When I came out as demisexual (someone who can’t feel sexual attraction without a deep emotional connection) four years ago, it did not go well. I was told that I wasn’t what I thought I was and given evidence why, as if another person could know anyone better than they know themselves. This person was a dear friend of mine; I had known them for over 13 years. I thought they were right. It made me feel like I was wrong, as if there were something inherently incorrect in how I viewed myself. It also made me keep quiet about the fact that I didn’t feel like a man or a woman, but something in between.
At the time, I didn’t know the terms non-binary or demisexual existed, let alone what they really meant. I didn’t have anything or anyone to tell me about them. There were no books back then that featured someone like me. I took care to avoid writing about characters who were me. I wasn’t gay. I wasn’t trans. I had never had body dysphoria. Clearly, I didn’t belong at the queer club. In the end, I did come out. I found myself, it just took another two years. And in the process I terminated a friendship. It’s a wound that still hurts. It doesn’t really stop hurting; you just meet other people and remind yourself that you matter. That your story matters.
Queer characters are in everything I’ve written. My espionage series features a gay Russian spy and a bisexual American spy, working together to take down a secret organization that has managed to penetrate the KGB, set in 1965. It’s not a romance, because I wanted to give queer men the ability to see themselves in action adventure. I want them to kick butt just like the straight boys do, better than even. I have two projects out on sub, one a YA horror lead by a pansexual boy, and a NA low fantasy/post apoc lead by an asexual and aromantic girl. Today, I’m finally plucking up the courage to do the one thing I never thought I would: write an Own Voices novel.
This new project is a YA low fantasy set in the Ozarks. It’s a blend of folk magic and horror in the working poor setting. It’s a story about first loves and family and the lengths we go to save them. Last summer, in watching Sagas of Sundry Dread, I realized it was something more: its the story of two genderqueer punks who fall in love. It’s Riley, who is non-binary (someone who identifies as neither male or female) but doesn’t know it yet, and Chase, who is demisexual and thinks gender concepts are bullshit altogether. As I began to outline it, I grew excited in a way I had not in a very long time. I’m drafting it now, and I think this might be the book. The landing an agent book. And its because I took the leap to make it queer that I think makes it so, makes it more than just a folk magic horror story.
It has not been an easy story to write. Riley is not an exact copy of me; far from it. But there are lines which she is told about how she presents herself that are word for word what I was told growing up. The difference is, Riley will have Chase, who for all of his flaws and mental health issues, loves Riley wholly and completely. It’s Chase who pushes her to be herself, however that means she/they presents. Doing it under the guise of punk subculture gave me a lot of room to play with presentation. Chase wears makeup and nail polish. He dyes his hair a lot; helps Riley cut and dye hers. Chase has 99 problems but toxic masculinity ain’t one.
Ace spectrum, of all areas of the LGBTQIA, needs rep that isn’t just characters who are asexual to the point of being cold, aloof, and uncaring. There needs to be diversity across the board. Like gender, asexuality is a spectrum. All gender and sexuality is a spectrum and we should stop pretending like this is some modern concept invented by millennials. It’s not. Gender binary is a modern principal; gender as a spectrum is the concept of old that we’ve tried to bury with the nuclear family–the need to simply make children which cropped up from world wars one and two.
We especially need these stories to be told in YA, where so much of the literary landscape is whirlwind romances. Ace spectrum still happens, even in your teen years. But how can teens know what they’re feeling is real and not a mental health condition (it was part of the DSM as a mental illness as late as 2013) if they don’t see themselves represented? We need more stories about these gentle, slower romances, especially where one character is ace spec and another is not. This way, teens can learn how to navigate these waters from both sides.
Riley’s story will take time to make it out into the world. This year I’ll have to get the draft done; if I’m very lucky it will be agent-ready by next summer. But I will keep at it and I won’t give up until I’ve sold it and given it every opportunity to get in the hands of as many readers as I can. Because asexuality is part of the queer community, as is being non-binary, and I want teenagers to know it. I want them to read this story about love and sacrifice and see that you are not broken, and you are loved. That being who you are does not make you somehow undateable. Riley and Chase’s story is epic, and yours is too.
There are plenty of plots being imagined and written furiously. When it comes to LGBTQI plots, there are a handful that writers find themselves relying on. Some of this reliance on the tropes is from fear of swimming in uncharted waters, or perhaps its even lazy investigation. I’m going to speak strictly as a gay male. There are plots, entire story arcs that I’m absolutely done reading. There are exceptions to every statement, but these handful, the moment I get a sniff of them, I believe the writer has phoned it in.
- Coming Out. The age-old story about a gay person struggling with their sexual identity being the driving force of their character development. The truth? Many of us do not “come out” anymore. Even I, a young gay male in the rural reaches of Maine’s backwoods, I didn’t really have to come out. I told one person and POOF, the news spread like wildfire. I didn’t struggle with it. I had a moment of relief, and then I went back to my life. Did it change the world around me? A little, perhaps. But if somebody wrote a story about my coming out, I wouldn’t read it. Let’s talk about the dullest story known to man. For others, the process happens later in life after being married and having kids. For some they come out only to find out, it was indeed a phase. There is no hard fast rule, and the subtle nuances will most likely be lost in a B-plot. If your story is about a character coming out, prepare for boredom, unless you rely on the trope of overcoming bullying. Then I’m snoozing twice over.
Pro Tip: If you’re writing a coming out story, write about the character’s journey and realize it’s messy and rarely incomplete. It is not a gay character’s B-Plot.
- Falling in Love. Unless you’re writing a novel where the characters are getting jiggy with it. Stop. Right now. Put down your pencil. Shut your laptop. I’m not saying gay characters don’t deserve love, but often times, this becomes their identity in a novel. If you’re writing a romance novel, I excuse you, that’s your bread and butter. If you’re not, then ask yourself, is your character content without this romance? Do they need this romance? Is the only way your gay person can be happy is to have a fulfilling romance? If that’s their burning passion, consider me bored. In gay culture there are many who believe in the monogamous happily ever after. But there are plenty of gay men (myself included) who believe in much looser definitions of the word relationship and have never believed in the idea of a singular soul mate.
Pro Tip: If you’re going to write about gay romances, you need to do some serious homework. Because if I see another cookie cutter romance, I might very well smash my face against my desk.
- Overcoming adversity resulting from our sexual orientation. First and foremost, never use the phrase, “sexual preference.” Preferences are what I want to do to with my same-sex lover, the orientation itself. Second, many of us do not face day-to-day adversity. I’m an out gay teacher. My school had “Pride Day” and I wore my “Yes, I’m that GAY teacher.” Not once, not one single time did a student or co-worker comment on it. Have I been discriminated against? Of course I have. I got into fist fights as a kid, been chased out of a bar, and watched a friend get the shit kicked out of him for his “swishy” walk. But that’s not the norm, or at least not each person’s norm. Yes, gay kids get kicked out of their homes for their sexuality. Relationships end harshly as one comes out, or another realizes they are not gay. But creating drama based solely on our sexuality? Your story best talk about the nit and grit about being gay. You best delve into the psyche of your character and show me that internal struggle. You best tear at my heart and make me fear for your character and cheer at every victory.
Pro Tip: If you’re going to write about our struggles, understand much of our struggle isn’t visual. We question our worth, our identity, our need to belong. These aren’t easily visible. Even as adults, these exist, all rooted in a single roll of the dice making us different from the status quo. Capture it.
I hope you’re reading this thinking, “Well shit, what how the hell am I going to make this character gay?” Now that I’ve disarmed the standard tropes prevalent in literature, what do you have left? Well, you have a limitless plethora of concepts that can be applied to your gay character as easily as your straight character. Dig deep, be thorough, and be willing to push past the tropes that have become the lazy man’s go-to. 10% of the human population is believed to be gay (and as people begin to open up, the number could be as high as 20%.) Step out of ambiguity, give your character this added layer of complexity. But now, I’m asking you to take a step further. And when you’re reached a roadblock, ask questions.
When I started writing, I made the decision to write LGBTQ characters into mainstream science fiction books as a reaction to the massive gap I saw in science fiction television shows and movies growing up in the eighties and nineties. (Sadly, I didn’t read much back then.)
- Gay characters in Star Trek? Not until Discovery aired in 2017-18; not until they retconned Sulu’s story in ST: Beyond in 2016;
- Gay characters in Star Wars? Hmmm…only if you gay-ship Poe and Finn;
- Gay characters in Dune? Oh wait, but he was old and evil, arguably like every Disney villain; Jafar, Ursula, Hades, Scar, Shere Khan;
- The SyFy Battlestar Galactica reboot? Yes, but the producers tucked the gayness away. You’d only know Lt. Felix Gaeta was gay and in a relationship with Louis Hoshi if you searched the Internet or watched the BSG webisode series.
- Gay Superheroes? Not in the movies, but slowly arising in the comics and daring television shows. Yay!
This points to the question that burned in my soul as kid who watched these and other amazing eighties reruns such as Knight Rider, Airwolf, Buck Rogers, The Wonder Years, Growing Pains, Full House, and Family Ties:
- Where were the people like me?
- Why don’t people like me exist in the things I love, or, why are people like me portrayed as evil?
- Why did I only read about people like me in M/M romance or erotica novels?
- Why did I have to sneak downstairs in the late nineties to watch MTV’s Undressed to catch a glimpse at LGBT characters living seemingly normal lives in college and other young adult situations?
However, all was/is not lost.
The recent Doctor Who series and its spin-off, Torchwood, saw fit to include bisexual Captain Jack Harkness and his same-sex romantic delights for fans to enjoy. I was ecstatic! When David Tenant’s Doctor brought Captain Jack and Alonso together moments before he regenerated, I was bouncing on the couch with excitement. Then, newer shows like MTV’s Teen Wolf flipped the script and shocked me by providing its characters with a next-level LGBTQ environment: not one straight bullied or cared a gay student; rather, all students were accepted with complete equality regardless of whom they loved. I was finally seeing myself in mainstream characters portrayed in recent television shows and in movies, like Love Simon.
I’m thrilled to see more and more shows (Shameless, Sense8, and more) include a plethora of LGBTQ characters, and I truly hope this trend continues—but some areas of have much catching up to.
Alas, this brings me to writing quality LGBTQ characters. If the mega-studios won’t give me what I want, then I decided to write it for them and the others like me who yearn(ed) to have an LGBTQ superhero, an LGBTQ space marine, or an LGBTQ captain of a massive starship who live in happy, healthy, and challenging worlds and relationships. Because I strongly believes the real world we live in should be a place—like Teen Wolf’s setting—where LGBTQ equality and respect are second nature and never questioned, I choose to write this into my stories.
I still think there are too few examples of LGBTQ superheroes in popular media today, and most of those are retconned or made LGBTQ with new storylines. It’s not that I want television to into all rainbows and sparkly (though wouldn’t that be fun?), but I want equal airtime for LGBTQ characters. They don’t even have to bang—but knowing this superhero is fluid or that male captain has a husband would be fantastic.
Putting aside what the rest of the world does or doesn’t do, I set out to write my own stories, and this year, I’m proud to start sharing them with the world. In 2014, I started world-building for a series I’ve titled The Nitraxian Galaxy Saga, a massive, groundbreaking LGBTQ science fiction space opera. I’ve spent a lot of time world building, outlining, and organizing the characters and plots into an amazing story. In reality, this significant undertaking is the LGBTQ lovechild of Star Trek/Wars and Game of Thrones, allowing for equal page time for the main characters regardless of their sexuality. I wrote book one in 2017 and then set it aside to work on a project that would not leave my imagination alone.
In early 2018, I started—and am still—writing an LGBTQ superhero story set in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The five-book Guardians Series is the story of gay student Quinn McAlester and his best friend Blake Hargreaves, high school classmates who acquire super powers through a freak accident. I didn’t set Guardians in a utopia of equality. Rather, using real-world situations, I flipped the script on acceptance and focused on Quinn’s coming out as a superhero to a town that refused to accept him and his gifts. I did this because there are still so many teens and adults who struggle with coming out despite the progress we’ve made as a country toward accepting LGBTQ equality and rights.
I encourage authors write well-developed LGBTQ characters because LGBTQ people enrich the world in so many ways and I want to see and read about amazing, wonderful, (and yes sometimes evil) people like me represented fairly in books. Though I am aware the wider audience still rejects LGBTQ characters (yep, I have one of those infamous 1-star reviews on a book) you can help enhance people’s perceptions and acceptance by writing wonderful and loving LGBTQ characters who show the world their true colors.
Many writers want to diversify their characters but find themselves hesitant or scared in jumping into a culture outside their norm. With complicated social structures and contradicting opinions, it can be difficult. However, the fact authors are fearful of not doing their readers justice shows a willingness to expand. Author Amelia Atwater-Rhodes joined me to answer author questions involving sexuality in their characters. We try to be clear, but it bears reminding, both of our views are “our” views and while we may have insight into the LGBTQI+ community, we are not the end all.
For those fearful, I should also add just minutes before the interview, despite knowing Amelia for nearly seven years, I learned she identifies as queer and not lesbian. I firmly wedged my foot in my mouth. There was a discussion and I walked out a wiser person. So be open to being humbled and expanding as a human.
I am many things. I am a male. I am a teacher. I am a friend. I am a partner. I am a son and a brother. I wear each of these statements as a building block of who I am as a person. I am a writer. I am white. I am single. I am a professor. The list goes on. Each, a loosely constructed definition that create my identity. But as an author, only one terrified me to admit publicly. It took years overcome my fears and say it in a space where peers and fans alike would take note. My name is Jeremy Flagg, and I am gay.
I have been out since I was fifteen. For twenty-one years I have known myself to be unlike the majority of people. I have found myself isolated, ostracized, dehumanized, mocked, and even ridiculed by this twist of fate. While I am no stranger to being bullied, I have never lost sight of who I am, and in the face of adversity, that knowledge has served as a pillar of strength. Yet, as an author, I found myself firmly placed in a proverbial close of my own making. Fearful of what fans might say, or how it might affect my bottom-line, I kept tight-lipped. In Nighthawks, my first superhero novel, what I hope to be a long running series, I dance about the topic, leaving the protagonist ambiguous while I tested the waters. When Night Shadows, book two in the series was released, there was no more speculating. My characters stopped hiding.
I stopped hiding. My name is Jeremy Flagg, and I am gay.
I have never written a book without a gay lead. Whether it be the zombie apocalypse, dystopian superheroes, or a vengeful sword wielding woman, each of my leads is a homosexual. If each character is a reflection of our psyche, I bestowed this burden/gift upon my protagonists even if they do not realize it at the time. It has given me perspective into my own sexuality and allowed me to explore version of myself beyond my personal worldview. As these gay characters grew, so did I.
[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“Be the person you needed when you were younger.” ― Ayesha Siddiqi[/perfectpullquote]
Siddiqi wrote, “Be the person you needed when you were younger.” I found myself needing to write the characters I needed as a young closeted male in the boonies of Maine. The first time I stumbled across a gay character in Lynn Flewelling’s, “Luck in the Shadows,” I found a piece of myself. Following in Flewelling’s footprints, I am writing about people who are trying to challenge fate, change the world, save the day, and find happiness, all the while being gay. I write the characters so that gay youth can see a reflection of themselves in the world. With many of my early role models being fictitious characters, more of them needed to be something other than default straight.
My readers knew before they “knew.” They saw parts of me being scattered across the page. When I came out to them, they were less than shocked. I marveled at their acceptance and in my fan group, it has been a talking point that has let me bond with people I might not otherwise have talked to. It wasn’t the career ending statement I feared. And because of their response, I have been more comfortable to explore sexuality in my books. My first sex scene is between two men and my beta reader is a (presumably) straight male. The reaction remained positive and focused on my character relationships and the expression of those relationships. I found myself surprised that in our negative media environment a reader can accept a scenario that doesn’t directly reflect themselves.
It is without a doubt we as a community learned to hide in plain sight, sheltering from horrible possibilities. However, I think it is time we exit our closets and become visible role models. We shouldn’t have to compartmentalize, shy away, or even lie about who we are. Sitting at a convention table in Bangor Maine, two young men and their child approached my table. While talking to them, it dawned on me the men were a couple. I felt no need to announce our shared sexuality, instead, they purchased a book and I knew, they’d see some piece of themselves in my characters. Or perhaps they bought it for their child and he’d see a semblance of his fathers on the page. Either way, I found myself proud to have represented an underserved population.
When were young we scoured for role models to whom we could admire. We searched for it in the media we consumed. For me, comic books, cartoons and most of all, fantasy novels were my bastion of safety. The characters I identified with were few and far between. Now, this moment, this project, this story, it is time we stand up and be the people we needed when were younger. Somewhere there is a young person, tucked away in an environment forcing them to be something they are not. They are searching for somebody to relate with. Once upon a time, we came out for ourselves. Now, we need to come out for others.
My name is Jeremy Flagg, and I am gay.