On queerness and representation

A writer friend of mine wrote a pretty good essay during his July blog-post-a-day ambitions about queer protagonists. It’s a quick read, and he does a pretty good job of answering “why so many now?”: representation matters. After so much exclusion with men, usually white, at the helm of every industry — this includes the commercial arts — there has been a moment in the sun for queer writers, and so many of us have been honing our craft on fan fiction, much of it exceptional, and now bursting out, refulgent into an industry which while it still centers those who are white, straight, and men, has given us enough space to at least be visible and successful for the time being. The wheels of justice, righteousness, and recompense have aligned for the time being, too little too late, but still: we’re here.

They write:

Genre fiction has always been where societal boundaries are stress tested first. Genre fiction is where progressive voices get to practice. When the stories are exploring what could have been or what might be, sometimes the narrative dives straight into what should be.

Presently, there should be more queer protagonists. There should be more queer writers, writing queer protagonists, celebrated by audiences, queer or otherwise.

It’s not lost on me that we get lumped into ‘progressive voices’ — and we are — but we’ve been here for a very very long time. We’re dissenting voices, hidden voices, erased voices, progressive voices, voices of people stuck in a conflict that has moved on without us, voices of the long-marginalized. All of these are long standing social processes, not a new phenomenon, a new frontier being carved out suddenly. We’ve always been here. Fan fiction itself, the refuge of writers creating what the main stream will not give them, has much of its current structure from the idea of ‘slash fiction’ (gay pairings) that came about specifically in Star Trek fan fiction, mostly from women and queer writers.

There should be more queer protagonists: when I was growing up, it was said that 2-4% of us are queer; I heard some people say 10% and at the time that sounded overstated, but now I’m convinced that’s deeply underestimated and truth be told, as I come to understand the processes of queerness, sexual attraction, identity formation, oppression, and marginalization, it’s now my habit to see not the proportions as some fixed number, but the result of processes of how we, collectively, conceive of ourselves. If more than two thirds of us can figure this stuff out by the messy process of living it, a writer can figure it out by listening. These are dynamic systems, and with the increased visibility, whole new groups of people come to understand themselves new ways. And this is good. It’s an alternative to the ugly truths about how we have conceived of ourselves before: whiteness was created to justify slavery. Straightness was created to reinforce ideas of family that support systems like capitalism and corporate dominance. These aren’t neutral defaults, but evolved systems that benefit people.

But more than that: if genre fiction is the place of imagining a new future or alternate past, queerness is itself a subject for genre fiction. It is the place we imagine new ways of being. It does a disservice to the idea of genre fiction to rope off some pieces as a do not go zone. We are, in fact, the sort of people who figure this stuff out, repeatedly, for character after character. We must open our future and look at it honestly.

There are lived experiences that I cannot claim, experiences that many queer readers would expect from a story that is meant to speak to and represent them. It would be wrong of me to try and write a queer story. There are other writers that can write that, and we should make sure there is room for them to do so.

They’re not wrong about the last part — we have been denied too long, and the room to do so is much needed — but I want to challenge this: like anything else in a market, often it’s not as simple as competition for a place, but instead, good stories in conversation with each other and new entries and aspects of these things create markets, and expand both access and success of all within.

It’s certainly true that straight people, almost entirely white and men, have dominated the industry, and stand an easier chance of being published than their peers who are not. But at the same time, it’s also a matter of lifting each other up. It’s not writers who are in the way, it’s publishers and the power structure that filters so terribly. That’s the place to fight: with success and publication, we get the opportunity to recommend and include others. We lift each other up. There’s a tendency to gate-keep, especially when we feel like we are spending our reputation to uplift others. That follows from the nature of the industry, but we can upend it. Instead of looking to the power brokers, the decision makers for what’s good, we can listen to each other, and the marginalized among us for the stories that aren’t being told, aren’t being published, and we can both write them and bring the authors already doing so into the light.

I can include queer characters in my stories, though. My main character can be queer, as long as I don’t make that the focus of the story. Some folks are gay. Some folks have dark hair. Some folks have gluten allergies. These are descriptors, and not necessarily character defining traits.

It can be a little confusing when a story is appropriation, and when it is representation. When in doubt, there are readers that can provide feedback and help the writer keep from doing harm with their stories. Misrepresentation and stereotyping can be extremely painful and continue a cycle that oppresses or mischaracterizes people that are already not well represented. So, hire a sensitivity reader, and listen to them if they tell you that you’re doing harm.

It’s not wrong advice in the slightest: if you’re not of the group, you’ll rely on the relationships with people who are for sensitivity. Hire a sensitivity reader, pay them well, and listen to what they have to say. But so too, a sensitivity reader can’t represent a whole community with its diversity of opinions. We have to go deeper. We have to cultivate a plurality of relationships. Listen, but also listen to the theory behind what they’re saying.

But here’s my challenge. Write the story with the queer main character where that deeply defines their life. I don’t mean necessarily a coming-out story, or a story wallowing in the oppression, but it’s okay — and I’d argue necessary — to do the work to really understand what makes us who we are to write good genre fiction.

Some of us are gluten-sensitive, and it’s just a trait that adds a bit of complexity. Sometimes it’s a thing that took decades of our life to chronic illness, defined our relationship with our families, the medical establishment, the very idea of work. So too with queerness: it’s not always flavor text, a bit thrown on top to give a bit of diversity to otherwise straight characters. In many ways, the approach of not letting queerness be a character-defining trait is itself a kind of tokenization: you can have a queer character if they’re not too queer. You can’t be progressive if it doesn’t upset the status quo.

Stories upset the status quo, out of necessity. Genre stories of often upset the whole status quo, the very ideas that our world is built on. That’s what makes them great.

Make no mistake here: I’m not saying that if you’re straight you shouldn’t write queer characters, if you’re white you shouldn’t write racialized characters. But it does mean we need to learn, to listen, to understand and be clever. We need to both extrapolate from the information we do have, but also listen to those unlike us for the information we don’t have. You don’t just have to listen to your sensitivity readers (though you’d do well to do so!), you have to listen to the world around you, for the things that challenge the very ideas of how you think things are. As a writer you’ll grow from this. We can grow beyond the fear of doing harm and into a well forged alliance of authors supporting each other, uplifting the more marginalized among us, sharing and understanding their stories not just when they’re written for us but when they arrive in their full complexity in a world that may not be ready for them. We need to cite our sources for some of our ideas. Two takes on the same thing uplift each other, and if we find ours takes space from the other, we should uplift the other, not shrink to the shadows, hiding the much-needed idea from the world.

Writing about queerness feels like an expanse of shifting terms, pitfalls under mundane seeming appearances, but that too is an experience of queerness. In my own lifetime, the word you’d use to refer to someone like me has changed not once, twice, but three times. That hesitation and discomfort, that desire to get it right and play it safe is one of the forces acting on queer people too.

Write the queer main character, but be prepared for the learning that will happen, both in the criticism but even more deeply in the introspection. Queerness is on one hand a mere fact of life for some people, but in another, a foundational relationship to the world — not always friendly, but sometimes it is, an in either case, can affect us to our core. Being non-white too is an experience of marginalization, but it is also a natural joy to exist in a skin and family and community that is very much who one is, inescapable. As a white writer, we will find both the marginalization and the joy uncomfortable. As a straight writer, likely the same for queerness. The discomfort will reveal stories you thought you could never tell, and if you nail a story, really seeing an aspect of the experience, that enriches us all, proving that we really can understand each other.