Tuesday, October 8, 2013

"making the whole world LGBTQA is unrealistic" or why I find this common writing wisdom to be false

A rule of thumb for writing LGBTQA characters or fiction whether you write romance, literary fiction or fan fiction seems to be you can't make the whole world queer.

One or two queer people is great. That's why we are here after all. The main couple will be queer, maybe some close friends but more than that and it becomes unrealistic. The whole world after all isn't LGBTQA.

I've seen making an entire cast of characters, or the majority of characters queer described as utopian, unrealistic, annoying, bad writing, and eye-roll worthy.  In one recent, and memorably extreme, example a person described an author's choice to make an unacceptably large number of people in her work queer as proof that queer culture wants to destroy heteronormative culture.

Which is ... fair actually, but I digress.

The thing about it is I've seen this pearl of wisdom (can't make the whole world queer or your a bad writer) passed down everywhere from the comments on YouTube to professional writers' boards. Everyone from fan fiction writers to m/m romance writers have talked about this, cautioned each other not to make this writerly faux pas

Whenever I see this conversation come up it really, really bothers me.

This is why:

Being cisgender and heterosexual is one way of expression gender/sexuality out of hundreds.  Even if we are just going to go by letters of the acronym H for heterosexual is one letter out of six if you are going with LGBTQA and eight if you are going with QUILTBAG.

We are raised in our society to think there is only one right way of being and that is straight. On top of that we are also taught that almost everyone is straight except for a small pool of people who happen to be genetically abnormal. In reality expressions of gender and sexuality are much more complex and multifaceted. I can't imagine how it would be unrealistic, or bad writing to show that complexity.

Anyone who has ever written a LGBTQA character knows that one of the ways heterosexuality is portrayed as dominant is by the complete erasure of all non-heterosexual people from media images. This is why LGBTQA characters in general are so few and far between.

Another way that heterosexuality is portrayed, and enforced as dominant is by teaching us all to think of it as the default position. People are always straight until proven otherwise thus majority of people in any given situation (unless it's a queer orgy) must be straight. This is less based on peoples' actual sexual identities or practices and more based on heteronormativity and power.

The majority of people you know are not straight cisgender. You might think they are because we are taught to default to these two identities and because being out as anything else in our society is still difficult and danger.

The reality of the situation though is queer people do have siblings who are also queer. Gay people have siblings who are also gay, or parents who are gay or neighbors or coworkers. There are such things as LGBTQA dominated neighborhoods, work spaces, and social spaces. Portraying these relationships and these spaces are not unrealistic.

To take a page out of my own life right now both of my bosses are gay. Not to mention the fact that my brother is gay and my sister is bisexual, and I myself am queer. It happens, it is real. One of the unintentional side-affects, I've notice, of this shying away from making too many characters queer is queer community is often erased. As is connections between queer family members such as siblings. 

The people who populate the worlds we write about should have sexual and gender identities that fall all over the place and include all sorts of things, one of which should be heterosexuality, but only one.

I think that there is something problematic with only representing one sexuality or gender identity. Portraying a world in which everyone is white, cisgender gay men is also problematic. The issues of racism, ableism, sexism and cisgender privilege innate in creating such a world does need to be addressed.

Let me be clear though, it does not carry the same kinds unhealthy power dynamics as the presumption that there is something wrong with a world that is not dominated by straight/cisgender people. Or quite frankly the policing that takes place when you tell someone that they are bad at what they do for writing such a world.

If seeing a fictional world dominated by gender and sexual identities that are not cisgender and heterosexuality bothers you ask yourself why? Does your anger or discomfort really have to do with bad writing or a lack of realism?


  1. You make a lot of sense. Stands to reason, really, and seems such an obvious point when you put it like this. I've definitely been guilty of making these assumptions myself, and probably most of my characters are gay/bi/etc in a world that is otherwise 100% straight cis :S
    Will be attempting to make up for this in future writings.

    1. I think all of us have been guilty of it at one point or another. It is one of those societal things that are hard to shake.

      What I really hate though, and the reason I wrote this piece, is when writers are told that it is wrong or unrealistic to have more than a small handful of LGBTQA characters in there stories.

      I think it is one thing to fall into the trap of writing something that marginalizes a group of people unconsciously. It's quite another thing though to actively tell people they have to continue to marginalize a group for whatever reason.