As LGBT+ rights continue to make great strides in becoming normalized and accepted by widespread culture, LGBT people have started to pop up far more often in different forms of media. However, because LGBT people can vary wildly in experiences, locations, and beliefs, it can be tricky for someone to really have a good idea of what makes for good representation. Some would argue that it simply being acknowledged is enough, while others would argue that it needs to be a present part of the character, while others argue that it shouldn’t be the focus of the character and that their other traits should be emphasized on more. So, where should one start? Here are a few tips to lead the way.
- If You Are Not LGBT, Do Not Make Your Story About Being LGBT – I’m not saying you can’t write an LGBT character if you yourself are not LGBT. A white person can’t really write a story about what it means to be black because it is an experience of life they have never experienced for themselves. If you want to write a story with an LGBT character, or better yet, a protagonist, that’s wonderful. But their sexuality, sex, or gender should not be a focal point of the narrative unless you know the experience first hand.
- Not All People Use the Same Labels – Although the term queer is being reclaimed by some people in the LGBT community, there are those who still do not like the use of the word, and the same goes for other slurs. Like with the ‘n’ word for black people, some LGBT people feel fine using terms such as queer and fag when referring to themselves or friends who they know it doesn’t bother, but most LGBT people are mindful to remember that not everyone feels the same way about these harmful words.
- Don’t Bury Your Gays – In the cinema that emerged from Hollywood following the censorship laws of the Hays Code in 1930, characters that were coded as homosexuals or otherwise ‘deviants’ from the social norm were punished, often with death. Themes of self-loathing were common, and it became extremely common for one or both members of a suspected homosexual couple in a movie to be killed by the end of the story, if not be portrayed as a sick monster or villain by the end. If they weren’t gunned down, their self-loathing boiled over and they took their own lives. So, if the only LGBT character in your story dies, consider killing off a different character, due to the particularly dark and troubled history of this trope. On a related note, if you’ve written a villain to be campy and effeminate in order to make them funny or look silly, you are once again playing into harmful stereotypes due to the frequency with which stereotypical homosexual behavior is used to code villains in order to make these behaviors look wrong and villainous.
- Understand the Difference Between Stereotypical and Nuanced – In the public eye, the stereotype of the gay male is that he is campy and effeminate with a lack of interest in traditional masculinity, and that the lesbian female skins wild animals and fixes broken appliances with the same vigor she plays softball and chugs beer. However, it is fair to point out that some of this is truth in television, and there are people in the world who are just as stereotypical if not more-so than these depictions. So, where is the line between stereotypes and realistic characters? The difference comes in how it is intended. If the audience or reader is meant to laugh at the character because oh ha a man shouldn’t act like that, then the portrayal is harmful and stereotypical. If the only defining characteristic of the character is that they are LGBT, then that is not a well-written character. Being LGBT does not dictate one’s interests or hobbies. But don’t feel compelled to write the exact opposite of the stereotype either. Effeminate gay men are people too, and although they flood the media perception excessively, there’s still a difference to be found between a character written to be gay, and a character who just happens to be gay.
- A Character’s Surroundings Will Impact Who They Are – Two gay men could be completely identical in every single way but end up extremely different due to a simple change in hometown. Aside from universal experiences such as coming to terms with one’s sexuality or the coming out process, not all LGBT people are going to be met with the same challenges or the same opportunities. Take for example a gay boy in high school. Imagine him going to a public school in New York City or Los Angeles where the mindset tends to be more liberal and the population size is far larger. In a school with a student body of 300,000 students, he’s far more likely to go to school with other LGBT people based simply on population density and statistics. He’s far more likely to get a boyfriend from his own school, be part of an at least decently sized Gay Straight Alliance, and can probably come out with less fear of rejection on the whole. Now compare and contrast to someone living in a small town in Wyoming. On the whole, Wyoming is one of the least populated states in America. That exact same gay boy may now find himself one of only maybe a small handful of LGBT people. If there’s only one other guy in his school or even worse, his town who also likes boys, the two may very well almost force themselves into a relationship in order to satisfy a need for physical or emotional intimacy. By the time they go away to college, they may have already clung to each other so much that it’s easier just to keep the relationship going than to try to find somebody new. Skip ahead a few more years, and they may have a very rocky marriage held together on the sole grounds that at one point in their lives, they were each other’s only options for romance, and that them both being LGBT was not enough to hold a relationship together. Taking these kinds of elements into consideration when constructing a narrative with an LGBT character can yield compelling stories if examined under the right circumstances.
- The Pitfalls of Dating – As if backlash from society, faith, and media portrayal aren’t bad enough, one of the most annoying parts of being gay can be finding a partner. Continuing with the school example from before, imagine that in a class of 180 that 13 students are LGBT, of those, 6 are males, your gay male character and his only five options for a potential boyfriend. Factor in the possibilities of incompatible interests, physical attraction, and even popularity, and of those five options, he may only have eyes for one guy in the entire school. Then, what can he do when he finds out the only guy he’s interested in is already with someone else? Well he’s left with three options: try a different school, hope someone comes out of the closet, or get comfortable with being alone. This can also put a lot more pressure on the anxiety of asking someone out. If a straight guy asks a girl out, even if she rejects him, he’s got another 60 girls he could pursuit. When there’s only 5 guys available, and there’s a realistic chance that the ones he finds attractive won’t be interested in him, there’s a lot more lost if he dares ask his crush out and gets rejected. There’s also the fact that especially straight men may get angry and possibly even hostile should a gay guy express romantic interest in them, to the point where some gay men may feel afraid to ask a guy out unless they can either get a good feel for whether he’s likely to respond that way, or a clear sign that the man is a homosexual.
- Coming Out Is A Deeply Personal Decision – A sort of unspoken cardinal rule among LGBT people is essentially, “Thou Shalt Not Out Thy Community”. Outing someone else is a taboo within LGBT culture, due to the sensitive nature of the topic, and because some may be at risk of their home lives or work lives being compromised by this information getting out, and others just don’t feel like sharing this aspect of their lives with others. Thus outing someone else, especially intentionally, is considered to be a very egregious offense.
- Transgender and Drag are not the Same Thing – A transwoman is a woman who was Assigned Male At Birth and a transman is likewise a man who was Assigned Female At Birth. A Drag Queen is a man who dresses in women’s clothing as a form of entertainment. A Transwoman is a woman. A drag queen may use female pronouns on the stage, but when the dress comes off, the man underneath is still a man and still identifies as man. A Transwoman is a woman no matter what kind of clothes she’s wearing or what she looks like.