Why gender and sexual identity still needs to be more than background to a character
This week Jonathan Van Ness from Queer Eye revealed he is living with HIV in a candid profile that included sharing stories of his struggles with addiction and experience as a sexual abuse survivor. The interview with the New York Times was part of the promotion for his new memoir, Over the Top, which also came out this week.
Responses within the LGBTQ community to Van Ness’ revelation that he is positive were also positive. Most of the people in my circle expressed how impressed we were with his courage and how helpful it would be for other people with HIV to have such a public figure sharing his experiences. (That this was our initial reaction, rather than sadness and terror, speaks volumes about how far HIV treatments have come since those dread-filled days of the 1980s, but I want to note that many people who contract the virus still suffer and die, and support for AIDS research, treatment, and prevention is still really important.)
On Twitter this week, a writer asked how other writers create and give voice to characters whose identities they do not share. This writer was a man, and he was especially interested in how male authors write women because he felt he had no idea how our brains work. Someone else responded with the brilliantly simplistic, “Women are people.” He elaborated that writers often create characters who are not like themselves (e.g. a romance novelist is not a firefighter; a novelist who is 27 is not 35 like their character). The response got many likes and retweets, and I’m kicking myself for not taking a screenshot to include here. (I tried searching my Twitter feed and can’t find it now to show you.)
These two events are, on the surface, unconnected, but that they happened in the same week has got me thinking a lot about identity and authenticity. In the publishing world, there is currently great pressure for #ownvoices authors – that is, authors from historically marginalized groups writing characters from those same groups. This is valued as giving voice to those who have historically been rendered voiceless or, worse, been voiced only by those outside those lived experiences. To make my own politics clear, I absolutely support this move. I want everyone to encounter stories about people of color, queer people, immigrants, women, ethnic and religious minorities. And I want those stories to be told by people from those communities who understand their complexities.
This gets me back to the guy on Twitter who sharply noted that women are people. We are, that is true, and can a cis straight man skillfully write from the point of view of a woman because he, like her, is a person? Maybe. Sometimes. Sure. It depends. Being a woman is often more than just being “people,” since so many of our experiences, attitudes, appearances and behaviors, and fears are shaped from the second of our birth by societies that still treat women as less than men. After the #MeToo movement began, I wrote out my thoughts as I moved through a typical day. One of my gay male feminist friends was stunned to see how much of my day is shaped by rape culture, even though I have – thankfully – never been raped. My daily experiences aren’t any different than most women’s in the United States, though perhaps more consciously interrogated.
Reading over requests from literary agents, editors, and even mentors to contests like Pitch Wars, I’ve noticed a pattern in which LGBTQ characters and stories are sought – with the caveat in romance that sexuality should be secondary to the story. Now, I contain in my head a font of knowledge about the history of lesbian romance publishing and the origins of m/m romance. I understand that some of this has to do with decades in which coming out narratives comprised the bulk of gay and lesbian romance. I get that the fanfic origins of m/m romance led to some serious questions over how a character understands their sexual identity, to some flat characters who can’t talk or think about anything other than whether or not they’re gay, and that spawned some intense psychoanalytic research on what it means to write and consume those stories. I’m also not naive to the reality that publishers need to ensure books sell, and a lot of their “wishlists” are driven by the market.
But here in 2019, is sexual identity merely a background characteristic of queer people? Do we live in a world where people fall in love, regardless of gender, and are fine with however things shake out? Do we live in a world where onlookers do not judge couples by their gender presentation, and the law equally protects all? Until the answers to all those questions are yes, there is still value in allowing queer characters to be wholly queer. Sandy Lowe, senior editor for Bold Strokes Books, wrote a blog post about why she doesn’t think we should write for a post-gay world back in 2016, and I think she’s still right in 2019.
Just as my daily experiences are shaped by being a woman, they are also shaped by being queer. Although I am a lesbian-identified cis person, I am married to someone whose pronouns vary and who describes their own identity alternatively as nonbinary, queer, and trans. Our daily lives, and the daily life of LGBTIQA people more generally, are shaped by whether or not we live in a community with people who look and act like us or who stare at us aghast, by looking for gender-neutral restrooms, by the language people use to describe love and romance and significant others, by the acceptance or rejection we experience from our families, by how well our health care providers understand our bodies and sex lives, by whether our health insurance even covers the kind of medical procedures and prescriptions we need, by suicide statistics, by homophobic churches, by not seeing ourselves on television, and on and on. Some of these issues are more pertinent to trans, nonbinary, and intersex people, sure, and I don’t mean to conflate us all. Some are also not unique to the queer community. I merely mean to point out that when folks in the literary world say, “I’d really like it if being LGBT wasn’t central to the character,” what I hear is a fundamental misunderstanding of how being LGBTIQA already is central to real people and often leaves its mark on every fiber of a person’s body, mind, and soul.
Until the world is full of Jonathan Van Nesses and all our social issues resolved, I’m content to continue writing characters with a range of sexualities and gender identities, whose experiences range from easy acceptance of themselves to struggling with society and self-love. I’m content to continue writing about the personal and social issues my loved ones and I have experienced, but to make sure that in my books, as so often doesn’t happen in real life, we always get a happy ending that reaffirms the beauty in who we are.