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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.

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This series began with an image. Rachel saw a young guy running from bad guys, nearly getting eaten by a vampire cactus, and then get rescued by a female sheriff with one half of her face turned to bone.


With enormous effort, Ross kept his eyes open and watched her drop his knife inside his pack. As she reached for him, her hair swung back, revealing her entire face. On one side, he saw a warm brown eye and smooth brown skin, the strong-boned face of a striking woman in her thirties. On the other side, her eye was lashless and yellow, the pupil slitted like a snake’s, and her skin seemed to have melted into her skull.


He sighed in relief. She was Changed. She might have some power she could use to protect herself, and him, too.


Rachel asked me if I wanted to collaborate on it with her.


How could I resist that?


We went on to what we didn’t want: grimdark; “The government bans X, and teenagers are Y”; love triangles; rape.


The world has scary elements, but a sense of community was important to us, as well as awesome bits. As for the Scary Big Government that makes no logical sense, we got rid of it entirely! Towns are separate entities, and though there is the Gold Point empire, it’s a combination of towns, all fairly isolated.


As for the love triangle, we did end up with one. But the romance does not take up anyone’s entire life, nor is there any betrayal.


We got the idea of setting it in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles after the power grids go down, and mutations proliferate. Technology has reverted back to Gold Rush levels—we came to describe the series as “Little House on the Prairie meets X-Men.”


Why did we go backward rather than forward for our setting? The real California of the Gold Rush was much more diverse than it’s usually portrayed. Our post-apocalyptic L.A. suggested to us the same sort of ethnic mixes of peoples and cultures that we find in L.A. today. Rachel’s initial image of Ross was of a young Hispanic guy. The female sheriff was Native American. We wanted a techy geek, but the opposite of the generic pencil-neck white guy. How about a small, cute Korean girl?


As for the alpha girl of the teens, she would be African American, a talented fighter—and she’d also be the teacher. Teenage teachers were very common in the old west. But not teachers who might have to lead kids to war . . .


Jennie watched motes of chalk dust swirl in rays of morning light over the pale wood of the new teacher’s desk, incongruous before the battered desks that had been old when the present students’ great-grandparents had been children.



If she didn’t have to teach, she’d be on a Ranger mission now, side by side with Indra.


Jennie stretched out her hand and pulled with her mind. The worn slate that used to be Mia’s spun through the air and smacked into her hand.


Her rival alpha was far more complicated than the typical Mean Girl. Smart, ambitious and determined Felicité Wolfe keeps plenty of secrets—the town’s and her own.


On her sixth birthday, Felicité had been allowed to play with a necklace of golden coins that her daddy had given her mother as a wedding gift. The sound of gold on gold made a lovely chime.


This was the sound that Felicité heard inside her head when she paid compliments. Each compliment was a coin of gold that would return as a vote when she was ready to run for mayor.


Those that took the most effort—that disguised how she truly felt—rang the sweetest.


From cultural diversity was an easy leap to the idea of a series that readers who weren't straight and white could read about people like them who were battling post-apocalyptic creatures rather than racism and homophobia.


LGBTQ characters are a particularly underrepresented category, especially compared to its representation in real life. Sexual orientation is complex. Teens are curious, experimenting, and both of us know teens who are far more accepting than the older generations realize. We wanted to reflect this, as well as the notion that sexual orientation is often more complicated than a simple label.


We wanted action, communication between generations, humor, and a sense of wonder. For a while we batted around various ideas about narrative voice, and finally settled on alternating multiple POVs. That seemed the best way to present a story about a community. We also loved getting into the heads of the five characters.


“It was an ‘aircraft carrier.’ Like a floating city. It came from a country called Japan, hundreds of years ago,” Yuki said. “We sailed in the deep ocean. Every day, we were somewhere different.” Yuki sketched kogatana in the air. “Kogatana. The first character is ‘small,’ and the second is ‘sword.’ Little sword: pocketknife.” His fingers reached up, drawing another pair of kanji: “Taka. That was my ship. It means ‘hawk.’”


Memories flooded his mind, washing away the desert, the bright-blue sky, and Ross’s curious face. He remembered the smell of deep-sea brine. He remembered riding dolphins and fishing with a spear gun. He remembered the lush greenery of the hydroponic tanks. He remembered the flavors of rice, of sweet red beans, of green tea. He remembered violins playing at twilight. He remembered stepping through the sacred gates to pray to the spirits of rice and wind and ocean. And he remembered his first mother.


He blinked, and the desert was back.


Yuki Nakamura, who was the prince of a floating city before he was shipwrecked on the shores of Las Anclas, has a very different POV from that of Mia Lee, the youngest town engineer in Las Anclas’s history.


She flung down her bow and yanked out her short sword. Ross was right. It had come to hand-to-hand. Exactly what she wasn’t good at! And thinking that she wasn’t good at something was a thought, which was what she wasn’t supposed to have. And thinking that thinking—

Something slammed into her, knocking her flat on her back. She stared up as a man loomed over her with a sword—


In book two, Hostage—where we spend time in Gold Point, the city ruled with an iron fist by King Voske, the villain of Stranger—we added a new POV character: Kerry, his daughter.


In it we have not one but two hostage situations, with all the danger, overt and implied threat, and moral dilemmas involved when enemies take prisoners into their lives.


Buy Stranger
Buy Hostage and here

Rachel Manija Brown
Sherwood Smith

And here's a link to an important piece of backstory on how this series came into being. Kudos to Rachel and Sherwood for persisting and getting these books out there!

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 The latest installment in my overview of LGBT Science Fiction and Fantasy (2000-2010) is now live. Part 1 runs this week, Part 2 will go up next week. Happy reading! :-)
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And my latest SF Signal post on LGBT SFF is live! This time, we're visiting the 1990s; I got it in a little late for Pride month, but hey, Pride is year round, right? :-) Many thanks once again to John DeNardo and SF Signal for hosting this and making it look all purty!

The rest of the series can be found linked

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The latest in my series on LGBT Science Fiction and Fantasy continues, this time with the 1980s when things really start to pick up steam, as it twere -

The rest of the series is here:
LGBT Science Fiction and Fantasy Before 1970 -

LGBT Science Fiction and Fantasy in the 1970s -

Hope it makes for interesting reading!
Next up, I'm tackling the 1990s. If you've got any favorite positive portrayals in SF/F/H published or otherwise out there during the decade, let me know. Emphasis is main characters who identify as L,G,B or T, positive portrayals and not fanfic (which would require its own history) and not incidentally bisexual or trans (body switching for 5 minutes, sex with girls for male character's gaze, etc). I tend to prefer books and stories but am open to comics, TV and movies if it fits the other criteria.
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Part 2 of my series on early LGBT science fiction and fantasy,  "LGBT SFF in the 1970s" is now up at SF Signal


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