How Do You Write LGBT Characters?

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04/17/13How Do You Write LGBT Characters?(Blog) (Forum)LGBT(Back) (Next)

Hey, all, Sara Lima wrote an article called Controversy In Comics: When Is It Genuine?, and it got me thinking. The response was turning blog length, so I decided to just go ahead and make it a blog, and post a link in the comments on the article. So here we are. Since the focus of the article was on the reveal of two transgender characters, the controversy over LGBT characters is what I got to thinking about. So when is controversy genuine in comics?

As a writer, I've struggled with this question for a long time. I don't think it's possible to write gay/ lesbian/ bi/ transgender characters, without them garnering a lot of attention. For one thing, the LGBT community jumps on any new LGBT character as another triumph over media exclusion, and support and debate inevitably follow. I have yet to ever read an LGBT character that didn't feel like pandering to an audience, and I don't know if it can be done so that it doesn't feel that way.

The first thing is: being LGBT is different from being straight. Straight people aren't defined by being straight. They're often defined by their profession. "Oh, he's a policeman/ lawyer/ doctor..." etc. For Joe Gay, it's "Oh, he's gay...what does he do? Oh, he owns two restaurants." And don't get me wrong - I think a lot of that is the fault of straight people. We tend to identify LGBT people as LGBT, before anything else. "He's the gay guy that owns two restaurants," rather than "He's the guy who owns two restaurants. I think he's also gay." Or better yet, just "He's the guy who owns two restaurants."

The other thing is: how do you write an LGBT character? If you start off with them being openly gay, then you have also started off with LGBT defining who the character is, and it comes off as pandering to your audience. On the other hand, if you start off with the character in the closet, then when you finally have them come out, it comes off as forced for the sake of attracting an audience, no matter how you do it.

I keep a running list of all the characters I've created over the years. I have about a thousand different identifying tags for my characters, so I can sort them in a variety of ways, and one of those identifiers is "gay," which covers all LGBT. Of all my characters, only twenty-seven of them carry the "gay" tag, although I know there's others I've forgotten to put the tag on, so let's round it up to forty. Frankly, that's not even a whole page out of my 201 page list.

Why? Pretty simply: I don't know if I can write an LGBT character competently. I've debated with myself on how best to go about it, and the conclusion I have pretty much settled on is that the best I can do is write the character as normal as possible, until it's time to show that they're gay. So in other words: something like this: Joe Gay gets up from his desk one day, says goodbye to his coworkers, takes the elevator to the lobby, hails a taxi from the sidewalk, buys a paper from the guy at the newsstand, takes two flights of stairs to his apartment, sets down his briefcase and keys at the door, goes in the kitchen, grabs a beer, and kisses his boyfriend, before sitting down on the couch.

With the exception of "kisses his boyfriend," that could be the end of a straight guy's day. For me, I think that's the most competent way that I can write any LGBT character. Now, the problem that comes in for me is that my gay characters, like many of my straight characters, tend to have other ideas about how they'll be presented. I've got one gay character whose father completely disapproves of him being gay, whose mother is in denial about him being gay, and whose brother is a priest, but supports him because he's his brother (and the gay brother doesn't know whether to trust that support). Another gay character is a superhero, and completely flamboyant about being gay, even though I don't know if I can write that or not. Several of the other gay characters on my list are just cyphers - I know they're gay, and that's really all I know about them. Your characters will screw you up like that sometimes.

I'm sure many would ask me, "Why create a gay character, if you don't think you can write a gay character?" I have a couple reasons. First, I try to never throw away an idea, whether I think I can do it or not at the time. If the idea came to me, then what's likely is that there's a way, in my subconscious somewhere, of how to implement it. This usually proves true. Second, I'm a real flesh-and-blood person, and as a writer, I have curiosity about a great number of things. One of those things is the gay/lesbian psyche and my own psyche. Can I write a gay/lesbian character as a person, rather than as a stereotype? I honestly don't know. My experience with LGBT as a whole is that whether they mean to or not, LGBT people seem to embrace their stereotypes, so it's hard to separate the stereotype from the characters, and still feel like I've made a true representation of an LGBT person.

That is probably my biggest problem with writing an LGBT character: true representation. I get very frustrated with LGBT characters in comics, because they're almost always presented as perfect - they're successful, everyone likes their personality, everyone accepts their being gay, and they're just as accepting and supportive of others. Well, I'm calling b.s. That just isn't the case. Real life LGBT people deal with a crud ton of prejudice, have their own prejudices, and their success levels vary as much as any straight person's (although my personal observation is that the gay people I know tend to use the same strength that allows them to withstand so much prejudice to aid their drive to be successful).

Creators can't present LGBT that way in comics though, because if they show anything negative about the character at all, then they're labelled as prejudiced and hateful against LGBT. I'm sorry LGBT people, but the fact is: you're just as messed up as the rest of us. In fact, with the stuff you deal with on a daily basis, you're probably more messed up, and justifiably so. So get over it. Entertainment media presents straight people in all walks and all personalities, from homeless to successful, and from the worst evil to the purest good. And as straight people, we deal with it, because we encompass that entire gamut. LGBT people encompass that same range, and until that can be accurately reflected without a buyer backlash, no LGBT character is going to feel genuine.

So I suppose that personally, my problem with how to write LGBT boils down to "what feels genuine" versus "how much backlash am I prepared for?" I haven't decided my personal answer for that. What I lean towards is: write what feels right for the character, and hope that it feels right to the reader as well. In the end, I think that's how every character should be written.

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