I’m trying to create a world where there’s no racism, there’s no sexism, there’s no homophobia. And I know it’s not real life, but I kind of don’t care. I’d like to create a world where none of that matters: you have the supernatural creatures for that to work as an analogy. In my mind, if you can create a world like that on TV, maybe life starts to imitate it.
—creator Jeff Davis, about Teen Wolf (x)
Welcome to the non-homophobic utopia, everyone. I don’t necessarily mean a utopian society; moreso, I mean a society where there are absolutely no built-in social mores about same-sex relations, to the point where discrimination based on such is unheard of and even confusing when outsiders bring it up. If this society is an alien race in a science fictional work, that race may not even have a concept of sexual orientation and instead be universally pansexual.
What I want to talk about is this: in terms of fictional queer representation, is it better to show a society where there is literally no discrimination against characters who experience same-sex attraction, or is it better to show characters dealing with the same prejudice a young reader might also be facing? Let’s consider the pros and cons of each.
First off, the utopian situation. Well, if you enjoy reading (or watching, whatever) to escape the harsh realities of life, you may prefer a society where the queer characters are not subjected to the same slurs, casual -isms, and discrimination that real LGBTQ+ people face.
Besides the aforementioned Teen Wolf universe, where Danny and Ethan have 99 problems but discrimination ain’t one, I’ve read a lot of other stories where this concept is used. In Doctor Who, Captain Jack Harkness is introduced as a polysexual character. However, the Doctor qualifies Jack’s attraction to other men (and, well, everyone else) by saying that in the 52nd century, where Jack is from, the little boxes like ‘sexual identity’ that we 21st century folks put ourselves in are a thing long past. Basically, although Jack seems to us like pretty much the only queer character on the show, where he’s from everyone displays similar sexual preferences. In the 52nd century, polysexuality is the norm.
In Homestuck, where the above chatlog image comes from, the trolls, an alien race from another universe, have an incredibly complicated romantic system that nonetheless does not include any sort of distinction by gender. Although trolls present physically along a gender binary, they as a species don’t tend to make distinctions about gender when choosing a sexual/romantic partner. Because of this, the idea of not being attracted to someone because they are the same sex is pretty unbelievable to them. Furthermore, as you can see from the chatlog, even the trolls’ language is part of the utopian ideal—they don’t even have a word for homosexual. They literally do not have a word for queerness because they don’t fall in love in accordance with a gender binary. It’s not possible to be homophobic in troll culture because the entire concept of homosexuality doesn’t exist for you to be prejudiced against.
However, presenting a non-homophobic utopia can come off as lazy writing in some cases, as it can be seen as an unwillingness to engage in the issue of discrimination rather than a desire to show a more perfect society. Furthermore, because our society remains homophobic, it can be disheartening to be forced to consider the disconnect between the fictional world and our own.
But what about the more reality-based option? The pros to having a queer protagonist or character who has to undergo real-world levels of discrimination is that a queer reader can empathize with said character, can look at the Young Adult Protag of the Week and see that they are not alone in their struggle to be accepted.
The problem with stories like this is that it’s important that the characters are also three-dimensional beyond their queerness. Issue books that are exclusively a vehicle for a morality tale about how being mean to queer people is bad do little to help queer readers find a sense of themselves in the story. These sorts of books exist solely to use queerness and queer discrimination as the tearjerker issue of the week, rather than presenting a character who fights demons or witches or other generic bad guys and also happens to be LGBTQ+.
Batwoman could be an issue story, but manages instead to show one woman’s triumph over a flawed system. It certainly begins with a textbook case of queer discrimination: Kate Kane left West Point under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell because she couldn’t live the lie that she wasn’t gay. Despite this rough start, Kate is able to set herself up as Batwoman, enjoy long-term romantic relationships with other women, and, in the current New 52 storyline, is actually set to be married to her current girlfriend Maggie Sawyer.
The Nightrunner books are a fantasy series that follows Seregil and Alec, a seasoned jack-of-all-shady-trades and his apprentice, through wars, political scheming, and magical plots. Along the way, they fall in love. Homosexuality is more accepted in this universe than in ours, but, in author Lynn Flewelling’s words, “not universally so”, and Seregil and Alec do face trouble for their relationship.
Havemercy and its sequels, also a fantasy series, focus on a rotating cast of characters, some of whom are queer. In Havemercy, the first book of four, the fantasy-Russian nation of Volstov is at war with fantasy China, the nation of Ke-Han. Volstov’s battles are mainly fought atop giant mechanical dragons, and part of the story focuses on the dragonriders themselves. Amidst the conflict, however, nobleman Royston is exiled to the countryside after an affair with a visiting prince. There he falls in love with a country boy, and it’s all very romantic, but that doesn’t mean the two of them don’t face hate and homophobic slurs—specially invented for this universe in line with slang the characters use.
In the end, I think that, as far as representation is concerned, both situations have their ups and downs and I’m not sure which I prefer. I’d like to say the more realistic option, but I think it’s because that seems more realistic to me, that humans regardless of universe or time period will be scared of or hateful to those they consider ‘other’, and that’s just really sad.
I think it’s worthwhile to have stories with both situations, as long as they’re dealt with respectfully and carefully. However, it is really depressing that we can still define the alien-ness of a culture by how little they discriminate against LGBTQ+ people. Why is a society without homophobia a ‘utopia’ and not just… the norm?