I don’t know about you, but one of the main reasons I read fantasy is to escape reality. I want to be transported into worlds that are full of magic and excitement. I want to know that I can be an elf with perfect aim or a magician with the power to control the weather. Unfortunately, as a queer person I often run into a problem—I apparently don’t exist in most of the worlds I want to visit. There is enough bigotry and ignorance in the real world. The point of a fantasy world is that it’s different from the real one. But how different is it, really, if there is no place for LGBTQ+ people in it? (Same goes for many other minorities, but that’s a topic for another post, perhaps.) And I’m so tired of it.
I am also particularly tired of people trying to justify the lack of LGBTQ+ characters in fantasy. Setting aside arguments about “the gay agenda” and queer characters being “distracting”, which you see in any kind of fiction, one of the most common and frustrating lines that comes up when discussing fantasy is “labels such as gay, lesbian, etc. wouldn’t make sense in a fantasy world”. All this argument does, in my opinion, is betray a lack of creativity and abundance of bigotry in both the readers and the authors. Not only do these labels make sense, they’re extremely easy to add in.
Spoilers for the Circle of Magic books by Tamora Pierce and Pantomime by Laura Lam below the jump.
Firstly, fantasy worlds, and all their rules and laws, are created by the author. The author has complete control over the world, and let’s face it, there are always holes and things that don’t make sense in the plot or setting. But we, as readers, accept that and suspend a certain amount of disbelief in order to enjoy the story. Additionally, we accept a huge number of things that aren’t even real, such as dragons, elves, magical mirrors, and so on. It shouldn’t be any more difficult to accept that gay, bisexual, lesbian people exist in these worlds too.
Secondly, if you’re dead set against using real world labels, fantasy worlds lend themselves perfectly to the invention of in-world labels. After all, the author is already creating a whole new world with its own set of rules, beasts, social order and so on. Adding a sentence or two explaining that X means “woman who loves women” or “a person attracted to more than one gender” doesn’t seem like something that should be a big deal, and it would be so so important to queer readers as well as introduce cis straight readers to LGBTQ+ people. One particular example is in the Circle of Magic series by Tamora Pierce, which discusses Daja Kisubo’s sexuality like this:
[Finding Daja with Rizu in a bedroom] “Daja, why didn’t you say you’re a nisamohi?” he [Briar] asked, using the Tradertalk word for a woman for who loved other women. “What with Lark and Rosethorn, did you think we cared?”
“I didn’t know that I was a nisamohi,” Daja whispered […]
—The Will of the Empress by Tamora Pierce
It literally took three sentences to establish the word “nisamohi” and its meaning. Furthermore, it assures Daja (and the readers) that, while perhaps it’s not generally accepted in this world (much like the real world), Daja’s sexuality will not change her family’s feelings toward her.
Finally, it’s not like you even need labels to explain characters’ attractions; there are a number of other ways you can do it, even though it is always a little disappointing when the author doesn’t actually put a name/label to it. You can show it through characters’ actions, relationships, or mentioning their history. You can describe the character’s thoughts and feelings to other characters. You can have the character themselves talk about it. In the aforementioned Circle of Magic, for instance, Rosethorn is described as liking both men and women. Oberyn Martell in A Song of Ice and Fire “bedded men and women both”. Pantomime by Laura Lam, while it has some problems, contains the most elaborate exploration of same gender and multiple gender attraction in fantasy that I’ve ever read, yet the characters don’t use any labels. The characters speak about being attracted to their own gender, to more than one gender, or mostly preferring their own gender but occasionally going out with someone of a different gender. On top of it, the protagonist, Micah Grey, is also an intersex transgender person. All of Micah’s feelings are explained without the use of labels, but it gets the point across and the characters’ attraction to same and different genders are explained in matter-of-fact language which doesn’t treat their existence as something scandalous or shameful—they’re just people who exist and live their lives.
And that is essentially what I want to read about—people like me living their lives in fantastical worlds, becoming entangled in magical prophesies, fighting evil forces and surviving. I want to know that people like me can do it and, more often than not, I just want to escape the heteronormative reality. So it is really disappointing to find that even within the fantasy realms it’s almost always the same, especially when it would be quite easy to change that.