There seems to be this odd sort of online community of cishet (i.e. cis gender heterosexual) writers who want to write LGBT characters, but are too scared to screw them up. As with my post, Writing 101 | Writing People of Color, I will start with this bit of advice: writing LGBT people – particularly when you are not LGBT – requires empathy into a struggle you don’t experience, as well as an understanding that LGBT people are, more or less, just like everyone else. With all the resources out there today, you’d be hard pressed to really mess it up. As long as you do your research and approach writing such characters with empathy, you should be fine.
That said, I am here to help.
First and foremost: the full acronym, as it stands now, is LGBTQIA+. That is, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual. It is important to note that queer is an umbrella term that acts as a reclaimed slur. Only members of the LGBTQIA+ community can use queer to self identify. The word is, essentially, off limits to those who are not part of the community. And not every member of the community is comfortable using the word to self identify. As a small disclaimer, as a member of the community I find it easier to simply identify as queer. For me, it makes it so I don’t have to explain my gender and sexual identity every single time I walk into a room. Which leads me to my first point:
The LGBTQIA+ community is incredibly diverse
As such, this will be a multiple-part series detailing the various identities in the queer community, and the issues, ideas, and various stereotypes that come along with them. I do this in hopes of helping people, whether they belong to the community or not, become more comfortable writing queer characters of various identities. So, without further ado:
Part 1: L, G, B, and A – or – Exploring the Characterization of Sexuality and Romance
There is a difference between sexual and romantic identity. For many people, these things line up. Someone who is bisexual is, more often than not, also biromantic. But this is not always the case. I have two friends who are, for example, bisexual but homoromantic. So when you’re creating this queer character, it is important to ask yourself: how do their sexual and romantic identities line up? Further, sexual and romantic orientation are very different from sexual and romantic behavior. A woman who is both bisexual and biromantic may prefer to sleep primarily with women, but this sexual behavior does not make her a lesbian. Still with me? If not, feel free to ask questions in the comments below. Otherwise, let’s move on.
Defining our terms
A lesbian is someone who identifies as a woman who is sexually attracted to other women. In a similar vein, a gay man is someone who identifies as a men who is sexually attracted to other men. The umbrella term for these two terms is homosexual, and the related romantic term is homoromantic.
A bisexual is someone who is attracted to two or more genders. There is some confusion surrounding this term, with many claiming it is trans exclusionary, but this is not the case. The term isn’t trans exclusionary, but many self identifying bisexuals are, claiming to be attracted to ‘both’ when it is common scientific knowledge that gender exists on a spectrum. A related term to bisexual is pansexual. While some insist these terms mean the same thing, this is not my experience. Where a bisexual is attracted to two or more genders, a pansexual experiences sexual attraction regardless of gender. Think: Captain Jack from Doctor Who.
Finally, asexuals (aces) are people who experience no sexual attraction. I take the position that all asexuals, even cishet asexuals, as they have an alternative sexuality and face unwarranted discrimination, belong in the queer community if they decide they need it. It is important to note, however, that while some cisgender heteroromantic asexuals do identify with the community, most do not. And that is perfectly valid. Related to asexuality, is aromanticism. Someone who is aromantic (aro) has no romantic inclination. Just as someone can be homoromantic and asexual, someone else can be homosexual and aromantic.
There are numerous other sexual identities that could be discussed, such as polysexual and greyace, these are simply the most common and most recognizable. If I could find a satisfactory comprehensive list, I would provide you with one. But alas, no.
Being Aware of Cliches
Listen. There are plenty of effeminate gay men, butch lesbians, promiscuous bisexuals, and shy asexuals. But if you’ve produced a story where every single one of your gay characters – or even most of them – fits this mold, then you’ve got a problem. Think of it like this: there are also plenty of effeminate straight men, tomboyish straight girls, promiscuous straight people, and shy straight people. But when you think of the representation of straight people in literature, you don’t think of these traits as a rule. And you shouldn’t for gay people, either. There is no universal gay experience.
Again, do you research, talk to actual, real life gay people, and make sure you treat this character like you would any other character. Now, on to the Q&A.
How do I indicate my character’s sexuality?
I am of the school of thought that if your character is gay, it is important that at some point within the context of the story this is made explicitly clear. Representation isn’t representation if it’s invisible. That said, the character’s personal story arc does not have to be about how super gay they are. It can, but it doesn’t have to be. When deciding on this, it is important to consider the character you’ve created. If all you’ve got for this character is “they’re gay,” go back to the drawing board, make an actual character, and then decided how to go about indicating their sexuality.
Here are a couple of examples:
Character A is a loud-mouthed ball of anger who wears his pride on his sleeve. He almost enjoys coming out to every new person he meets, openly declaring his queerness as readily as he’ll declare his race and class. It’s part of what makes him who he is, and it’s important that the people he interacts with have some idea of who they’re dealing with.
Character B is quiet and reserved. She dislikes confrontation and sees herself as much more than a lesbian. She is loath to declare her sexuality to the world, because it’s nobody’s business but hers, but has no issue casually discussing her past girlfriends. She is proud, but real quiet about it.
Two things are important here. First, that I draw these responses from what kind of character I’ve created. They are characters beyond their sexuality, and this informs how they approach coming out in social situations. Second, it shows two different ways to indicate a characters sexuality. Character A would openly declare it, where Character B would mention it in passing if a past or current relationship came up. Both of these are equally valid ways to handle indicating a character’s sexuality.
How do I handle my character coming out?
Not everyone comes out as a teenager. Some people come out later in life, some people earlier. to handle the coming out of your character, you have to consider what kind of family they’re from, what kind of area they’re from, what kind of friends they have, and what kind of character they are. Long story short, coming out for the first time can be really complicated. And, for most people, it’s a process, rather than an event.
I have several friends who are out to our group of friends, but not to their parents. In fact, most people I know came out to their friends before their family. Or, if they’re older, they might come out to their children first. If you decide to write a character going through the process of coming out for the first time (because you never really stop coming out), ask yourself these questions:
How old is my character? How did they realize their sexuality? Did they always know or was it an event? Who are they closest with in the world? Would they come out to this person first? Why or why not? What is their relationship with their family? Would their family accept them? Why or why not? What about their friends? Their community?
Here is an example:
Character C is 16 years old. He realizes he is bisexual when he realizes the feelings he has for a guy he knows are romantic. He is closest with his twin brother, and tells his brother within a week of his own discovery. He doesn’t trust anyone else as much as his brother, and he knows his brother will accept him. He is close with his family, but has a complicated relationship with his mother. Most of his family is incredibly accepting, but his mother finds it hard to digest at first. His mom is concerned that the world won’t accept him for who he is and gets scared, not knowing what to do with it.But he assumed his family would think it was no big deal, so he comes out to them before his friends. He has no idea what his friends would think, as they’ve never discussed it, so he avoids coming out to them until he feels he absolutely has to. Living in Queens, NY, however, it’s not that much of a problem.
With that little write up, you can branch out to more specific questions. Like: how does his brother react in the moment? His mother? The rest of his family? His friends? Did anyone already know? How do they react over the long term? Is it something to get used to, or an immediate adjustment?
And from there you can start building the coming out process.
How do I handle gay sex scenes if I’m straight?
The thing I, a certified gay, hate more than anything else in literature is inaccurate portrayals of gay sex that are clearly written for the straight gaze. So, again:
Do your freakin research.
I’m not talking about gay romance novels written by straight people, or anything that has to do with porn. I’m talking about going to talk to real life gay people about what gay sex is like. I’m talking find real self-help sites related to gay sex. I’m talking actual legitimate sex research. You’re not writing what’s sexy, you’re writing what feels good. And, more often than not, these things are mutually exclusive.
After you write the scene, have it checked over by a gay person. It may feel awkward, but it’ll make your writing much better in the long run.
This won’t be the last time I say this in this series: DO YOUR RESEARCH. There is not one way to be gay or bisexual or ace. Just like there’s not one way to be straight. Being gay presents issues that straight people don’t have to deal with, but gay people are still people. They are, in essence, just like everyone else.
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for part 2!