I've Got A Question For You: Considering Portrayals Of LGBTQ People In Books

What harm is there in one human being sharing their humanity with another in the form of a story?
09/22/2017 05:49 am ET Updated Sep 22, 2017

It’s common for queer authors like myself (really any authors who aren’t straight, white and male) to address the need for positive representations of characters who share their identities. I write science fiction and fantasy so it’s par for the course that I should address those genres. Ideally, I’d point out that science-fiction and fantasy are realms of possibility and imagination, that no other sector of fiction is more suited to representing the beauty and diversity of human identities and lives. And of course I would remind you that representation is incredibly important for all marginalized people.

And it is incredibly important.

Because when there are so few representations of queer identities, every single depiction of a queer character makes up a huge percentage of the way in which we are seen and how we see ourselves. Every portrayal of an LGBTQ+ person holds the potential to humanize or demonize us. A single trans dragon-rider, a gay magician, a bisexual starship commander, a lesbian demon-hunter or a gender-fluid druid can become the catalyst for the letters LGBTQ+ to come alive as real people with strengths and weaknesses.

The impact of that humanizing effect—or its absence—reaches far beyond the realms of fantasy and science-fiction, because in the real here-and–now LGBTQ+ people are still struggling against discrimination. We face hatred from entire political parties and religious groups; our rights, our relationships and our very identities are regularly attacked and misrepresented in the most distorted forms imaginable. Over a thousand LGBTQ+ people will be victims of hate-crimes in the US every year.

There are still nations in which homosexuality is punishable by death. (Just having to write that sentence is heartbreaking and I wish so much that I was talking about works of fiction.)

Dehumanizing LGBTQ+ people plays a huge roll in making abuse and oppression seem acceptable. It’s easy to condemn us when you only think of us as monsters and abominations. But seeing our humanity can change that; it may be easy to kill a ‘monster’ but it’s monstrous to murder another human being.

Yes, it is incredibly important that we be allowed to tell our stories and share our strength, love and humanity. Positive representation is crucial, not just in genre fiction but everywhere. And, honestly I think that we all know as much.

So, I’d like to take a moment and ponder the matter from the other side. Because the current framing of this question places all burden upon marginalized readers, writers, and our allies to justify our work, our voices and even our right to exist. But what if we considered this question instead: What is the need for hateful representation? (Because that’s what we’re actually fighting against when we talk about positive representation. We’re battling hate and erasure by holding up the truths of our lives and our love.)

So let’s instead ask: How does demonizing and degrading marginalized people enrich our literature? Does it improve our lives? Why should LGBTQ+ people—or any group of human beings, for that matter—have to see themselves maligned, stereotyped, abused and murdered in fiction as well as in the real world? What does it say about us all, as a people, if we embrace ignorance and hatred as defining values?

What harm is there in one human being sharing their humanity with another in the form of a story?

When I tell you that my wife and I have been together for thirty years, and that every day I fall in love with her all over again, does that deprive you of anything? Perhaps it takes a little bit of ignorance from you. Maybe it makes me just a little less of a faceless, capitol L at the beginning of that string of letters, LGBTQ+.

And if you were to tell me some of your story then you too would cease to be an invisible reader out there somewhere and become a human being for me. You might tell me about your upbringing, or perhaps your aspirations. I would encourage you. Perhaps you’ll confide that you’re worried about the future. I am too but I believe that we can make things better for each other. We human beings are resourceful and capable of great compassion. I would want to tell you a joke but I might mess it up on the first try. I’m not great at telling jokes; I do it automatically—clumsily—when faced with fear.

I’m telling you all this now, because I hope you’ll recognize that reading about someone else’s strengths and struggles deprives you of nothing. It simply offers you the chance to know and share in their battles and triumphs.

In the end it stops being a matter of my narrative or yours. We can share in one another’s experiences. Your joy can lift my spirit; my positive representation can fill you with pride. That’s what’s so powerful about stories and that’s why the ones we tell each other and ourselves should matter to us all.

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