When I was 20 years old, I wrote a science fiction novella which for all its narrative potential was flawed beyond structural and grammatical repair. I had just started to take writing seriously and made all the common mistakes new writers make: abounding clichés, barely-fleshed scenes, a cringe-worthy voice more amused with itself than the story. Despite these problems which, at the time, I had no idea how to repair, I knew the story had a heart.
The heart belonged to a man whose male friend had been hijacked and murdered in the depths of space and who had lost his parents the same way, in front of his eyes, as a child. And while he seemed on one hand to be a hackneyed, hard-boiled detective zooming around the future as the Everyman Space Opera Anti-Hero, seeking revenge against his friend’s killer, underlying this was something that made him resonate with me.
My protagonist loved his friend. He understood the impermanence of life, and he had found someone who he truly loved more than himself. I knew this as soon as I had finished writing the novella, which ended with the protagonist standing over his friend’s coffin, talking to him as if over mugs of coffee, with a familiarity we are lucky to have even once with someone in our lives.
When I had an acquaintance read over the manuscript, the acquaintance commented that the final scene was the most poignant of the story.
Then the acquaintance said, “I love that you made him gay.”
I was surprised. I didn’t have any opposition to writing gay characters, but that wasn’t the way I had seen the character when writing his story. I had seen the bereaved and the deceased as fraternal childhood friends. I thought, what about the story indicated that the protagonist was gay? As if it was just another error in the narrative that needed fixing.
Recently, DC Comics announced it would introduce a mainstream transgendered and bisexual character into its Batgirl comic series, Alysia Yeoh.
DC writer Gail Simone said she came up with the character based on a conversation with another writer, which led Simone to realize that many comic book fans identify as LGBTQ.
“And it just hit me: Why was this so impossible?” Simone is quoted as saying in a Wired Magazine article. “Why in the world can we not do a better job of representation of not just humanity, but also our own loyal audience?”
Why, indeed? It has always seemed to me that the heroes of comics, like the heroes of science fiction, exist as outliers on the societal bell curve. They’re usually set in stark contrast to the worlds they fight to protect, both superficially in dress and on a deeper characteristic level. Because of this they are thought of as different, as solitary or otherworldly beings foreign to us. Yet for the most part they’re doing what any of us would do in their places; they’re trying to do good for other people, because they are people, who love and want to be loved. Why wouldn’t the world of societally outcast superheroes be the perfect forum for LGBTQ folks to explore a common thread in all of humanity, to tap into their deep and powerful potentials to show love?
Writers portraying characters outside mainstream gender roles is not by any means new. Ex-pat novelist James Baldwin, a disenfranchised African-American gay man, imbued his writing with themes regarding what it meant to be gay in the mid 20th century–one notable example being his semi-autobiographical novel Giovanni’s Room, in which a gay American man who has emigrated to Paris falls in love with another man named Giovanni. The characters in contemporary writer Michael Chabon’s novels often fall outside mainstream sexuality, several of which have even been adapted to film (The Mysteries of Pittsburg, Wonder Boys). A comic book series published by Dark Horse, Michael Chabon Presents the Amazing Adventures of the Escapist, is based on Chabon’s novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Kerouac’s On the Road and the film of its namesake portray homosexuality and bisexuality. And that’s just to name a few.
While comics themselves have included LGBTQ superheroes, there still seems to be some resistance to this kind of diversification. Thus, Simone’s inclusion of Alysia Yeoh as potentially the first ongoing transgendered comic book character is a huge step toward garnering acceptance of human diversity in all its various manifestations. This is true not only because the character is transgendered and bisexual, but because Simone says she’s intent on making Alysia Yeoh a human being like any other, a character whose life extends beyond that of a proselytizing bumper sticker, and yet doesn’t shy from an identity outside mainstream acceptance. Perhaps this is the cue we need to help us admit that what is often perceived as outside the range of normal has in fact been normal for a long time.
I’ve been meaning to take that science fiction novella out of the proverbial drawer for a long overdue rewrite. Every time I think about it, I think about that comment: “I love that you made him gay.”
My acquaintance seemed to think I was being brave, facing contemporary societal norms head on. I’m actually glad that assumption wasn’t correct. I wasn’t facing down societal norms, I was getting to know someone, a fictional fragment of myself, coming to understand him in his totality and without judgment or moral statement.
As a result, the protagonist does not exist in order to advertise a message, but rather he exists because he exists. Every time I think about it, it is clearer and clearer to me that yes, the protagonist of my story is gay.
This was not a narrative mistake I needed to correct–it was innate from the start.
Even if he never said it, even if a romance between he and his friend never bloomed during his lifetime, his love was as poignant and powerful as any. Love is not and has never been as black and white as text on a page, and I hope sincerely that I find myself writing these characters once again.
If someone said to me now, “I love that you made your character gay,” I’d respond, “My character is gay, and I love him, too.”