Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: “why does this character have to be gay? It’s so distracting!” Or what about this: “we thought about making this character queer, but we thought it would be a distraction”. It seems like I’ve been seeing this sort of thing a lot lately—I see authors insisting that they’re open-minded and love their “gay fans”, but making characters queer would divert attention away from the story; on the other hand, I see fans complaining that the existing queer characters are distracting. But all I, a queer person, can hear from this is “for me to accept and portray you as a person, I need to ignore a piece of your person; can we pretend it doesn’t exist?” and “no one wants to see you as you are”.
It seems that a lot of creators think that it’s enough representation if they have ‘hidden’ LGBTQ+ characters—only revealing it with a throwaway punchline at the end of a movie (see: Mitch in ParaNorman), or even worse, only mentioning it outside the work itself (see: J.K. Rowling’s “I always thought of Dumbledore as gay”). Many fans cheer when this happens, because, see, you can write gay characters who don’t distract from the story. On one hand, this helps to normalize queer characters; it makes them seem just like heterosexual characters, so straight viewers don’t think of them as ‘other’, but as people just like them. And this is important. But on the other hand, really, what sort of representation is it if the audience has no idea the character is queer for mostof the work? Invisible representation is not representation. It also sends the message to queer audience members that they’re only equal to straight people when they’re indistinguishable from them, when they’re exactly the same; that to be accepted you have to follow the heteronormative rules. If you’re in any way different, you draw attention and it’s annoying and disgusting and the need for you to be this way is constantly questioned.
However, to what extent are queer relationships more “distracting” than heterosexual ones, exactly? We watch heterosexual people fall in love, kiss and have sex on screen and in books all the time. (It’s kind of annoying, actually.) The importance of love is an underlying message in many works of fiction, but most often only love between straight men and straight women is presented. Take Harry Potter, for example. One can argue that this story is primarily about love—a mother’s love, platonic love, romantic love, feelings that resemble love but aren’t really love, what happens when one lacks love in their life, etc. Pretty much all the characters had romantic arcs during the course of the books, and it was always boy-girl couples. All through the seven books, there’s no mention that a girl can fall in love with a girl, for example, and that this sort of love is just as strong and life-saving as when a boy loves a girl. It was only after all the books came out that we found out that Dumbledore was gay and in love with Grindelwald, making him the only queer character in such a huge cast. Love brought him no happiness: his sister died because of it and the man he loved turned out to be the most powerful evil wizard of the time; Dumbledore lived in solitude ever since. So, what does a queer reader take away from this story? That they can be the most powerful wizard of the time, but they can’t be happy and the love they feel isn’t as magical as love heterosexual people feel.
Another thing is, a lot of queer people just don’t pass the heteronormative standard, for whatever reason. But regardless of whether we “pass” or not, our queerness is part of who we are, always. We deserve to be respected and represented as we are, because we’re people. My queerness is neither a distraction nor a punchline. It’s part of me. It’s all me. I want to see myself on screen, not just some watered-down and edited version that is palatable to the straight gaze. As such, I really like Felix Dawkins from Orphan Black. His introduction at first glance may appear like a flamboyant mash-up of gay stereotypes, but he’s so much more than that. He’s a fleshed-out character and it’s achieved in a very simple way—he’s
an important part of the story, his character is treated the same as all the other characters, he has different relationships with many characters, all the while being visibly queer, and it’s not treated any differently than any other feature of any other character on the show.
Clearly, there’s a double standard to how cisgender heterosexual and LGBTQ+ characters and their stories are usually treated. Cisgender heterosexual characters are the default, their sexuality is not really sexuality and the way they are attracted to other people is just a part of who they are. But when a character is LGBTQ+, they become sexual, like their sexuality or gender identity is something extra tacked onto them and the way they experience attraction is not just a part of the character. As such, it suddenly needs a purpose—why does this character have to be queer, why do their relationships need to be shown in the books or on the screen? For instance, G.R.R. Martin recently spoke about the lack of explicit sex scenes between gay characters in A Song of Ice And Fire books:
I put gay characters in the books, but they’re not the viewpoint characters so I did not have any explicit gay sex scenes in the early books […] I’m not going to do it [explicit male sex scenes] just for the sake of doing it. If the plot lends itself to that, if one of my viewpoint characters is in a situation, I’m not going to shy away from it. (speaking at Edinburgh International Book festival)
It’s funny that he thinks he needs a plot reason to include gay characters having sex, because he doesn’t seem to have any problem including plenty of sex scenes between men and women, many of them without any seeming relevance to the plot or character development. Also, it’s worth noting that, as he himself points out, no viewpoint character in this ridiculously large cast is queer. There is no reason why Martin should include LGBTQ+ characters in the main cast, other than the simple and crucial one—queer people exist and we want to see ourselves in fiction we love.
A couple of years ago, when asked about the potential of having a gay character in the second Star Trek movie, J.J. Abrams said:
But [you want to] do it in a way that doesn’t feel like you’re [just] doing it in order to make that point. Because then it’s almost a disservice. Because then it feels like, “Oh that stupid distracting subplot about you know, you know, that minority. Or those people.” So the question is how do you do it where it doesn’t feel like, ‘Why am I getting into that kind of detail about the character’s life if not just to make a point of it?’ (interview with TheBackLot.com)
Horrendously offensive wording aside, I actually agree—one shouldn’t write queer characters in a way that only ticks off the diversity box, makes being gay in the background their sole purpose, or makes their sexuality separate from the rest of their personality and story. But it’s really not as difficult to do an LGBTQ+ character justice as Abrams and so many others seem to think it is—one only need to see queer people as people and understand that queerness is a part of someone the way heterosexuality is a part of someone. Take Kieren Walker (In The Flesh) for example. He’s a quiet artistic kid with a history of mental illness who is dealing with being a PDS sufferer and whose first love was a boy. He deals with problems typical for a queer young man. It pervades his character story, but it’s not the character story, and it’s not a throwaway gimmick either.
Creators and audiences often think that there needs to be a good reason for a character to be queer and while there is a reason, it’s not the one they’re looking for, I think. The reason is simple and crucial—queer characters need to be included in stories because LGBTQ+ people exist and we deserve to be represented the way we are, just as cisgender heterosexual people are represented. Not a heteronormalized version of us, when our queerness is invisible, only revealed as a gimmick or a punchline, but us as we are. And it’s really not that difficult to write LGBTQ+ characters well—just treat them like the people that they are, never forgetting the queerness is an integral, but not defining, part of their character.