Queerness As A Plot Device
In the 21st century, when there are plenty of gay teenagers romancing around the world, Love, Simon, based on Becky Albertalli’s book Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, is the first film by a major Hollywood studio to focus on a gay teenage romance.
Although this is still progress for the LGBT+ community, there is still a long way to go for authentic LGBT+ representation in literature. An example being the thought processes of some authors: 'I'm going to include a gay character for some diversity because diversity is so on-trend.So, shall I make them the funny side-kick to my heteronormative hero? How about a bit of tragedy - they could get kicked out of the house by their super religious parents or, better still, gruesomely die just before the end! If they're a gay guy better make them super girly, and if they're a bisexual women, well, they'll have to cheat on their loving boyfriend, right? And I'll just make my gay character a white middle class able bodied male because I've already ticked one minority box. Oh, and I won't bother with any other LGBT+ representation because anyone else on the spectrum is just too much effort.'
Another major issue in literary representation of LGBT+ folk is the use of queerness as a plot device. In many books, even if the gay character is well written, happy, healthy, and not stereotyped, there's the temptation to use their sexuality as a plot device to create narrative tension. Gay person needs a literary obstacle? Make them come out. Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is an example of this: beautifully rendered, but the majority of Simon's decisions, thoughts, and actions in the book are steered by his pre-coming out or post-coming out experience.
Of course, this is in no way a means to undermine the amazing work of Albertalli and other authors whose characters' coming out stories are central to the narrative. Almost all gay people come out at some point, or at least it plays on the mind a lot, so to be able to read literature about an often difficult and painful experience can be incredibly supportive. However, just as a real life gay person's identity doesn't revolve around their coming out story, so should the same be true of literature.
So what needs to be done? Well, there needs to be more books where the queer character, preferably the protagonist, is just 'incidentally' queer. In effect, the character's experiences, drives, desires, and personality go beyond their sexuality, and they are not completely defined by it. They are just like any other of our favourite characters in literary history, with the same ups and downs, strengths and flaws - they just happen to be queer.
Of course, a queer character's experience in a book will inevitably be partly shaped by their sexuality. Their romantic choices will definitely be shaped by their sexuality. A writer shouldn't just put a queer label on a character who to all intents and purposes is essentially straight. Being a member of a minority group, even if your life is not negatively affected by it, will still to make your experiences, thoughts, actions, and choices different to your hegemonic counterpart. Writing a queer character, like writing a BAME or disabled character, requires research and talking to actual queer people to effectively capture the nuances of living as a queer person in whatever country, society, era, or context in which you decide to put them.
But having incidentally queer characters in books is vitally important towards normalising queerness in real life. If a queer character in a book doesn't have to come out, and is no different to the straight characters, if any character in a book can be queer, then it means anyone in real life can be queer too. The LGBT+ utopic ideal is where people don't have to come out, where there is no awkward, sometimes offensive assumption that someone is straight. In the land of fiction, where there is no limit to possibility apart from the writer's imagination, we can already achieve this brave new world.
Some brilliant authors are already writing incidentally queer protagonists, such as Sophie Cameron's Out of the Blue, Kit Mallory’s Blackout, and Patrick Ness' More Than This. But we need more authors like these, and more characters like the ones whose stories they bring to life in their novels.
In our society and in fiction, queerness is not on-trend. Queerness is not a source of narrative tension, or a go-to plot device. Queerness is not a marketing technique or a submission pitch. Queerness and queer people are real, so write them as such. It's really quite as simple as that.
Article by Florianne Humphrey