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.
It’s weird that I have to ask this question. It’s the year 2018, and I can’t give you a list that is strictly male and doesn’t involve a romance as a focal plot point.
However, the why is answered fairly quickly the moment you walk into a SFF convention. If you haven’t, have no fear, there’s a scene from Brooklyn 99 that illustrates it perfectly: a panel on Diversity in SFF and its all straight middle-aged white guys in various states of dress. As always, one of them is wearing a leather bomber jacket. Cause he’s not like those other SFF authors, he’s a cool SFF author.
Do I have a personal problem with romance in SFF? Gods no, read what you want, write what you want. But it shouldn’t be the only place I can read about queer men. And it is the only place I can read about queer men. Every book I’ve come across involving a queer male character in a leading role–not a supplementary character–is romance. And what that translates into is, unless they’re falling in love with someone, queer male characters don’t have stories to tell.
Which is, ya know, bullshit. Obviously.
But this is what happens in a genre dominated by straight white men; they’re going to write either straight men or queer women. Because that is both what they know and what they view as attractive.
So how do we go about writing queer men in SFF? And why is it so hard for so many writers to wrap their minds around?
First, you take every trope you remember from the 90’s and you set them on fire. Never approach them again. Don’t even look at them. They don’t exist. Then you build that character, just as you would any other character, and add in but they’re gay as an afterthought. How minor you want it to be and how you present that will depend on the level of acceptance in your world setting, and the character’s age. Are they younger and naive, or are they older and have seen various laws and politics surrounding the LGBT community rise and fall? And how does that affect their worldview?
But if I don’t use tropes or make the effeminate, how will people know they’re gay?
Oh buddy ol’ pal, that’s the beauty of it–you can reveal that little tidbit whenever you want. You can add it into a conversation, slip it in casually, or make it a big statement. For example, I came out to my DnD group last week when someone asked if my character had a crush on a party member and I said “No its not like that, Malachi’s like me. He’s demisexual. He doesn’t feel sexual attraction to others without very intense romantic feelings and a deep level of trust.”
Or you can flashback to it. Have it brought up in a memory. That’s how I introduced Yulian as being gay in the Silver Bullet Affair. It’s barely one sentence. And for me, that’s all I needed. I wanted my readers to know that Yulian is gay, has always known he was gay, and is living in a country where being gay was accepted and legal for quite some time before rulers changed hands (he’s Russian, by the way).
But who’s allowed to write about queer male MCs?
Anyone whose willing to give it due diligence, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. For example, if you’re doing an SFF in a previous known time and place in history, or even a current one, you need to do your research on how the LGBT culture functions. If it’s made up, you have to make a backstory for that culture. How has it stood the test of time? Have different regimes of rulers made it illegal or otherwise legal? Did it start out as being acceptable but became worse as the power to rule changed hands, or is it the opposite? A writer should always write what they know, and the the beauty of the modern world we live in today is that what you know can easily be remedied. We have at our fingertips access to first hand accounts and primary resources with which to utilize to write anything accurately, so long as you put the hours in.
Queer men can kick ass, and save the world, and not have a romance define their entire place in a story. They can be effeminate or masculine, have great taste or a terrible fashion sense, because a person’s sexuality isn’t a clothing style or a series of mannerisms that dictates how you present yourself. Queer men, like all human beings, are individuals first, sexuality second.
For a fine example of queer men kicking ass, check out the Silver Bullet Affair, book one in the Bulletproof Spy series, available now on Amazon.