Beyond the Closet: Writing Gay Characters

170631033_db7fefec8d_oAs an out writer in a large writing community, I sometimes get questions from fellow writers about writing gay characters. Typically, there’s some low-level anxiety about “getting it right.” I love these questions. It means that the writer has or is considering adding gay characters to their novels. This pleases me.

June is Pride Month, so what better time than now to review some common perceptions about the gays and some realities writers can use to add more dimensions to all those gay characters that are just waiting to bust out of the writing closet.

Disclaimer: This list is by no means comprehensive. I occupy only one letter of LGBTQIA*, and I’m white and female. That’s a narrow perspective**. Also, for this post, I’m using gay as a catch-all term for simplicity.

Perception: Everyone comes out as a teenager.

Nope. Some people come out later in life. Some people never come out. Some people are very, very quiet about their sexuality and you’re left guessing. Some people, like me, are pretty clueless in general.

Even though I’m gay, I have to research what it’s like for gay teenagers because I was not one. I guess somewhere deep inside my brain I was a gay teenager, but I never realized it until after college, after I left the South, when my friend dragged me to a basement in Allston to watch a bunch of metal bands play. One of the guitarists was, I thought, a handsome dude. Turns out it was a handsome woman. I’ve been gay ever since.

The Young Adult writer community is doing a fabulous job with bringing diverse representation — including LGBTQIA, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities — to the forefront. These campaigns and The Trevor Project give me hope that the kids are either all right or they will be.

This is where you come in: Those kids are going to grow up and need some new reading material that features adults living fabulous gay lives. Or they’re going to need to read secretly on their e-Readers or under the covers until a time when they can leave the nest. Do not deny the children. The children are our future.

Perception: All gay people love rainbows and glitter and Pride.

A lot of gay people I know would rather gargle with acid than wear anything with a rainbow on it and hate Pride so much that they leave the city to avoid the parade.

Perception: Gay sex is gross.

Gay sex is awesome.

But gay sex is not always awesome and is often awkward, even for those who have been at it a while. The same as straight folk. Think about your worst sexual experience. Now imagine it as a gay person. Same. And like straight folks, some gay folks have deep, dark angst to work out that prevents them from feeling okay about their bodies or intimacy. And some people are just not that into sex, if at all. No judgment.

Pro tip: if you really want to know how gay sex works, please don’t ask your gay friends. Do yourself and others a favor and purchase The Guide to Getting it On. Your characters, readers, and your present and possibly future sex partner(s) will thank you!

Perception: Sex is all gay people think about.

Um. No.

The gays have jobs and hobbies that prevent us from thinking about sex all the time, too. LGBT lives are similar to hetero-normative lives: People are happy. People are sad. People have sex. People don’t have sex. No one is perfect. People fuck up. If a focus on sex is the only thing that distinguishes your gay character, then you should take a step back to consider why. Or you could consider making sex the primary focus of all of your characters. Then publish that, because fun!

Perception: If you’re [insert letter of LGBTQIA], then you must only like [insert letter of LGBTQIA].

Self identification is helpful to some folks. Others don’t really think about it. For many, sexuality exists on a wildly varying spectrum. There’s no rhyme or reason as to why we fall for who we do (there may be a scientific article out there somewhere about this, but…)

Recently, I visited my cousin in San Diego. Any time I sat on the couch, her dog, Ricky Bobby, sidled next to me and ultimately ended up humping my leg. No matter how many times my cousin told him to stop, he came back for more. For Ricky Bobby, I possess an animal magnetism that he can’t get enough of.

I understand Ricky Bobby. If I were to run across Timothy Olyphant in real life, I would hump his leg.

You don’t have to understand it. I barely do. But my girlfriend not only accepts this infatuation, she supports it by making me photos and gifs of him.

Perception: All LGBT couples want to get married.

For some, the push for marriage equality is more about being seen as equal in the eyes of the law and having the same rights and benefits as heterosexual citizens*** vs. an opportunity to do the Electric Slide with family members who totally don’t appreciate the chicken and asparagus you so carefully selected from the caterer’s menu.

Also, if one of your straight characters asks of a same-sex couple, “Which one of you is the bride?” then your gay character is going to have a response, either verbal or non-verbal. And that says a LOT about the character asking.

Regardless of marital status, if you have more than one gay character in a book, they should get individual personalities. Often, gay couples or gay friends in novels are one and the same, their personalities indistinguishable. Please give them individual personalities. They can be two-faced, but not two-headed — unless they actually are. In that case, please write that novel because it sounds amazing.

Perception: All LGBT couples want to reproduce.

Some of us are happily child free because we like sleep, quiet rooms, dinner that doesn’t grow cold, and the flexibility to stay out late or go to bed early if we so choose.

Life without kids, according to me.

But if your gay characters do want a family, don’t forget that there are these amazing, realistic places called fertility clinics and doctors’ offices that eliminate the need for your gay characters to find some hapless other-gendered person who can impregnate them or host their gay fetus.

Perception: Gay people can magically transform your personal style.

All my t-shirts have stains on them and my jeans have crotch holes from my thighs rubbing together. I refuse to buy new jeans because blue jean iron-on patches are super affordable. I haven’t brushed my teeth or hair, and I haven’t put on a bra. But I did scarf down a bowl of refried beans mixed with rice pilaf and green salsa in about five seconds. Now I’m going to put on some cargo shorts and Luke Bryan and scrub the toilet.

You really don’t want me near you or your closet.

Perception: Gay people can magically transform your neighborhood.

No matter how many flowers we put in the neighborhood, we cannot get the drunk homeless guys to stop pissing on the beautiful walls outside our building.

Perception: I have a gay character, I must add a hate crime!

Hate crimes are very real and very dangerous, especially for transgender women of color.

I’d be an asshole to say stop writing about that because awareness of the issue is important. But fiction allows us to not only reveal realities, but change perceptions. It’s a well-known trope that if a character is gay, they will die. When that’s the primary representation the gay community sees in books and in films and in the news, it’s fucking depressing.

If your gay character must die, please kill off some other people, too. But why not be brave and let your gay characters live?

And if you must torture your characters (because that’s what we writers are told we must do), remember that there are other micro-aggressions (more here) the gay community encounters that inform how we move about the world. We don’t “just happen to be gay.” We are gay. It affects how we are perceived and how we perceive others.

Bonus Advice You Didn’t Ask For.

There are so many elements that make up a gay life. It’s impossible to put them all in one post. But while I have your attention: Gay people know when you’re uncomfortable with our gayness.

If you’re uncomfortable, it’s going to come out in your writing. If your main character feels discomfort toward a secondary or minor gay character, that gay character will likely have a response because they are (presumably) a human being and not a robot. Also, if your protagonist feels discomfort toward one of your gay characters, ask yourself why. Does your character feel uncomfortable, or are you letting your own discomfort and bias shine through?

How the gay character reacts to the discomfort is up to you, the writer. Again, not robots. Humans.

Sparkles!

Whenever you’re thinking of writing a gay character and you are not a gay person, always ask the same question you would of your straight characters: Does this action/perception make sense for the character? Does it move the story along? Does it give the reader some insight into who this character is? No? Then, consider why it’s there and how you can enhance your LGBTQIA characters without erasing important parts of who they are.

 

* Even gay folks get confused about the letters sometimes. It’s okay.
** Even more links about writing LGBTQIA characters.
*** Such as these 1,138 benefits, rights and protections provided on the basis of marital status in Federal law.

5 comments

  1. What a great post!!
    It tells me I’m on the right track with the gay character in my next book. In previous books I’ve had a tendency to kill people off at an alarming rate, so you’ll be glad to know, in this one, the gay character lives.

  2. Bonnie Waltch

    Great post, Kelly! I unfortunately did have to kill off a gay character in my original draft — but only because she was an extra character, the aunt of my protagonist who really didn’t have enough to do with the story to keep, especially when the story moved abroad. I hope to bring her back in a future novel because she was a really cool, hotshot lawyer and when I do, I will definitely take this advice!

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