Hey, readers! In the second installment of OKPotato’s Guide to Writing Diversely we will be discussing representations of LGBTQAI characters in media. You can find the first part on Character and Culture here. (Note: I personally identify as a lesbian, but that does not make me an expert in the subject by any means. I have pulled from other resources for some parts of this post and welcome any corrections or comments.)
I guess the first thing to start with is deconstructing that terrifying acronym. LGBTQAI is a catch-all for minority sexualities:
- Lesbian: Romantic, physical, or emotional attraction between female-identified people.
- Gay: Romantic, physical, or emotional attraction between male-identified people.
- Bisexual: Romantic, physical, or emotional attraction for both male and female-identified people.
- Transgender: A person whose gender identity or gender expression does not match one’s birth sex.
- Queer (or Questioning): The former is an umbrella term for anyone who does not fit heteronormativity or the gender binary (including pansexual, polyamorous, etc.) The latter is for anyone who may be unsure of their current sexuality.
- Asexual: A spectrum of sexuality defined by lack of sexual attraction (may also include romantic attraction). Includes demisexuals, gray asexuals, etc.
- Intersexual: Physical sex characteristics that are not categorized as exclusively male or exclusively female.
Whew. But don’t be intimidated! As with writing culturally-diverse characters, it’s a good rule of thumb not to make a queer character’s entire existence and plotline about their sexuality. However, it doesn’t mean that you should treat them entirely like a straight character save for the gender of their romantic interest. Living as a queer person involves not only casual and overt homophobia (e.g. everything from too-long glances when you walk down the street with your partner, to being called “sir” or “ma’am” despite or because of your gender presentation, to outright bullying and violence), but also shifts in all interpersonal relationships as friends, family, coworkers, and others become aware of a character’s sexuality.
As with any other minority character whose diversity you may not be familiar with, research is generally a good idea. Unfortunately, a lot of LGBTQAI media out there is fraught with tropes writers should generally avoid. These stereotypes are often used as an easy way out of exploring the complexities of queer lives, or to use for humor to a heteronormative audience. Understanding the spectrum of human sexuality (and its fluidity) will take a lot more space than I can cover in one post, but here are some bad queer tropes that are way too overplayed:
- Tragic Gays in Love: Though I’m sure this can be applied across the sexuality spectrum, it happens the most in gay or lesbian love stories. Generally, the plot follows the same progression: Unexpected queer love blossoms; one or both parties resist (futilely); opposition from family or society; the break-up; attempts at reconciliation only for the death of one partner to follow. We end on the heartbreak of the remaining partner. How strong, we are left to think; if only society were not so cruel.
Yes, society is cruel and that is a good message to send to heteronormative societies who have no idea what queer people go through on a daily basis. However, killing off LGBTQAI characters does nothing but reinforce images of violence against queer characters, while also impeding any actual queer relationships from continuing by the end of the story.
Examples in books: The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Golden Compass, The Book of Lost Things, Sword of Truth, The Bell Jar, the Divergent trilogy (to be discussed later on this blog’s hate-read of the series, pt.1 and pt.2 thus far).
Examples in movies: Brokeback Mountain, A Single Man, Boys Don’t Cry, Lost and Delirious, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, etc.
- The Straight Exclusion: Usually involves a queer character (usually lesbian or gay) falling in love with a person of the opposite sex, despite their sexuality. They consider this person “an exception” and so queer representation very quickly becomes standard heterosexual representation. OR, a straight character falls in love with their gay “exception.” While this can happen, the use of this trope is often an erasure of bisexuality and includes a negative connotation of straightness being normal and any homosexual attraction as something to be ashamed of. At best, heteronormative audiences will accept this as a default occurrence, and at worst they will assume that any gay character can fall in love with a straight person as long as they just find that one exception.
Examples: 30 Rock, How I Met Your Mother, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Office, BBC’s Sherlock. I don’t know why this happens in TV so much, but maybe because it can be played for humor better among visual characters, e.g. Michael Scott’s crush on Ryan in The Office.
- The Coming-Out Process: Understandably, a lot of LGBTQAI storylines focus on the discovery of one’s sexuality (or gender identity) and the ensuing coming-out process. This is an important part of every queer’s persons life, but it is not the only part. Often these storylines will follow a standard arc: “normal” life; realization in the form of a romantic relationship; the struggle; the reveal; the aftermath (e.g. unexpected acceptance or dramatic disownment; both are realistic outcomes, but they also belong on a spectrum of reactions); and the slow beginning of true acceptance which may involve a found family (i.e. other LGBTQAI characters), or reconciliation with previously resistant family. The end.
Some things to keep in mind as a writer: 1) This does not have to be a be-all, end-all formula because it has been done so many times. Examples include Alex Sanchez’s Rainbow Boys trilogy, Boy Meets Boy, Annie On My Mind, and movies such as Grey Matters, But I’m a Cheerleader, Imagine Me & You, etc. 2) Coming out, even to close friends, is almost never casual. Queer people live in almost constant agitation (if not outright fear) of who is privy to the knowledge of their sexuality. Reactions are still varied and hard to gauge. Even when received positively, there are still slips-of-tongue, jokes of bad taste, and overcompensation of behavior to prove acceptance. 3) Even if you start a character after they have come out and weathered the reactions, this will still affect how they interact with others in their present life, as well as how they feel about their own sexuality. 4) Some people do not come out to everyone, let alone their families. It is a personal decision and it should be up to the character to decide when and how they do it, if at all. It should not be treated as an inevitability.
- Those Shocking/Hilarious Queers: I don’t know why producers and writers think it’s easier for audiences to handle queer characters as long as they’re comedic relief, but that seems to be the case in a lot of media, especially visual media such as movies and TV shows. There is a variety of ways for this to be portrayed, such as the sassy Gay Best Friend trope (think Damien in Mean Girls, or Patrick in Perks of Being a Wallflower).
Other tropes include: 1) a straight character finding him/herself in a gay bar and having to defend their heterosexuality; 2) Outing a bigoted character (especially macho men) as non-heterosexual, such as athletes or senators as a shock to the audience, 3) A straight character being left because their partner is “now” queer, such as Ross Geller in Friends or Mark in RENT; and 4) General camp at the expense of queer lifestyles, such as in The Birdcage or Will & Grace.
- Subtext Only: The most egregious trope in media today is using homoerotic or otherwise queer subtext as humor or titillation. This usually plays as “haha, isn’t it funny that we are acting like we are gay but we are definitely not gay.” You’d think this would only happen in cringe-worthy titles such as the movie I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry (two straight men pretend to enter a gay marriage to get domestic partner benefits), but it’s also apparent in TV shows like BBC’s Sherlock, House, Teen Wolf, The Big Bang Theory, Rizzoli & Isles, Psych, How I Met Your Mother, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural, Merlin, Hannibal, and the list goes on… This is also pretty clear in certain literature, even the uber-macho Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk.
The list of bad tropes goes on, believe me. There is a particular dearth of representation for bisexual, asexual, transgender, intersexual, and polyamorous characters. Bisexuality is still especially seen as a “transition stage” between straight and gay. (Most media focuses on gay and lesbian characters only, which is still met with fair opposition. See: Disney’s single attempt at showing same-sex parents on their popular show, Good Luck, Charlie.) As a new generation of writers, its is our responsibility to start making changes in the media representation of diverse characters, whether it is racial diversity, LGBTQAI representation, or representation of disabilities and other minority issues.
Let’s get started.
Comments, suggestions or problems? Let Cheri know in the comments section. (PS: I will be back on Sunday, instead of Chebk, to recap Insurgent, the next book in the Divergent trilogy, for our March reading challenge. See you then!)