One of the troublesome tropes under discussion was that Old Canard, Bury Your Gays. If you aren’t familiar, the trope refers to the fact that often in fiction, queer characters are killed off and written out of series far more often than non-queers. I wrote about this a few years ago (Invisible or tragically dead… reflections on representation) in a year where over the course of the first 80 days of that TV season, 22% of all the queer regular or recurring characters across all network shows had been killed. And I pointed out that if the same rate of “anyone could die” actually applied across all of the casts of network shows regardless of orientation, that that would mean 2.5 characters being killed every single night of prime time television, and would mean that each season shows would have to replace more than 94% of their casts.
Many people have rightfully pointed out that a major contributor to the problem is that so many series, movies, novels, et cetera have at most one queer character (and rarely a pair of queer characters). In those cases that means that the only representation a show has of nonheterosexual people is erased by one character death. And even in those rare cases where there is a second queer character, since the second character is almost always in some sort of relationship with the first, that means that the sole queer representative left in the series is now an example of the equally bigoted/stereotypical Tragic Backstory Gay.
The lack of adequate representation is only part of the problem. Another very big part of the problem is that many writers think that queer characters are only suitable for queer plotlines, and so once the series has dealt with an incident of homophobia and an relative/friend learning to truly accept and support the queer character, that there is absolutely nothing else one can write for the character so they are now dead weight. But there are folks—most of them members of the queer community or allies—who genuinely think that the lack of realistic numbers of queer characters is the only reason Bury Your Gays is a problem. And unfortunately this causes other problems.
The discussion that I saw this week illustrated this well. One person was explaining what Bury Your Gays means, and went on to express their personal opinion that because they have read or watched so many queer characters get killed off so many times that they just don’t want to ever watch or read such a storyline again.
And people got very angry about that assertion. “How dare you say that I can never kill a queer character in my story!” “How dare you demand representation but also special treatment!” And so on.
Which is absolutely not what the person said.
Let’s switch topics for a minute. I was physically and emotionally abused by my father as a child. For that reason, I find it very difficult to sit through storylines involving abusing characters in stories I read or watch. This means that sometimes I stop watching a series or I put down a book never to pick it up again. I experienced a lot of that in real life and would rather spend my free time (which is what the reading of novels and watching of series or movies is, my free time) on other things. Similarly, many years ago a particular series I and friends were reading seemed to be obsessed with rape (and the gleeful humiliation and torment of vulnerable characters in general) as a plot engine. I decided that I didn’t need anymore of those kinds of scenes in my imagination, and I stopped reading the series (and when the editor of said series later became the author of an international best-selling fantasy series that similarly pruriently reveled in rape and torture, I swore off that, too).
In neither case am I saying that no one has the right to write such stories. Nor am I saying that people who want to read them should be legally banned from doing so. I’m just saying that I am done that that. I don’t want to read that. I exercise my right to choose what I read and watch and will go read and watch something else.
That doesn’t mean that I am weak. It doesn’t mean that I’m fragile. It doesn’t mean that there is something wrong or immature about me. I am making a choice and stating a preference. That’s all.
And yes, I’m generally in sympathy with the commenter who said she’d rather not read any more deaths of queer characters. For 59 years I have read stories in which if gay people like me were included at all we were the depraved villains or the tragic victims. And if I could go another 59 years of life and never, ever read or watch another story in which that happens, I would be happy (and not just because it would be cool to live to be 118 years old).
It’s not that I refuse to read stories where that happens. I do, even when I have been warned, sometimes. And full disclosure: in the series of fantasy novels I’m working on a lot of queer characters have bad things happen to them. In book one a canonically pansexual character appears to die (and his apparent death is quite important to the plot), though it is revealed later he survived. But as the series goes on I kill off an asexual character, a bisexual character, a genderfluid character, and (in flashback) a trans character. So as a queer author I’m doing this. But I also point out that there are a lot of other gay, lesbian, bi, pan, genderfluid, ace, and trans are in the story who don’t come to untimely ends. And as I’ve mentioned in blog posts before, I’m one of those authors who literally cries at the keyboard while writing a death scene, so I don’t take these things lightly.
So I’m saying that it is perfectly reasonable for a reader/viewer to make a decision about what kinds of stories they want to watch. And while writers get to decide what they do in their own stories—readers, viewers, and other writers are allowed to point out if we think they are portraying harmful stereotypes or perpetuating bigotry.
There was a second trope discussion where I felt attacked. People were lamenting the Gayngst trope. This is the tendency of many writers to portray all queer people as being unhappy with their lives, and specifically wishing that they weren’t gay. The people participating in this thread were unhappy with this trope because they were convinced that it is never true. One person asserted that there were no queer people anywhere who, once they got past the questioning stage and realized that they are queer, wished that they weren’t queer.
Which is where I really felt attacked. I realized that I was a gay boy at the age of eleven. Puberty hit like a freight train, as I said in that post, and finally I knew that all those people (including my father, some pastors, numerous teachers, and other adults in my life) who had bullied me for being a sissy, pussy, c*cksucker, and f*ggot had been correct.
I did not magickally become a wildly pro-gay activist at the moment of that realization.
To use the terminology of the the great James Baldwin quoted above, among the filth that I had been forcefed throughout my life up to that time was the absolute certainty that queers like me were going to spent eternity burning in Hell. And, since god is supposedly a Just Creator, we deserved it.
So, yes, I spent the next 13 years of my life frequently crying myself to sleep at night and begging god to take those feelings away.
It wasn’t until I was 24 years old that I started to believe that maybe, just maybe being queer wasn’t a curse that absolutely meant I would never know love, that I would constantly be fighting off depraved urges, and that I would ultimately deserve to be thrown into the Lake of Fire.
I was well past questioning for those years. And it wasn’t until I was 24 that I let a female friend talk me into the notion that maybe I wasn’t gay, but was actually bisexual. I would say that was the beginning of my questioning years, not when I first realized back at age eleven.
If some queer people younger than me really do immediately go from, “I don’t know why I seem to be different than what society expects me to be” to “Hey! It’s great to be queer” than I am very happy for them. I have my doubts that the transition is that instantaneous, but maybe it is.
Regardless, I know for a fact that millions of us spent a number of years mired in that self-loathing. And it isn’t just old fogies like me—earlier this year gay millennial Presidential hopeful Pete Butigeig admitted that “If you had offered me a pill to make me straight” he would have taken it.
So, while Gaynst shouldn’t be the universal portrayal of all queer people in stories and pop cultural, it’s okay to admit that some of us experienced that as part of our process of becoming who we are. And you should be able to criticize the stereotype without also erasing the queer people who experienced coming out differently than you.
It wasn’t until I was 31 years old—literally 20 years after I first realized and understood that I was a gay man—that I finally vomited up enough of that self-loathing and other filth to start walking this earth as if I had a right to be here. And the struggle of getting that point is something which should be honored, not erased.
I’m coming to this latest iteration of this perennial debate a little late, but since the principles apply to many genres of writing, I wanted to inflict my opinion on the net.
Certain critics of anthropomorphic fiction take issue with stories in which the author seems to avoid (or is simply oblivious) to the question, “Why talking animals?”
Watts Martin makes a good point that if a story features elves, dwarves, and hobbits, no one raises an analagous critique1. Then he posits that the real question ought to be, “How does the fact that some of the characters are talking animals affect the story?” In other words, in most stories involving elves, dwarves, et cetera, the differences in the fictional culture and characteristics of the elves, humans, and so on is usually inherent to the plot. Or at the very least figures into the characterization of each character.
Since our readers are human, it certainly seems reasonable to ask that any time we use non-human characters of any sort, there should be some sort of literary reason for doing so3.
Some authors assert that they are using the talking animals as stand-ins for different races, ethnic groups, and so on, making it a little easier to make certain kinds of commentary on social issues, let’s say. Others harken to Berke Breathed’s comments about choices comic artists make: a person sitting on a toilet reading a paper is off-putting, at best, while a penguin sitting on a toilet reading a paper is cute. Still others say that the species serve as a kind of shorthand for personality traits. Otters are playful, for instance, and cats are aloof.
Those are valid reasons, though I would quibble that many of the authors I’ve heard use those excuses don’t seem to write stories actually demonstrating those techniques. But maybe they’re doing it in a subtle, nuanced fashion I’m just missing4.
My particular problem when I hear someone talk about the culture or personality traits of particular non-humans, is that my contrarian instincts always kick in. Okay, so raccoons in your world are sneaky, clever, and have a rather cavalier attitude about the concept of ownership, leading many of them to be thieves or pursue similar professions. As soon as you say that, I immediately wonder, “But what about the one who doesn’t want to go to raccoon practice, but would rather be a dentist?56” And don’t tell me there’s only one raccoon in all the world who isn’t particularly sneaky and clever.
Which is why I sometimes respond to those who insist that a story needs to answer that “How does it affect the story” question with, “I’ll agree every story using talking animals has to answer that question if you agree that every story which mentions a character’s eye color has to also answer the question of how the heroine’s eye color affected her behaviour in the story.7”
So why am I writing two novels that include a shapeshifting fortune teller, a raccoon thief, an otter priest, dragon-riding knights, and so on? One truthful answer is that I’ve been hanging around anthropomorphic fans, artists, and writers for over two decades. I have lots of images, snippets, conversations, and tons of debates about this topic floating around in my head all the time. Of course they’re going to pop up in stories!
Or you can look at some of the jokes in my stories—the raccoon thief who keeps protesting his innocence by accusing his accusers of species-bias, or the otter who insists he’s a kitsune trapped in an otter’s body—and you can say I’m using the animals as metaphors to tackle issues such as racism and transphobia; topics which could be too grim and depressing if told using ordinary people in a realist setting.
Or you can look at some of the fun I’ve had with things like the Church of the Great Shepherdess9, the Predation Congregation, and the Omnivoral Free Fellowship, and say I’m looking at how our social institutions are more of an outgrowth of our biological identity than we may like to admit.
I suppose those do, in fact, answer the “how” question. I couldn’t have a church like the Predation Congregation10 in a comedic tale if I wasn’t doing it in a world where a talking golden retriever and a talking cat can be teamed up as police constables.
I have done the world building to figure out why I have talking animals, dragons, elves, and even ordinary humans, living in a civilization together, but so far it hasn’t been important to the plot (though there are a few clues here and there in the existing narrative). But neither the answers to the “How?” as stated above, nor the “Why?” answered in my world-building will satisfy some people.
To them, I can only quote Tolkein: “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”
1. That isn’t entirely true, of course. When I was younger, I was frequently asked by my most fundamentalist relatives why I wrote about elves or aliens rather than “stories that would help people find Jesus2.” But the number of people who take issue with elves and the like is infinitesimal compared to the number who get in a tizzy over talking animals.
2. I was not always diplomatic enough to stop myself from replying, “I didn’t realize he was lost!”
3. If nothing else, as an author, everything you do in your story ought to further at least one of the goals of moving the plot forward, illustrating the character, or setting the scene.
4. And it’s a quibble I’m sure people would make with some of my stories in this “genre,” as well.
5. Bonus points if you recognize that allusion!
6. To be fair, writing a character who fights against the stereotype is a perfectly legitimate way to use an elf or an otter or whatever as a metaphor for ethnic/racial/religious prejudices.
7. I understand if you object that eye color is not on the same scale, as it were, as species8. I counter by pointing out that talking animals in stories have been around for at least as long as written language has existed. Ancient Sumerian tales occasionally featured talking animals. The Bible has talking animals. Aesop’s fables are almost all about talking animals. I could go on. The point is that as a literary tool, talking animals aren’t outlandish, and many of Aesop’s fables would work just as well with a human instead of a fox or a crow as the main character.
8. I should also mention the time when I was involved in a collaborative project featuring elves, and wound up in a conversation where another contributor was appalled to the point of refusing to ever work with me on any projects because I couldn’t remember the eye color of one of my own characters without looking it up. She didn’t believe it was possible for someone to plot a story about a character unless you knew that character’s eye color, hair color, hair style, et cetera. So for some people, it is definitely on the same scale.
9. Members tend to be from herbivorous species that live in herds. Adherents are sometimes derogatorily called “Bo Peep-ites.”
10. Whose members have been known to hunt, kill, and then eat sentient non-members.