Welcome and thanks to I. E. Kenner, who is an Aussie sci-fi writer and good fun to chat to on Twitter (look them up). They’re joining us today to give us their insights on writing LGBTQI characters. — Cass
So you would like to write an LGBTQI character into your novel. Well of course you would! So many lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer and intersex people are completely awesome (as are many straight people, but of course straight people get more press ;o).
Most of us at least know a lesbian, bi, gay, trans, queer or intersex person, but you may not be across some of the community terms, issues and challenges that will help round out your character. Unless you are yourself gay, trans or queer or spend a lot of time in the LGBTQI community, you may not feel entirely comfortable writing a character with which you don’t completely identify. We all face these issues when writing any character from with background different from our own. I myself struggle with aliens. And conservatives. But hopefully this article can help some of you out there writing your LGBTQI characters!
Before I start, let me tell you a little bit about myself: I am a trans person, which (for me) means my gender identity and the way I express my gender do not match my birth sex. You will note I say “trans person” because at this time in my life I am still trying to work out exactly what gender really is and where I fit into that spectrum (you know…once I work out what the spectrum is). I am a parent of three crazy, fantastic children; a partner to a wonderful, patient, caring woman; a writer (mostly of fiction); a blogger (mostly of bullshit); and a pretty prolific Twitterphile.
I have a lot of straight, gay, lesbian and trans friends and I feel I have a good understanding of many of the issues, challenges and struggles people in the LGBTQI community face, despite having been mostly accepted in my own experiences. I face some of these challenges myself every day by presenting myself the way I feel rather than the way much of society expects me to, though I have always gone with the motto: ignore the arseholes and embrace everyone else. I am not an all-knowing oracle on this subject, but I think I can give you a few pointers.
So…how can we start to write your character?
Well, to begin with, you must remember that LGBTQI people ARE STILL JUST PEOPLE. Everything you do every day is probably not outrageously different to what a trans person or a lesbian person may do. Also realise that despite the stereotypes we, as a society, are bombarded with, not all people who identify as this, that or the other sexuality or gender match the stereotype. For example: not all gay men are exceptionally effeminate, neat and tidy; not all lesbian women wear their hair short and wander about in boiler suits; and not all trans women get about in lingerie and gaudy makeup. Everybody is different, even within the confines of community labels. As long as you have a character background that makes sense for the way in which your character behaves, the world is your character oyster!
Some things to be aware of though: terminology is important. Very, very few trans people will refer to themselves or any other trans person as a “tranny” unless they are super comfortable in their own skin and they are talking in joking, irreverent manner the way we do to good friends in private. The same goes for lesbian ladies and the term “dyke”, and gay guys and the term “fag” or “poof”. All of these terms are slurs and will almost never be used by anyone in a professional or very public situation. The LGBTQI community is gradually taking back these terms, but they are still slurs and some people will get deeply offended if anyone uses them, ever. (In fact I will wait for my hate mail to come in about this paragraph.)
Also, some intersex people are resentful of being included in the term LGBTQI and, indeed, resent being considered part of the LGBTQI community. I do understand this and I feel for those people who resent this inclusion; however, the community I know and the people I know in it are inclusive of just about anyone. If you’re not an arsehole and you would like to be a part of the community you’re welcome to be a part of it. So please forgive me, those of you who don’t like the idea of being “lumped in”, but I consider it a privilege, not a punishment.
As far as I’m concerned the only thing that differentiates LGBTQI people from anyone else is the way society treats them. In designing the background of your LGBTQI character, consider carefully that times have changed in most western countries. How old your character is may affect how they see the world and how the world has treated them. Is there actually such a thing as “coming out” to them? For most of us older folk, we had to go through a time in our lives (or are still going through it) when we have revealed our sexual orientation or gender identity to the people around us. In many cases, this does not turn out well. So with that in mind, if your character is a bit older or they live in a very conservative community, have they come out? If so, to whom? For a lot of people, coming out can be a terrifying experience because they feel (with good reason) that their family will react badly and or they will lose friends because of who they are. It can be an incredibly daunting prospect. For others, like myself, the journey is ongoing and the whole concept of coming out is actually a process of revelation within us and expressing that revelation (carefully) in our lives.
“Coming out” and the issues around doing so have historically had enough gravitas to produce any number of novels, films and the odd riot all by themselves.
Speaking of riots…keep in mind that community attitudes heavily affect LGBTQI people. A lot of people born in conservative communities will suffer serious negativity, and even violence. Such serious negativity that if they survive, they end up escaping to a more accepting place very early in their lives (sometimes dangerously early). How has this hate affected them? How will they treat people in their new home town? How will they be perceived? Will they shy away from people and social situations or will they embrace their new-found freedom to be themselves and be reborn into a more accepting community? Will they get involved in the LGBTQI political scene and promote, fight and speak out for the rights of LGBTQI people, or will they keep to themselves and just get on with their lives?
What if you’re not sure about the stuff you’ve written? Is it realistic? Is it unintentionally offensive? Is it not offensive enough? (Real life can be offensive; so can fiction, and offensive scenes can have a profound and ironically positive effect.) If you’re not sure, use the resources you have out in the world. Ask your CPs to read your work and provide a critique. Use your Twitter tweeps or Facebook friends who may be LGBTQI or may be more familiar with the community; ask them to read your work and critique it, particularly for the references and realism of your character.
I have a trans woman character in my WIP and I have struggled to shape the character because in my world of the future, the concept of LGBTQI is no longer a thing. People just are who they are and it is not something people discuss, so do I introduce this woman as trans? If so, how can this be done? How do people react if they learn that she is trans? How far into her transition is she? How does this affect her psychologically?
I have lots to work through with this character, and here I am writing from my own experience!
Finally something to think about if you’re NOT considering having an LGBTQI character in your novel. Based on a 2012 survey in the USA, 3.4 percent of people surveyed identified as LGBTQI. A 2014 survey in Australia came out with almost exactly the same percentage. I would suggest this is not a coincidence, but rather a statistical reality. So if you have 30 characters in your book, chances are at least one of them will identify as LGBTQI. Do we have to make a character’s sexual preference or gender identity the focus of the book? Of course not. Do we need to consider the nuances of each character’s world as different from the worlds of their peers and families? Of course we do. They’re our characters and creations, we want them to come alive!
Happy reading and happy writing, folks.
- Transgender: A broad, generic term covering anybody identifying as transsexual, crossdresser, drag queen, drag king or gender queer
- Transsexual: A person whose birth sex does not match their gender identity and/or gender expression
- Trans: Shortened form of the above
- Trans Man: A person who is trans who presents and identifies as a male
- Trans Woman: A person who is trans who presents and identifies as female
- Gender queer: A relatively recent term used to refer to someone who does not specifically identify with either binary gender
- Drag King: A woman who dresses either professionally or for fun as a caricature of a man
- Drag Queen: A man who dresses either professionally or for fun as a caricature of a woman
- Intersex: A person who is born with both male and female genitalia
- Crossdresser: A person who derives sexual excitement from dressing as the opposite sex (the term “transvestite”, unfortunately for Frank N Furter, is considered a slur these days)
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