You don’t have to add diversity—just stop erasing it! (part 2)

I wrote recently about why having queer characters in books, particularly science fiction, isn’t about pandering or finding a good reason to include us, but rather simply of matter of not excluding us. The real world has queer people (a lot more than most people think), and there is no good reason that fictional worlds wouldn’t have just as many of us.

There’s an interesting post going around Tumblr that gathered together this series of facts (originally tweeted by Andrew Wheeler @wheeler) about some current or recent works of fiction based on historical characters. The historical facts are verified, I’m not merely repeating. I include a bit more context on each than Wheeler was able to fit in a short series of Twitter posts:

  • Leonardo da Vinci was almost certainly gay, but the series Da Vinci’s Demons portrays him as (barely) bisexual who seems to be exclusively attracted to women.
  • Alexander the Great was gay, and was known to be gay to the extent that the greek historian Plutarch wrote extensively about the moral way Alexander behaved toward the various men he had loved. The great love of Alexander’s life was a man, Hephaestion. When Hephaestion died, Alexander mourned him for months, refusing to eat for days, and nearly killed himself. The only movies that have ever included Hephaestion doesn’t even hint at the relationship, let alone even showing them kiss.
  • Alan Turing, the genius who decrypted Enigma among other things during World War II, has sometimes been described as the greatest gay hero of the modern age. He was convicted of indecency (and forced to take drugs to repress his libido) because he confessed to being in a long term relationship with his boyfriend. In the recent movie which tried to portray him as a hero, he is instead caught with a male prostitute and portrayed as a loner who had no love in his life.
  • The epic love of Achilles and Patroculus is a keystone of the legends of the Trojan war, but in the recent movie Troy they’re portrayed as simply buddies.
  • John Nash, the mathematician, was sexually active with men throughout his life, getting arrested a few times for it. He was married twice, though both relationships were problematic, and it’s unclear how many of the issues in the second marriage were due to his struggles with mental illness as opposed to his frequent same sex dalliances. A Beautiful Mind omits the first marriage and child completely, and also completely erases the same sex liaisons, which due to the arrests, played a significant role in the tragedies of his real life.

This list focuses on men because Wheeler’s point was that television and movie executives are extremely squeamish about showing men being seductive or explicitly romantic or in any way physically intimate with other men. But it isn’t just “Hollywood” that has that problem.

Lots of people cite the Marvel Comics character Deadpool as an example of a bisexual character. The creators of the character frequently claim that he is bisexual, but the kindest way you can describe those claims is that they are being very bad writers by telling us rather than showing. The more accurate description is that it is a queer-baiting lie. Oh, yes, Deadpool makes all sorts of sexual jokes toward other men, and he seems to be particularly obsessed with Spiderman, but that is all we ever see in the stories: jokes. Deadpool has never ever been shown actually in a relationship with another man. He has had a lot of romantic relationships with women in the comics; loves of his life that have died tragically and so forth, but not one single man.


That isn’t diversity, that’s queer-baiting.

Slightly better is DC Comic’s John Constantine, who in the comics had at least one significant same sex romantic relationship (in additional to several opposite sex romances), and said same sex relationship was integral to the plot of one of the longer story arcs. He’s also been portrayed flirting with men, seducing other men, and so forth. All well and good. Until we get to the television series (which, alas, was canceled last year after only 13 episodes), where there isn’t even a hint of his bisexuality, and the producers and writers said off-screen that he was not bisexual.

And don’t get me started on the epic amount of queer-baiting the creator and producer of the Teen Wolf television series has been doing for six years!

So, to sum up: when we call for diversity in books and movies and television shows, we aren’t asking to be pandered to. We aren’t asking you to shoehorn something into the story. We’re asking you to be realistic. We’re asking you to write believable stories.

Appendix: This blog post, in which a writer explains why he is re-writing some really old sci fi stories by swapping genders and such as his NaNoWriMo project provides some other good points about erasure in fiction: Get Bent – Why Bother?

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