This is the first in a (hopeful) series of guest blog posts about “Identity” – anything and everything that falls under that term is what I want to look at. Identity is a powerful thing and with it being so broad a church, there are plenty of different pews for people to come sit at. I truly hope this series can be a success – and if not, I will shuffle off the stage with an awkward cough. – Leo
SFF is this brilliant well of magic, different worlds, star explorations, heroes and heroines, and enough characters for most people to find someone to identify with, at least to some extent. But some characters are easier to find than others, and sometimes the ones you can’t find so happen to be the ones that you really would want to identify with.
I am gay; I have known that I am for a long time and for a long time I despaired of ever finding gay characters in the books I read. It wasn’t something people talked about, let alone wrote about, even in fantasy worlds. The only place I ever found traces of homosexuality in what I read was the Latin texts I had to study and translate for school, written thousands of years ago. It made me feel as though we had gone backwards a fair few steps in the way we are open about certain things, but I never really questioned it: after all, it was just normal.
But this apparent lack of gay characters everywhere I looked (books and movies alike) did lead to one problem: being gay myself, I tended to, already back then, write gay characters—or in the very least, bisexual characters.
But I felt that I couldn’t.
It seemed that writing about characters that weren’t straight just wasn’t done. And so, I didn’t do it. I kept my characters as straight as I possibly could (which was a hell of a lot straighter on paper than in my head), all of them, and to be quite frank it never got me very far. Ever tried to write a character in a way he/she wasn’t meant to be? It just doesn’t work. The problem finally got too much whilst I was at university. The characters that came to mind for my BA dissertation were many things, but certainly not entirely straight.
Luckily, I had a tutor who liked ‘transgressive’ literature and to him, it seemed that a pair of gay vampires would fit the bill quite nicely. So I wrote the necessary piece, handed it in, and it suddenly dawned on me that there was a far larger plot surrounding the pair than I had so far been aware of. I wanted to write it, but heaven forbid, they were a couple, and without that would not have been the same. So I was back to wanting to write gay characters, and fearing the wrath of the world if I ever wrote the story and tried to get it published.
I had been forced to look into vampire literature featuring gay characters for the occasion: 99% was unashamed smut with little to no plot and painfully clichéd characters. It was painful to read and often painted homosexual relationships as something sordid and based only on sex. Relationships and solid attachments were all but absent but the sex scenes were aplenty! They didn’t even make for particularly good reading, even if you took them simply as smut, and it often felt as though the authors didn’t have much of an idea what they were writing about (I don’t know if that was the case, it’s only how it came across to me). Yes, I’m picky even with my smut, so sue me.
But in the 1% remaining, I found the first traces of homosexuality in an actual, published book that wasn’t smut. The Blood series by Tanya Huff might have been a series I didn’t stick to in the book form (I was harder to please back then, so perhaps there is hope for it still if I was to pick it up again!) but it featured Henry: a handsome, charming vampire, who turned out to be attracted to men and women both. The parts about him being with men might be short but I wouldn’t exactly have called them entirely subtle, not unless one was purposefully trying not to see it. Which I was most definitely not. I wanted to see this stuff and it leapt right out of the page at me. Especially with the fact that it involved Henry (I may or may not have a crush on that vampire when I watched the TV show).
It gave me faith that perhaps things were changing. But a handful of years went by and I didn’t really stumble again across a gay character. Granted I didn’t read much, but still, I shouldn’t have had to rely on anime and manga to find the kind of characters that I could fully identify with. That was until I was introduced to one Commander Brynd Lathraea, the protagonist in Mark Charan Newton’s Legends of the Red Sun series, and still to date my biggest crush in a SFF book.
And he was the first main character in a story I had ever encountered to be openly—well, openly to the reader at least—gay. It was novel, refreshing and exciting, and it generally made Brynd into an even more amazing character than he already was.
The very fact that Brynd existed in a published book boosted the confidence I needed to write some of the characters that had lived in my head all this time. It was obviously now okay to write gay characters—even if I had only encountered it once, it was enough. The SFF genre was starting to allow more diversity within its pages with less of the straight paladin, riding his white horse to rescue the equally straight princess (wouldn’t it be more surprising if she turned out to be a lesbian, or he already had a boyfriend waiting at home?).
Then, I read Anne Lyle’s The Alchemist of Souls (and its sequel, The Merchant of Dreams), and encountered not one, not two, but three characters that were either gay or bisexual. It was fantastic. I could identify with these characters on a different level, in a way that I had only been able to do once before properly. It brought them, and the book, to life in a way that made it very important to me. And hey, Gabriel is a pretty face I wouldn’t mind flirting with, which is, for a change, something actually feasible in that yes, he would be interested in another guy!
There have been a handful of characters dotted about in the work of other authors that have been gay and that I have noticed since: Meteroa in Stephen Deas’ Memory of Flames series or Caim’s friend—I forget his name—at the beginning of Jon Sprunk’s Shadow’s Son, being the first two that spring to mind. They might be minor characters, but they are still present, offering a well needed note of diversity in a genre where for too long characters had been unchanging and unreflective of the diversity that the real world has to offer. I perhaps notice these side characters or the situations that hint at homosexuality but that’s because they resonate with a part of me and it is a relief in a way every time I come across one. It also makes me like the author that does it that little bit more than those that don’t.
It’s perhaps why, when reading The Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed, I couldn’t help but notice the hints at homosexuality through the mentions of male prostitutes. It’s small, it’s subtle and present in only one sentence but it’s there and it acknowledges an entire side of the population that for so long wasn’t so much as mentioned.
Gay characters still aren’t plentiful, but it’s getting better, and I find myself every now and again specifically looking into books that have such characters. One that is on my list of to-read is the Nightrunner series by Lynn Flewelling, where the two main characters end up being an item over the course of a couple of books. I have seen people complaining that the two boys don’t get together sooner but surely, these people wouldn’t complain if a hero and a heroine waited till book two to start really getting together? It’s one of the things that makes me worry that perhaps people still perceive the presence of gay characters in books as something else than them being just characters.
Perhaps it’s the mentality of the community that regards LGBT characters as a form of entertainment (for so long, the books with them in were smut), or perhaps it’s simply a process of time, when more characters will appear less straight, and when sexuality will become more fluid in the work of authors.
Either way, it is clear that gay identity is being, slowly but surely, more and more represented in SFF. And it’s good to see. It’s good to feel as though my sexuality is not excluded entirely from the genre I read and that we are no longer people kept on the sidelines, as though the writers were afraid to offend by including us in their story.
In the coming weeks/months, this series will really get its feet off the ground. Thanks for reading.