I get tired of having to defend my wish that stories include diverse casts of characters. Not just because I’m a gay man who wishes that my favorites shows, books, and stories would include people like me, but because I remember what it was like being a queer child and having no idea that there was anyone else in the entire universe like me. And therefore, I can empathize with other children who aren’t straight white cis males who never see people like themselves as the heroes of any story, and thus grow up not thinking that they have a place in this world.
But as I’ve said before, it isn’t just about having characters that various readers in your audience can relate to. It is also a matter of portraying a believable world. The real world has people of different genders, races, sexual orientations, and so on. It is simply unrealistic that a random sampling of any fictional world is going to consist solely of white, cisgendered, straight people. Especially the overwhelming majority of them male.
And there’s one other aspect, but award-winning sci fi/fantasy author, Saladin Ahmed explained it in a succinct set of tweets:
Ahmed is referring to the likely fanboy reaction to this article: J.J. Abrams says Star Wars will get an openly gay character. And the word “likely” is wholly unnecessary, as I’ve already seen angry reactions to the article around the net.
As he said, the people who object when a non-white person is cast in lead role in a movie that isn’t about race issues, or queer characters are included in a story, and so on, always argue that it’s just furthering a political agenda to include any non-white, straight characters. Especially when it comes to queer characters, they angrily ask, “Who cares who is having sex with who?”
Well, obviously, if you’re getting angry, you do.
But let’s go back to the original Star Wars trilogy, for a moment. I was in a very crowded theatre on opening weekend for Empire Strikes Back, and when Leia declared, “I love you!” then Han replied cooly, “I know!” there were whoops and lots of exclamations of, “YES!” from all over that theatre. Three years later, at the first showing of Return of the Jedi, when Leia and Han have their big kiss at the end, there were even louder cheers and clapping. So a lot of people did care about who was in love with who, who was kissing who, and so on.
I want to repeat that: fanboys cheered and applauded a kiss near the end of a special effects-laden space opera adventure story.
So, they did care and they still do care about who is in love with, who is kissing, and yes, who is wanting to have sex with who.
It goes back much further into the history of science fiction and fantasy than Star Wars, of course. The reason that those earlier examples almost never included any same sex relationships is not because there weren’t any queer writers or readers of science fiction, it was because everyone was closeted. They weren’t closeted because they wanted to be, but because they often had to be. Remember, until the Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that intimate consensual sexual conduct was a fundamental freedom protected by the Constitution, same sex activity was a criminal offense in many places.
We have always been here. For instance, in the 1920s and 1930s, Edgar Pangborn wrote a lot of pulp stories in the mystery, fantasy, and sci fi genres which featured very passionate male “friendships.” The relationships were never overtly gay, but clearly were meant to imply it. He wrote those stories under a variety of pen names. He didn’t start publishing stories under his real name until the 1960s.
Jim Kepner was the publisher of one of the first magazines advocating for gay civil rights, ONE Magazine, beginning in 1953. But before that, operating under the fan name, Jike, he was an active member of the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society. During the 1940s he published a sci fi fanzine called Toward Tomorrow. Within that ’zine, and in other fanzines, he was only one of several fans who wrote speculatively of how society might evolve to include greater gender equality, racial equality, and acceptance of various sexual orientations.
Another member of the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society back then, Edythe Edye operated under the fan name Tigrina. In 1947, using the pseudonym Lisa Ben, she founded Vice Versa, the first lesbian magazine published in the U.S.
In 1953, when straight author, Theodore Sturgeon, explored gay themes positively in the short story “The World Well Lost,” it caused at least one editor to try to organize a blackball system to prevent it, or anything like it ever being published. The blackball scheme didn’t work. The story was published. Some people liked it, some didn’t. Sturgeon and other writers occasionally returned to the subject over the next couple of decades.
It was far more common, yes, for queer characters to be portrayed negatively. In some works, you could tell how far into the depths of evil a character had plunged by how much bisexual or homosexual activity they engaged in—Dune’s Baron Harkonnen being a prime example. My point is that queer fans and writers and artists have been around for as long as science fiction and fantasy have existed. The argument about whether or not we should be allowed to participate or be portrayed has been around just as long.
Queer people have been around for as long as people have existed. They will exist in every fantasy and science fiction world. Whether they can safely live openly in those societies will vary, just as it does now in the real world, and has varied in different historical periods. If your fictional world doesn’t include us, it is unrealistic. If your fictional world doesn’t include us, you either really suck at world building or you suffer from heterosexism. If you claim you can’t include us until the right storyline comes along, you may be in denial about how much homophobia (subconscious or not) you harbor.
Not every story will include romance, obviously. I have discussed with some folks the fact that in my current series of fantasy novels, while there are several characters I know who are bisexual or pansexual, most of them aren’t obvious. There is at least one clearly identified gay couple, and several clearly identified straight characters, but that’s it2. So, I’m a queer writer who isn’t sure I’m representing queer characters enough. Therefore, I’m not saying that writers who don’t have a lot of obviously gay characters in their work are bad people.
I am saying that if you have absolutely none at all, that is just as much of an “agenda” as anything certain people accuse queer people of pushing when we ask for inclusion. Whether consciously intended it, or not, that’s at the very least enabling an anti-gay agenda.
1. Yes, that is an anagram of lesbian, and she did it intentionally.
2. There are shapeshifters in my universe, and at least one shapeshifter who has appeared prominently could be interpreted as a trans character. There are other characters in the world that are definitely transgender, but haven’t yet appeared in a story3.
3. I’m not advocating quotas. As Mr Ahmed said above, quotas are bad for art, but so is monotony.