utter nonsense to tell anyone how to define themselves. Furthermore, if we weren’t invisible, we wouldn’t need to make any noise about being represented, wouldn’t need to list our marginalisations like letters after our names in order to make people see us.
This isn’t a new conversation (and certainly, I alone have written until the cows come home on the subject, both on FF & elsewhere). Diversity and inclusive, positive rep is an ongoing conversation that still needs to be had, and then had again. Especially in speculative fiction.
Why? Because it is the genre of “what if?” and the home of possibility. Anything can, does, and will happen within the spec fic genre. That’s just a fact. So, if there’s any work to be done when discussing social injustices and prejudices, the way we comment on our very messy world and society, on the very concept of the human condition, it’s going to be in the genre that is quite literally made for it.
It’s here, in spec fic – in science fiction and fantasy – where all the work is going to be done and done fastest. If we learn how. If those with the privilege of not being marginalised step up and help. That’s something that’s on readers, writers, bloggers, agents, editors, and publishers. It’s on everyone involved in the genre.
It’s not going to happen if an editor suggests a hetero romance in place of a queer one (Tara Sim link). It’s not going to happen if an author writes a queer character and readers erase them by refusing to acknowledge it. It’s not going to happen if agents don’t shop more #ownvoices and diverse books, books that challenge the status quo. It’s not going to happen if non-marginalised authors don’t diversify their work to make space for queer and PoC and neuro-divergent rep. It’s not going to happen if bloggers don’t read and review these diverse books. And so on, ad infinitum.
It can be difficult for everyone, queer and otherwise, to reshape their thinking. Just because you’re gay, doesn’t mean you’re going to tune into trans issues, or asexual issues. Just because you’re trans doesn’t mean you’re gay, and you might miss a lot of issues regarding queerness if you are a straight trans person. Allosexuals are definitely going to miss ace issues, just as, depending on their definitions, pansexual and bisexual people might not automatically spot problems or things missing from rep. The point about education and learning is everyone needs it, so it’s very rarely a case of being singled out as someone who doesn’t know everything. The more you know, the more you realise you don’t. It’s that simple. Unless you deliberately push back and double down. That’s a different story altogether.
Expect queerness. Expect different expressions of gender. Expect something to fall outside of the default. Realise “the default” is a lie. Do a quick search on Google and you’ll soon realise the histories we think we know are essentially watered-down half-truths don’t even come close. Between organised religion vilifying queerness throughout its entire history, and various stages of trans visibility in society being literally destroyed by the Nazis (good old burning of books and research), there’s a lot that has been erased and hidden that normalises queerness. Queerness has always been a part of being, well, human and has been systematically erased throughout our history, just the same as any other marginalised group has been misrepresented and pigeonholed. Though really, what chance do the marginalised stand when it’s 2017 and still the toxic patriarchy is in full swing? If women don’t get consistently good rep and treatment, then the marginalised stand no chance.
So, if we’re stepping into the territory of dragons, bad-tempered gods and FTL travel, I think we can handle folk like Harry Dresden or Jon Snow getting in some tongue with another guy. The world won’t explode, I promise you. And yes, I’m being flippant. I’m not of the mentality of suddenly making established characters queer, unless their story genuinely can be read as them having been closeted before.
A great example of this is Bioware’s Mass Effect series, in which Alenko is revealed as bisexual later in the games series and therefore is an option to romance male Shepherd. This was not intentional in the beginning, rather, a response to fans’ express demands for queer rep and Bioware’s own realisation that, in spite of having queer people in their team, they’d never thought to make queer characters because… Well. There’s not really a reason. Former Bioware writer, David Gaider (author of Asunder, a Dragon Age tie in novel, among other things) was never openly gay at work because queerness seemed so invisible it didn’t seem safe to come out. So, Alenko, military man and very clearly of the mentality of don’t ask, don’t tell comes out as bisexual and thus as a romantic option for Shepard, regardless of gender.
So, what do we need? Rep. Queer characters need to appear on the page and on the screen an equal percentage of the time in accordance with their relative numbers in the population. Trust me: queerness is not a tiny group of kids sitting at that tiny table at the back during lunch. Queerness is everywhere, being actively erased, since pretty much the dawn of any widespread religion that glorifies a relationship between a man and a woman and demonises sex without procreation.
The one thing we’re not ready to do yet, is handle queer/trans characters the way we do cis/straight ones. Why? Because the same way it’s just plain irresponsible to kill off or make marginalised (disabled, neurodiverse, etc) and/or characters of colour into the villains and the unlikeable characters, the same goes in this case. We don’t have enough good and equal rep to tolerate anything else. This includes queer coding, in whatever shape or form. Don’t fall into the habit of reading/writing characters that rely on tired stereotypes. In a same-gender relationship nobody is the “spoon”; gay guys don’t call their baes “princess” or other specifically female nicknames (unlike gender-neutral names such as honey or babe or my snuggly love-muffin); trans people don’t live their lives in misery; bisexual/pansexual people are not necessarily attracted to you, your friend, or that random character on page 364 and we’re not hungry predators, either. Additionally, sexuality isn’t an adult concept so it absolutely belongs in kids, middle grade, YA and any other age-group you can think of. It belongs on the page. Queer sex belongs on the page, too. Sex doesn’t need to be explicit, whether it’s straight sex or queer sex. Saying, “Magnus and Alec did the do” is not explicit. Normalise and explore this.
The thing is spec fic is made for exploration. We have dragons and world-killers, ancient gods and magical assassins. I think we’re good to remember the default doesn’t have to be the only way. With speculative fiction it can be all the ways. We can invent the ways. It can be very simple to begin slipping in elements that make readers think about challenging the status quo. It can be very simple for readers to challenge authors into writing more diversely and clearly. Buy diversely, promote diversely.
Consider how many characters’ sexualities are, in fact, left vague. Sure, they hunker down with a member of their opposite gender, but that doesn’t exclude the fact they might be bi or pan or ace. If readers switch their mind-set to assuming the potential for queerness until it is otherwise stated, authors will begin to notice. Yes, it is more likely than not that each of these characters is supposed to be read as straight. But only because that’s the current default. But frankly, that needs to change.
If Sorceress A smooches Knight B, most readers are going to presume one or both of these kissers are heterosexual. Why does that have to be true? Spoiler: it doesn’t. One or both of them can be queer (yes, bi is queer, yes, bi is queer enough) or even trans. Either one might have long-since transitioned and are now happily living their life casting spells or slaying dragons. This brings us neatly to another point: the queerness does not have to be the centre point of the story. In fact, it’s usually better if it isn’t (especially if it’s not an #ownvoices story). Being queer isn’t a storyline or a plot twist. The world already has plenty of coming-out stories and transitioning tales of those who identify as trans or otherwise genderqueer. Unfortunately many of the latter are written in contemporary circles, usually by authors who are not themselves trans or queer, and often severely miss the mark due to insensitive handling or insufficient education. Speculative fiction is for exploring, for imagining.
Sometimes, this queerness can be at least partially relevant to the plot, as with April Daniels’ Dreadnought, where taking on the mantle of a dying superhero allows Danny to control her own transition. Instead of the mantle of power “turning” Danny into a girl (which would have been kind of cringy for many reasons), she merely claims a body that fits with her accurate gender. In all the ways that matter, Dreadnought is not a story about a trans girl, but rather a superhero who happens to be trans (and a lesbian–but, again, the story is not about her sexuality any more than it is about her gender). The same can perhaps be said of Lan in Mark Charan Newton’s The Book of Transformations, in which her transition is not featured in the story at first, until her history is discovered and she is essentially outed. (It isn’t ideal an example, since Lan then dies one book later, and if you’ve not had it up to here with queer deaths, let alone the deaths of trans women, then you’re not paying attention.)
The issue with making stories about characters’ queerness is they are both reduced to and limited by those parts of their identities. Whilst Knightly Knight gets to go off and fight dragons and save the world, in much of queer (specifically SFF) fiction, it’s usually a romance that revolves around a single love interest, or it’s a story based entirely on their queerness. Which just isn’t on.
It is getting better, with diverse rep weaving its way into what would be considered the (new) “classic” styles of the genre–such as Jen Williams’ work–and the aforementioned books by Mark Charan Newton, in which we have a gay lead who doesn’t die. What we’re not going to count are alien races. Sure, expression of sexuality is fine in aliens as long as it’s not just the aliens. Unfortunately, it comes with the unspoken impression that trans people are other and that any and all explorations are also other. An author wants to “explore gender” and so creates a race of genderfluid aliens? Well, sure, maybe that’s fine, but a really radical idea would be to have a genderfluid character through which the gender spectrum could be explored.
Much as I adore Becky Chambers’ Long Way to A Small Angry Planet, the gender shifting aliens and the use of plural pronouns for another, it isn’t necessarily something to praise as “diversity”. It is definitely thinking outside the box for an alien race, sure, and it’s also great. But it isn’t diverse rep because they’re not human. It might seem like a well-meant idea, but really, it’s just ignoring the fact that humans can be gender diverse and so, why not just have a human character with a diverse gender identity outside of the binary? If to explore gender someone needs to remove it from actual people, then that’s a problem in and of itself.
In this instance, the Wayfarers books do normalise queer rep (with mention of same-gender parents and a f/f couple on book one), which suggests Chambers cares about diversity. Which makes the genders of the aliens less of a clever thought experiment and more a genuine gesture. Though it is still a little disappointing to usually see gender diversity expressed through aliens and not humans.
We have a long way to go with queer rep and if the progress thus far with the representation and treatment of women in genre is anything to go by, the process of making space for diversity will be positively glacial. But it doesn’t have to be.
Step up, spec fic adventurers, and go do the thing!