Happy Valentine’s (or PALentine’s or GALentine’s) Day! On a day (nominally) celebrating love (or at least chocolate) I’d like to share some thoughts on incorporating queer characters and queer romance in your writing. Some of this will apply to all fiction, and some will be specific to SFF, but hopefully you find something of use in the ramblings below!
1 – Check your assumptions!
Queer relationships, almost by definition, deviate from “the norm”. It’s not as simple as slotting the bottom in a gay relationship into the role of the bride, for example. Don’t assume lesbians all fall into a pattern of butch/femme roles. Also, many queer relationships engage with aspects of pansexuality and polyamory to varying degrees. Monogamy isn’t always the default assumption in queer relationships the way it traditionally is in straight ones. Because society often offers no safe places or roles for queer people within it, we have created our own traditions and ways of navigating relationships.
So what does this all mean? Think carefully about who your characters love, why they love them, and how that impacts the story. Do your research. Ask your queer friends about their lived experiences and those of their friend group (respectfully, and with compensation where appropriate). Question your assumptions. This is as true for queer writers as it is for straight ones as well. We all have a duty of care when exploring experiences other than our own on the page.
This is especially true because queer people are also intersections of multiple identities. Class, ethnic background, generation, financial privilege, and many other factors combine to produce different experiences.
2 – Truly embrace possibility!
One of the wondrous things about SFF is that we can imagine new kinds of people and new ways of living together as a society. This can be as simple as asking yourself why the society you have built is accepting of queer people and other minorities (if it is) or as complicated as developing new terminology and cultural approaches to gender and sex to reflect the existence of non-binary sexual reproduction or created life (such as artificial intelligences, who may very well reject the idea of being referred to as he, she, or it by their creators).
In my forthcoming novel A Market of Dreams and Destiny (which I workshopped at Milford!) I explored both of these ideas. I made deliberate worldbuilding choices to create a version of Victorian London with both gender equality and acceptance of a wide range of non-heterosexual relationships. I also examined the use of neopronouns by fey creatures that have bodies and forms with no gender or sexual characteristics whatsoever, aside from the ones they assume for convenience or mysterious purpose.
We’re writing the fantastic! There is a place for stories that explore all manner of life and ways of living. Leave the heteropatriarchy behind (or outright burn it down!).
3 – Be aware of tropes!
Queer characters in SFF are not new, though historically (and even today) they are firmly in the minority. If you’re going to bring queerness and specifically queer romance into your fantastical writing, be aware of the (often harmful) ways previous writers have depicted queer lives and queer loves. Here are some things to watch out for.
-“Bury your gays”. Don’t introduce a queer character or characters only for them to die a tragic death. If at the end of your story only the straights are left standing, you have a problem.
-“The queer-coded antagonist”. If your villain has a lot of stereotypical mannerisms that mark them as different or evil because they don’t fit into cishet society, and your cishet protagonist defeats them, you’ve got a problem. Queer people can absolutely be villains (and we love a well-done queer villain), but we’re not only villains, and if your status quo is that threatened by us simply existing? Maybe we’re not the bad guys in this situation.
-See also: “gay for you”; “butch/femme” and other tropes that try to force queer people into a version of the sexual binary; “the gay best friend”; “the promiscuous queer”; “murderous bisexuals”; “the token queer in the friend group”; and many more.
4 – Do your research!
This is general advice, and I’ve already mentioned it at least once, but I’m repeating it here because if you are including queer romance in your SFF you really, really need to get the sex right. I’m not talking just about the mechanics of it, though that is incredibly important, but also the emotional approach and reality of queer sex. Obviously, adjust as appropriate for your setting, but queer people can have a very different relationship to sex than straight people do. Especially if, as still happens today, society attempts to control or erase your sexuality.
A lot of queer people experience a strange temporal disjunction compared to their straight counterparts. If you have to hide your sexuality, you don’t often get your first kiss at the same time, you often don’t lose your virginity at the same time or in the same way. But in accepting societies, this detail of queer experience might disappear or be otherwise altered.
Don’t assume it’s as simple as slotting two men into what once was a man and woman romantic storyline. Queer sexualities are different because society views them as different and they’ve evolved differently. So look into the various ways that is true for cultures across the globe! And, honestly, find a queer person you trust and are comfortable with to check your sex scenes. It’s so embarrassing when as a queer person you’re reading along and you have to stop and go “yeah, that’s not how that works at all!”
So there are some thoughts on bringing queer romance into your SFF. And that’s just the beginning! Because of this fraught relationship between queer sex and sexualities and society, it’s not just sex. Queer sex results in subculture. Polari, the hanky code, flagging, cruising, cant, slang, drag, balls, vogueing, we’re a conglomeration of things that spring from sexual difference.
We’re complex people. We deserve the same level of attention to detail as your cishet characters when we appear in your fiction. So, really, you betta werk!
Trip Galey is a writer, a doctor of the academic persuasion, and a researcher of all things pursuant to bargains, exchanges, and compacts of a faery nature. It is inadvisable to attempt to make a deal with him. He has been, in the past, a reluctant cowboy, an Ivy League collegian, and an itinerant marketing professional. Frequently writes as a ghost. Mostly harmless.
Trip’s debut novel, A Market of Dreams and Destiny, featuring madcap faery fate, gay boys in love fighting for their freedom, and strange bargains with stranger merchants, is forthcoming from Titan Books on 12 September 2023.