Monday, August 27, 2012

From: LGBT Issues in Fantasy Round Table

The Great Traveling Round Table is over at Warren Rochelle's place this month, tackling the question of gay characters and issues in fantasy. There's quite a range of perspective, from historical attitudes to personal biases and coming-out stories. Here's what I had to say:

Gay Characters in Fantasy: A Personal Journey

In my experience, the community of science fiction and fantasy readers and writers has been one of the most tolerant of, and welcoming to, those who don't fit into the mainstream. This includes queer (non-strictly-heterosexual) and gender-queer (non-strictly-male-or-female-assigned-gender) folks as well. My own introduction included stimulating discussions of sexuality, gender identification, and sexual orientation. I remember reading Theodore Sturgeon's Venus Plus X (1960, one of the earliest science fiction stories to challenge gender-role stereotypes), The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. Le Guin, and Marion Zimmer Bradley's The World Wreckers (1971). Four years later, Marion published The Heritage of Hastur, in which she created a sympathetic and heroic gay protagonist. The World Wreckers impressed me because one of the characters falls in love with a member of a hermaphroditic race and must confront his own feelings about homosexuality and his identity as a man. I had never read anything like it, and it opened my eyes to the question of who we are, apart from our plumbing and hormones. This led the way to the understanding that sexual orientation is not just about which body part fits where, but about the people who are the focus of our hearts: romance as well as hormones.

In general, the works I read during the 60s and 70s were serious and courageous treatments of gender, gender roles, and sexual orientation, well ahead of popular media. But popular media caught up, although perhaps not in the formats its creators intended. I suppose fanfic (fan-written fiction based on established characters, not limited to television and films but primarily so) has always been around, but slash fiction is usually thought to have originated with the original series Star Trek. What's slash fiction? Beginning in the late 70s, mostly female fans created stories featuring romantic and sexual relationships between various male media characters.

Somewhat to my bemusement, my teenage daughters loved it. I say bemusement because of my dissonance between the in-depth examination-of-issues, coincident with the women's consciousness-raising movement of the 1970s, with the irreverent, often whimsical character of slashfic. What was this all about? And why were my daughters -- who at the time were dating both boys and girls to see which they preferred -- so interested in male characters hopping into bed with one another?

Fast forward a bit, with the death of Marion and my continuing her "Darkover" series (the setting for both of her above-referenced novels) plus my own writing career, with numerous portrayals of gay and bisexual characters. In 2004, I attended Gaylaxicon in San Diego, still scratching my head over slashfic and smiling nicely at all the campy humor. During a question and answer period, I put the issue to the audience. No one had a definitive answer, but there was a fascinating discussion about the differences between what appealed to women in slash characters and what appealed to gay men. (I suspect there's a corollary in what lesbians find attractive in female slash characters versus what turns straight men on.) I came away mulling over the idea that within the slashfic context, readers of both sexes found a nonthreatening place in which to explore their own feelings about relationships, in particular sexuality. This lead to the disturbing question of whether this process objectified gay people, in essence projecting a distorted image of them for a purpose they have nothing to do with -- e.g., helping adolescent girls understand male sexuality.

And this led to an even more disturbing question, not meant as a criticism specifically of fanfic but of fiction and media portrayals as a whole: do we see what we want to see, or do we see what's really there? Can a gay youth, who is struggling to figure out who he is and how he is different and if he's okay, understand himself through the lens of an essentially heterosexual portrayal of sexuality? Can any of us find ourselves when we're being defined by someone else's needs (or stereotypes, positive or negative)?

Do we as writers have a responsibility to create gay characters that make sense in the experience of gay people? Do we have a responsibility to include them at all? Should the sexual orientation of a character even be an issue -- aren't people just people?

I wish it were that simple, that we might live in a world in which gender, race, faith, or sexual orientation do not make some people invisible. Or worse, targets of hatred. I see value in both portraying worlds and cultures of diversity, and in stories about the struggles gays face now, in our imperfect world in their own terms.

Author Kyell Gold writes, "I’d been more and more openly gay for about a decade when I moved in with my then-boyfriend (now husband), but I still kept it private from my co-workers and other casual friends until I got a better sense of how it would be received. What was fueling my writing then was the urge to show gay characters falling in love, the way I was falling in love. [ital mine] ... I have gotten many, many e-mails from teenaged boys (mostly) telling me how the book changed their lives, made them realize that it was okay for them to be gay. I have heard from people who said they didn’t realize that gay relationships were about anything other than sex until they read my book. Everyone has these intimate experiences and secrets that they keep close to them. One of the most terrifying things we face as a human is being alone. ... And when you read about someone, even a fictional character, going through the same things you did, that can be a revealing, momentous experience."

One of the most humbling and inspiring projects I have worked on was completing the novel Marion began in the final year of her life, featuring the central character from The Heritage of Hastur. After Hastur Lord came out, I received the following email, used with permission: "As a gay man who has had to live in the closet from much of my early adult life, I wasn't sure how the [characters] would find their ways to peace, harmony, beauty, and honor. ... I always loved the way Marion gave primacy of love and honesty, no matter the culture or the perceived taboo. Those of us ... who have lived under the harsh lash of religious zeal, ideological repression, and the resulting personal constraint, cherish your ability to portray living honestly, openly, self confidently, at peace with ourselves. We know the cost, the loss, and the gain. And you have not shied away from the struggles to achieve that peace. It is hard won. But you have shown that the determination of caring people ... can make committed lives blend together beautifully, forging a family, while at the same time allowing each to express their own individual truest selves. Thank you for carrying on Marion's vision and for touching me deeply."

Hastur Lord was nominated for the 2011 Gaylactic Spectrum Award.

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