I’m not going to talk about the specific book that set me on this particular topic, in part because I think focusing on one book (or movie or TV show or comic) out of many is a distraction. It pinpoints a work that is symptomatic of the problem, but is by no means the cause of, or the entirety of the issue. Nor is it limited to one genre, one medium or even just to queer characters – the “tragic mulatto” character probably precedes this one, boasting a long and inglorious history that goes back to the 1800s.
Early portrayals of LGBT characters tended to go all evil, all the time and therefore deserving of their (inevitable) ends, with rare exceptions like Carmilla. As with the tragic mulatto narrative, the butch woman or fay man burdened with unnatural samesex desire was unable to find a place for themselves in society and had to come to a bad end. Insanity, suicide, death – these were the cautionary tales. Don’t follow up on that crush, or this will happen to you too! See any pulp era novel featuring a queer character for examples.
Sympathetic portrayals are a more recent phenomenon, but often cover a lot of the same territory. Doomed gay character dies protecting straight friends. Doomed lesbian lover dies to motivate protagonist. Doomed lesbian/gay/queer couple dies to elicit reader/watcher sympathy. Lovers are torn asunder by societal pressures and forced to renounce their true loves. Queer character can never find love because they are the Only Ones of Their Kind in the Entire Universe. Really. Some fairly recent examples of these narratives: Lackey’s Magic’s Pawn, Tara in Buffy, Marvel’s Freedom Ring, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Tara in True Blood, the gay couple in Dracula (2013), Torchwood, Sara Lance in Arrow, virtually any movie in which the protagonist contracts HIV…and so on. The shortened version of this is that any person looking for depictions, positive or negative, of LGBTQ characters in science fiction may have easily seen hundreds, if not thousands, of these narratives. Short fiction and themed anthologies can provide a welcome respite, but again, you have to know that they’re there.
Can you do a good job of killing of a queer character? In my opinion, yes. Two books that I’ve enjoyed recently which kill off lesbian or gay or bi characters include Jackson’s City of Stairs and Priest’s Maplecroft. The deaths in question were well integrated into the plot and neither character died “because” they were queer. I do understand that other readers’ mileage may vary and that’s cool. The important thing is that we have a wide range of things to read and watch with LGBTQ characters that are readily available and which depict the rich panoply of queer life…oh, wait.
And we go downhill from here. The tragic queer narrative? Widely available. Very, very, very common. Arguably more common than positive depictions of queer characters and relationships. Books by LGBTQ authors with LGBTQ protagonists who are not tragic queers? Much less common and much harder to find. Every now and then, an out queer author makes it big despite the obstacles, which include “Queer author writes queer characters = autobiography,” “Queer author, queer books = won’t sell, don’t bother promoting, and of course, “Queer author, queer books, don’t bother picking up for representation or publication.” But those authors sell better if they write straight characters and they know it (see recent interviews with the likes of Emma Donoghue and Sarah Waters for examples). Queer characters are sidekicks, at best. And once those authors stop selling those books with LGBT protagonists, they switch to writing straight protagonists, or they disappear to the small presses or self pubbing or not writing and are promptly forgotten. Thus, we keep returning to: “There are almost no <insert identity here> characters in genre so we have to read the tragic stuff if we want anything at all!”
What does this tell queer fans and their allies?
- · We have no real place in the future
- · We have no real place in fantasy worlds
- · The only good queer is a dead queer (Sorry, but you know that’s there too)
- · Science fiction, fantasy and horror are really big genres that include fiction, comics, movies, television and other media, but there’s not much room for us.
What does it tell heterosexual authors who want to write queer characters?
- · It’ll sell better if they’re straight, but if you insist…
- · Tragic queer characters are the norm and “everyone” does it
- · Bumping off your queer characters really tugs at the old heart strings and impresses both heterosexual reviewers and readers
What does this do to real world queer folk?
- · Big picture: contributes to depression, alienation, high suicide rates
- · A tendency to avoid science fiction and fantasy as genres
- · Ghettoization of genre. There are thriving m/m paranormal and lesbian fiction markets that have emerged from fanfiction over the decades, but those publishers and readers are generally only friendly to romance and some erotica. It makes sense: if all you’ve ever seen is the readily available tragic queer narrative, you think that’s all that SF/F/H has to offer. You want relatable characters that don’t die, you write your own, with the happy endings that you think you’re being denied. On the one hand, it’s great that those options are there. On the other, a lot of that sfnal work is derivative and formulaic. The depictions and ideas about gender, sexuality, world building and so forth that get developed in longer works and series and ongoing discussion in the mainstream sfnal markets don’t get much of a chance to flourish in smaller venues and knowledgeable fans looking for good queer work are stuck in the middle when they want to find work they like.
Some final thoughts: for those of you who think the tragic queer narrative du jour is original and ground-breaking, it isn’t. It may be well-written, but you’ve basically heard of it and are reading it because a big publisher gave it a huge push. A publicity push that I’ve not seen given to any equivalent queer books by queer-identified authors, or even to nontragic queer narratives by straight authors within recent memory, I might add. And that has to stop. If we want to see consistent good stories that reflect a wide range of queer experience, we have to push for them, read them, write them, promote them, watch them and recommend the ones we like. We also have to remember that there are works that paved the way, works and creators who should be remembered for what they accomplished in building this multifaceted genre as well as new voices, new creators. Let’s hear those diverse voices, see those diverse perspectives and let’s see them become just as easy to find as the tragic queers.