‘…recently I was in a script read through for the sixth film, and they had Dumbledore saying a line to Harry early in the script saying “I knew a girl once…” I had to write a little note in the margin and slide it along to the scriptwriter, “Dumbledore’s gay!” [laughter] If I’d known it would make you so happy, I would have announced it years ago!’
There’s a sticky situation one runs into when writing LGBTQ characters. So you want to write some non-heterosexual people into your story, whether to reach out to an abysmally underrepresented minority (which really isn’t such a minority, not that the media would have you think so) or to look cool and hip and fresh by being inclusive or to lay out fish hooks for the slash fans. The question then becomes, how does one write in gay characters while making them characters and not just gay?
I name this post after the case of Albus Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series (really, should I have to spell that out in this day and age?), as his acclaimed author simply let it drop one day that the character was in fact homosexual, expressing it as Word of God rather than having it come through in the books themselves. This inspired an ovation from some and outrage from others, and academic eye-narrowing from all sorts of angles about the nature of this decision.
Was J.K. just pulling the factoid out of her hat after the books as a cheap attempt to seem inclusive and an ally? This seems to be a question still floating around. One argument is that there was absolutely nothing in Dumbledore’s characterisation that indicates he was gay, which would have saved J.K. Rowling conveniently from any obtrusive moral guardians while the books were still being published. The counterargument is that of course there wasn’t any evidence of Dumbledore being gay, because, well, people don’t actually come with neon signs announcing their sexuality.
Would it have pleased anyone if Dumbledore had slipped into a stereotype to prove a point and camped and queened his way around Hogwarts Castle, perhaps making passes at male students and teachers and slinging feather boas over his shoulders and generally being terribly offensive? Still, it would have had it in his characterisation! This is the thing, you see: a person’s personality and actions, especially in the wider frame of things where, say, there are magical beasts roaming around, dark wizards wreaking havoc and bloody living paintings and staircases that move, are not really affected by their sexuality.
So without any plotlines or perspective that delved into Dumbledore’s romantic life (apart from, like J.K. says in that interview, the implication that he fell in love with a dark wizard in his youth) how could we have known he was gay? We couldn’t, and we didn’t, and in the end it didn’t matter in the slightest. That’s kind of how it works in real life.
The flipside to this is, if we want queer representation but don’t want to make a big deal out of a character being queer, how does one go about it? This is the trap that a lot of writers fall into, where they panic at some point and think that if they have a gay character they have to make a point of their ‘different’ sexuality and bring it to the front lines. Granted, in today’s often-less-than-fluffy-and-kind world, queer sexuality can be a big part of people’s lives, and coming out stories of self-discovery show up a lot in YA because this is an emotional journey that a lot of young people can relate to.
However, fine lines appear in that once again: you want to appeal to the LGBTQ audience and perhaps show the non what it’s like and make them empathetic to the struggle, but in doing that you don’t want to reduce their entire character arc to what is essentially a cliché that makes the story less about the character as an individual and more about the issue itself, presenting being gay as something that creates plot conflict rather than a perfectly natural part of people’s lives.
Maybe that’s our obsession with romance as a culture—after all, basically every story has some sort of love subplot or triangle or cloud of despair, so you could argue that straight characters are made into vessels of their sexuality exploration plotlines as well. Still, in a lot of mainstream media there’s an unfortunate amount of writing that makes gay characters defined by their inescapable plot-directing characteristic gayness.
Really, it shouldn’t even be treated as a trait. It’s the wiring of the brain and the hormones and the heart like any ‘straight’ (I kind of hate that phrasing. Like, is queerness curvy? Bisexuality a spiral? Asexuality a dot?) romantic inclinations are. And yes, the romantic element is a huge one in a lot of stories and a lot of lives, but the people we are attracted to don’t define us.
Sexuality should be a sub-point, not ignored, I suppose, because you still want to acknowledge the existence of LGBTQ people. Without, of course, having them work a blurting of “By the way I’ve got the gay” into their first conversation or narration. It should be revealed in good time with good grace, barely even treated as a plot twist, though the same conventions can apply: the reader reaches a point where they go “Oh, I see” and then maybe some previous actions or throwaway lines make sense.
Maybe not, though, because sexuality isn’t exactly something that needs to be foreshadowed (unless it’s a huge part of the plot, for example finding out that the love of the protagonist’s life is actually gay and cannot love them back, like in Jacqueline Wilson’s Kiss) or treated like something meant to shock the reader, because overall it should not be a big deal.
Yet we also want to make a deal out of it because including queer characters and queer plotlines should be something that happens and is made a point of, and acknowledging the existence of an entire group of traditionally alienated people in fiction is hugely important, especially when it’s in a positive light. But we also don’t want to have tokens and stereotypes or awkward archetypal plots that marginalise the LGBTQ population in fiction more than it was when society kind of refused to admit its existence, or went around arresting people for falling in love with others of their own gender.
It’s a tricky business, and thus it must be handled with care. Really, it comes down to characters being written well (which doesn’t always happen on its own) and made into three-dimensional made-up people as opposed to caricatures, stereotypes or the issue of LGBTQ representation play-doughed into human form and awkwardly brought to life by media Frankensteins trying to be societally conscious. Cecil Baldwin hits the nail on the head:
“Being gay is not a plot point. It’s not a token that you can say, ‘Look, we have a gay character! Isn’t that great? Aren’t we awesome?’ It’s part of a person and therefore it should be treated as such. It should be one facet of a character rather than the defining description of that character.”
For which I commend him, though the fact that that should have to be said is unsettling and tiresome in its own right. Still, baby steps, one irrelevantly gay protagonist at a time.
Of course, all hope is not lost. Malindo Lo has a list (as well as many other good things) of YA books she enjoys with queer protagonists that work, as does Epic Reads. There’s a separate bibliography for fantasy here, and a casual Googling will turn up many more.
Of my own travels, I can safely confirm that Malinda Lo’s Ash is awesome (a Cinderella reimagining with a legitimately well-written romance, which is a bonus even without the queer representation), as is Every Day (which has a body-hopping genderless protagonist, which again is just really cool and proves that fantasy/sci-fi has plenty of room to play around with this kind of thing), and in fact most of David Levithan’s writing.
Laika’s children’s movie ParaNorman also pulls off exactly what I’ve been talking about and surprises everyone with a character that turns out to be gay at the end of the movie, after spending the rest of the story with that little detail not mattering at all (they’ve also got same-sex couples in the trailer for their next project). And as quoted, Welcome to Night Vale, where you really have to side-eye anyone getting angry about the weirdness of the same-sex romance because it is literally the most normal thing that happens. And so it should be.