Rant on gay and lesbian characters in fantasy, for kannaophelia
(Warning: Vicious, big-time spoilers for Lackey's Last Herald-Mage and Arrows trilogies, the first book of Fiona Patton's Branion series, S. M. Stirling's and Shirley Meier's Fifth Millennium books, and Lynn Flewelling's Nightrunner series. Minor spoilers for Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint).
1) If you're going to have non-heterosexual characters, show them. Don't be coy about it. This is a real difference between the treatment of heterosexual romance versus the treatment of homosexual (or bisexual) romance in fantasy. If the author hints about a heterosexual relationship, it's almost always because of some Dark Secret behind it, such as the man and woman involved being the real parents of the mysterious orphan. She doesn't usually deny that sex happened. But hinting coyly about two men or two women, in the "Maybe they're sleeping together, maybe they're not" fashion, just sets my teeth on edge.
Look. Yes, for some people this is still a controversial topic. Just read the Amazon reviews for any fantasy that includes a gay relationship, such as Lynn Flewelling's Stalking Darkness, and you'll see some people who get upset and give the book low ratings because of the sexuality of the characters. But if you're going to tackle the topic, hinting around the edges about it is more harmful than not including any gay or lesbian characters in the book at all. At least, if the only men and women on the stage are attracted to the opposite sex, the reader is free to imagine that the characters who aren't exist somewhere else, or write slash fanfiction in which the onstage characters get together. But hinting? That reduces people to the land of coy giggles and the love that dare not speak its name again.
If the author feels, for whatever reason, that she absolutely can't include gay characters in her books because of the public backlash, then why in the world is she including hints? Why handle any controversial topic at all, for that matter? It's always possible for a book to fail to sell well, and a heavy-handed statement on feminism or religion can kill it as effectively as an onstage gay relationship.
2) Oh, Teh Tragedy! Oh, Teh Doom! Oh, Teh Angst! Here's something I don't get: Why, in fantasy worlds where the balance of sexuality is different and the society is portrayed as less prejudiced than our own modern one, do gay and lesbian characters wind up living incredibly over-angsty lives anyway?
Take Vanyel from the Last Herald-Mage trilogy (yes, again). He comes from a society that initially seems incredibly prejudiced, with a narrow-minded father and a sexuality so repressed he has never considered the idea that he might be attracted to his own gender. Then he goes among the Heralds, who are much more open-minded, and meets the openly gay Tylendel. They lifebond- yes, Lackey does lifebonds- and then Tylendel goes insane from the death of his twin brother and magical pretty white telepathic horse, and commits suicide in a fashion that just happens to give Vanyel incredible pain and the strongest magic that anyone has ever seen. Is that enough?
Of course not. Maybe if they were heterosexual, but these are people who sleep with their own gender! They must angst some more!
Vanyel, using his new mind-gifts, overhears the prejudiced thoughts of the apparently one Herald who hates gay people. Everyone else is welcoming, but none of them are sitting by the bed, of course. This one thinks that Vanyel caused Tylendel to commit suicide. So off Vanyel goes and slashes his wrists.
The Bad Herald is properly chastened. Then Vanyel's homophobic father shows up, spouts some rhetoric that even Pat Buchanan wouldn't touch, and is properly chastened. And, a couple of books later, when Vanyel does find someone else to love (who just happens to be Tylendel reincarnated, but we won't touch that agonizingly stupid idea right now), he dies almost immediately. His lover does eventually join him as a happy ghost haunting a forest, which supposedly makes it all better.
What was the point of that? "Damn, love someone of your own gender and you are screwed?"
Lackey's lesbians fare no better. A couple of them in her Arrows trilogy are happy little lifebonded people, with another woman longing on the outside looking in. Then one of the lifebonded partners dies, and her lover mourns- only to have the woman who's always loved her come running over in tears, and lifebond with her immediately. Hmm.
Maybe the message is, "Well, love someone of your own gender, and your partner will die. But don't worry, we'll get you another one!"
Even fantasy societies where bisexuality is the norm fare no better. Fiona Patton's Branion series is interesting in that genders are absolutely equal, down to title (Duke Isolde, Prince Kassandra, etc.), women fight in the wars, and many of the nobility have Companions, lovers of their own sex trained as spies, along with husbands and wives. Everyone accepts this, and the Companions don't seem jealous of the spouses or vice versa. Yet in The Stone Prince, where the big love story is between the Prince Demnor IV and his Companion Kelahnus, Kelahnus angsts about being put aside for Demnor's future wife Duke Isolde. Despite the fact that Demnor isn't all that attracted to her, and actually has to be conned into sleeping with her. Despite the fact that Isolde's Companion doesn't seem jealous. Despite the fact that he isn't put aside. Oh, and Demnor's evil mother Melisandra makes efforts to separate them, too.
I think we'd better revise that message again. "Minor characters in love with their own gender may get away scot-free, but be a main character and the author will torment you with angst!"
Piffle. Fantasy is so wide. Why not make homosexual and bisexual characters who struggle with problems not caused by their sexuality? Since, you know, they're people too? Or why not make them just have a normal relationship, with problems in other areas? Why should the heterosexuals have it so easy?
3) Rape does NOT make a woman a lesbian. No, really. I would say that one of the very worst things any fantasy writer can do is introduce a rape into a story with a lesbian character. Even if she somehow managed to avoid the implication that her character is really heterosexual and only started sleeping with women because she is forever frightened of men, the story runs the risk of falling into the "rape-and-revenge" genre. And, as tiresome anthology after tiresome anthology of rape-and-revenge stories has proved, at this point there's not much left to mine from the theme.
Think about it for just a second, hmm? Whether you believe that sexual orientation is the result of genetics or the result of a choice, what does it say about either that a woman is only sleeping with her own gender because she was raped? It certainly denies that any woman would make the free choice on her own, because of genetics or not. "There aren't any real lesbians," says such a scenario. "There are only frightened women who are taking what chance at sex they can get." It also binds rape to sex again, and ignores the violent part of the crime. And, finally, it implies that any sexual life a woman leads is always connected back to the male. She sleeps with him, or she sleeps with women because of him.
Not the most progressive thing to be saying, really.
I know you are thinking at the moment that only stupid fanfic does this, and not any published fantasy. Wrong. The Fifth Millennium series, which is set in guess-what-time-period after a nuclear apocalypse, has a character, Meghan Shadow'sDaughter, who starts out apparently heterosexual; she certainly only sleeps with men. Then she's raped.
Guess who her next partner is?
The authors of Saber and Shadow (S. M. Stirling and Shirley Meier) are to be commended for having their characters sleep together at all, I suppose. And one of them, Shkai'ra, does seem to be a bisexual woman who sleeps with both genders by choice, and genuinely falls in love with Meghan. Meghan, though, obviously has a lot of issues, even eight years after the rape, and actually thinks that it feels odd to be touched, and then actually thinks that she couldn't stand to have a man touch her, but a woman wouldn't be so bad. If this was her free choice, don't you think she might have discovered it sometime before this? Even if she didn't discover her attraction to women until later in life, couldn't it be detached from the rape?
Obviously not. Because, god damn it, we know that women couldn't possibly want to sleep with each other freely.
4) Surely not all gay men are fashion-templates. Surely, in fantasies where they ride around and fight monsters constantly and have sweat pouring all over them, they shouldn't be. Yet it seems that any homosexual man in fantasy must inevitably know all about clothes, dress to kill, and probably coax his boyfriend who doesn't dress as well into becoming a fashion-template too.
Vanyel dresses to kill, of course. (I appreciate Lackey's concern that her readers might try to ignore her character's sexuality, since she was writing in the late 80's-early 90's, but making your character a stereotype goes too far the other way). So does Lynn Flewelling's Seregil, and he teaches his younger partner, Alec, to dress the same way. This is explained as part of the art of disguise, since Seregil is a spy. Of course, he just happens to be a spy who dresses as a nobleman most of the time, and in clothes that get described a lot. I see.
Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint is rather refreshing in this regard, since one of the main characters is a swordsman, his rapier his most important piece of dress, and the other one wanders around in a student's robe for the majority of the story and doesn't give a good goddamn. However, when I found myself breathing a sigh of relief about that, my mood soured. What does it say about fantasy that apparently gay male characters absolutely must have a sense of fashion, despite most fantasies not having near the sanitary facilities, technology, or context in which such a thing would make a lot of sense?
I don't know. Ask the fantasy authors writing that stereotype in.
5) Avoid the compensation vibes. This is the idea, possibly easiest to stumble into when you have a bisexual character but certainly not unproblematic for gay and sapphic ones, that homosexual love is somehow purer and nobler than heterosexual love, and that even if the character looked at the opposite gender in the past, certainly he or she won't now. With a bisexual character, it also sometimes works the other way around; they wind up with an opposite-gender partner at the end, and they are just oh so happy!
Quit this shit. Idealizing one particular kind of romance never works, I think, but there are some tactics that are easier to avoid than others:
a) If the character is bisexual, and did have an opposite-gender relationship at some point in the past, do not demonize that other man/woman and make them into a horrible, horrible person. It's as stupid and shallow as a heterosexual love triangle where the Other Woman is a conniving shrew. It also makes me wonder about the intelligence of the bisexual character. If the other person was really that horrible, how did he or she fall in love with them in the first place?
b) Don't include long polemics on how much more understanding someone of one's own gender is. Instead, show me that this particular man really gets his guy, or that these two women belong with each other no matter what. It's a lot better to give a true love story between a couple (or more partners than that) with passion for each other, not just passion in comparison to some relationship in the past.
c) Do not, for the love of all that is holy, compare the sexual performance of one partner to another. I snicker when a heterosexual heroine's true love is the only one able to give her orgasms, which of course her evil ex could never do. I find it no less amusingly sickening when a woman has had sexual problems all her life with a husband or male lover, but of course sleeps with another woman and gets off five times all at once. If someone really does have a sexual neurosis, it should take longer than that to heal it.
6) Even in love with another person of the same sex, these should still be your characters. This applies to romance in general. Whenever I see signs that one character in a fantasy novel is in love with another, whatever the gender combination, I brace myself. Half the time, the previous characterization of these people rides the express train to hell.
Suddenly, a character who has acted snobbish all through the book is amazingly tender and sweet. Suddenly, someone who never angsted before is covered with angst, because, OMG, how can I love someone of the same sex, despite there being no prohibitions in the fantasy world against it?!? Suddenly, someone who has said that she values personality above looks is melting because she caught a glimpse of the other character bathing. (This is a stupid-ass plot device. How so many fantasy characters manage to miss the fact that the other hasn't come back from the pool or river yet and stumble on them by mistake, I will never know. Perhaps fantasy water produces moron gas).
Do keep your characterization consistent, hmmm? This is one place where slash fanfiction and original fantasy with bisexual or homosexual characters separates incredibly. Slash fanfiction can be written on subtext in the original series, in a gray zone where canon sexuality and attraction are left ambiguous, or in utter defiance of stated sexuality because the writer wants the characters together. When you write original fantasy, however, you are creating the canon. If you want the character in a relationship, you can easily enough write the story so that she becomes someone who is believable both before and after she becomes involved with another woman. You don't have to twist your gay male character against the grain if you know that he's going to be gay. Jettisoning who this character has been to create a Stereotypical Sapphist or Stereotypical Gay Man is breathing the moron gas, and tumbling back into a country where it’s easy to write characters spying on each other while bathing again.
7) Don't write gay message fantasy. That's what the Last Herald-Mage trilogy is, and that's why it can't rise above a certain level. It includes an extended scene in which another gay character (who, of course, accidentally killed his lover and also tried to commit suicide- what are these normal lives you speak of?) tells Vanyel all about the homosexual swans and wolves, how people Don't Understand, how He Must Be Strong, etc. When polemic takes over from the story, you're better off writing an essay or a pamphlet.
This is something that's very, very easy to fall into, especially if you have The Gay Relationship of Angsty-Doom. At a certain point, your characters stop being characters and become poster children for gay rights.
That's the wrong way around, I would think. It increases the gaping chasm between heterosexuals and non-heterosexuals, instead of closing it. Why not write characters who may be gay or lesbian, and are also strong, proud, wonderful, flawed people, not poster children? Either form of idealization, as incredibly perfect and pure or incredibly tormented, gives the victory to the polemic.
Besides, write message fantasy and you run the risk of any message fantasy- that your audience will get irritated at being whacked in the face with a sledgehammer, and go away.
Well. Certainly had a lot more to say about that than I thought I did. And I think that’s the longest rant I’ve ever written.