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Dumbledore’s Other Army: Orientation and Sexuality in Genre Fiction

In the second of my posts on representation in genre fiction, I’ve decided to tackle the visibility (or lack thereof) of LGBT characters in fantasy and sci-fi. This post contains one significant spoiler for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as relatively smaller spoilers for several other shows/books (most notably the new BSG and Babylon 5).

In some respects, it seems like the visibility of queer characters in genre fiction is improving faster than for some other underrepresented groups. I’ve read several books in the last few months that feature major gay or lesbian characters whose same-sex attractions are not the only relevant aspect of their identity (most notably Daryl Gregory’s Afterparty, reviewed here). There are some noteworthy queer characters in genre TV shows, too. The one that’s caught my attention most recently is Willow Rosenberg from Buffy, who even gets to be PG-sexual with her girlfriends on screen (a relatively big deal for the early 2000s), and there’s also Susan Ivanova from Babylon 5; these characters are especially notable for being bisexual (in action if not in label).

Of course, there are Jacqueline Carey’s Terre D’Ange books, focused on a culture where the expected default is bisexuality. And even the new edition of D&D jumped on the bandwagon a few weeks ago, including a paragraph in its chapter on character creation explicitly encouraging players to think about “how your character does or does not conform to the broader culture’s expectations of sex, gender, and sexual behavior… You don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender.”

So, queer folk have a presence in the SF/F canon, and it seems to slowly be growing.

And yet.

  • When Game of Thrones showed Renly Baratheon and Loras Tyrell being openly sexual on-screen, many of fans raised voices in protest, saying that “they totally weren’t gay in the books” (reminiscent of the fan outrage when Rue and Cinna from The Hunger Games were played by black actors in the movies, in keeping with Suzanne Collins’ description of them in the books). Although GRRM has publicly stated that these characters are indeed supposed to be in a relationship, allusions to it in the text are always relatively subtle.
  • The new Battlestar Galactica has one “openly” gay character in its relatively large cast (and her sexuality is only discussed in the bonus TV movie): the tough-as-nails admiral Helena Cain, whose memorable actions include ordering the shooting of conscripts’ families to force their compliance. I agree with those who’ve said elsewhere that there’s no intrinsic problem with giving underrepresented identities to characters who do questionable things; having a particular group appear in your story only as saints and martyrs causes its own problems. But when the only member of a group appearing in the story spends most of their time doing questionable things… well, that makes me go hmm. BSG does have a second character, Felix Gaeta, who’s been officially identified as bisexual — but the scenes where he’s shown to be in a relationship with another man appear in a series of “webisodes” that aren’t included on the DVD box set or otherwise available to latecomers to the show. In fact, as far as viewers of the DVDs are concerned, Gaeta is altogether relationship-less.

In that vein, we could also talk about Dumbledore. Or Gobber the Belch from How to Train Your Dragon 2. These characters have been revealed by their creators to be gay… but it’s after-the-fact. Or outside the scope of the movies and books where they appeared. Good for the creators for giving some thought to representation… but not good enough.

Some people will continue to argue that “of course” series like these will be subtle with their representation of LGBT characters, because they’re designed for children and queer characters have no place in children’s fiction. But as this article from io9 points out, even children’s stories are full of references to love and romance. Nearly every Disney movie has boy-meets-girl or girl-meets-boy as its central theme. And as LGBT activists argue when talking about queer life in the “real world,” the question of who people love, date, and daydream about filters into many more aspects of life than just what happens in the bedroom.

Love interests are a central part of the stories we tell, regardless of what age those stories are aimed at. Short films like this one and this one are a step in the right direction, but if the rest of us are serious about making our sf/f worlds look more like the real world, there need to be more queer characters in our fiction who talk about their lives. Video game writer Anthony Burch wrote a great post on this, where he said in part:

I’ve been told once or twice that the bisexual or gay characters I wrote for Borderlands 2 were arbitrary and forced. This is one hundred percent true. I did not have any particular stories to tell about human sexuality — I just randomly chose a few characters and decided that they weren’t heterosexual. I had no “reason” to do so other than the belief that a cast of sexually diverse characters is better than a sexually homogenous one. Did it hurt the story? Maybe. Maybe it feels arbitrary that certain female characters mention their wives, or that certain male characters just happen to have several occasions to mention their boyfriends. … On the upside, though… while arbitrarily diverse casts might make the story worse, they make [the] world better. Not the in-fiction world, either; I mean, you know, the world. The actual one. The one you and I are in. Real life.”

Genre fiction is supposed to be about playing with wild and crazy ideas. When the real world  is consumed by the debate over whether boys should be able to marry boys, I think we as genre writers have some obligation to think about making it happen.

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  1. The God of Old Men: Religion, Age, and Throne of the Crescent Moon | Sociologist Novelist

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