Malinda Lo’s first novel, Ash, a retelling of Cinderella with a lesbian twist, was a finalist for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award, the Andre Norton Award for YA Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the Lambda Literary Award. Her second novel, Huntress, was just published in April 2011 and received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. Visit her website at www.malindalo.com.
In my two young adult fantasy novels, Ash and Huntress, the main characters are girls who fall in love with other girls. I admit there’s something different about the love stories told in my books, but it’s not that they’re gay love stories.
The difference is: in the world of my novels, being gay doesn’t matter.
What that means is that the characters are able to fall in love without dealing with homophobia. They don’t have to come out, because sexual orientation is never assumed in their worlds, and falling in love with someone of the same sex is seen as perfectly natural.
A lot of times, I get email from readers or come across reviews in which the lack of homophobia in my novels is described as refreshing or unusual, and I really appreciate that. I’m glad they find it a positive thing. On the other hand, it makes me realize that my approach to writing about same-sex romance is pretty much the exception to the rule, especially in YA.
There are adult novels in which coming out is no longer an issue and characters fall in love without needing to deal with homophobia — but often that’s because they’ve dealt with it already in their pasts. In YA, the characters are teens. They’re dealing with first love, and if their stories are set in our real world, homophobia is unfortunately a reality and coming out usually does have to happen.
But if the novel is a fantasy set in a secondary world, or a science fiction novel set sometime in the future, the author has the option from the get-go to write a world that is free from homophobia.
There’s no trick to this. The author simply has to decide: Are the people in this fantasy world homophobic? Or not?
If yes, then the author has to deal with that if she is going to be writing about gay characters. But if no, that means the gay characters don’t even need to identify as “gay” anymore. They can simply be human beings.
I think that sometimes people have a hard time wrapping their minds around how exactly one would write a homophobic-free fantasy world, because we’re used to thinking about gay identity being inextricably linked with homophobia. (Gay Pride parades can be, for example, positive ways to reclaim many homophobic stereotypes.) So here are a few practical tips I can give writers who are interested in writing worlds free from homophobia:
1. The characters do not need to come out to themselves or anyone else. That means that when they fall in love, they feel no shame about the fact that they’re falling for someone of the same sex; they only feel what a straight person might feel.
2. Nobody in the world needs to comment on the characters’ sexual orientations. When others notice that the character is falling for someone of the same sex, they would not comment on the same-sex aspect.
3. It’s helpful to insert some background characters who are in same-sex relationships, just as walk-on characters that help set the scene. But make sure that the description of those same-sex couples or relationships is presented as perfectly normal.
4. The words “gay,” “lesbian” or “bisexual” do not need to be used to describe these characters. This may feel very weird, but I believe it’s true. If nobody cares about sexual orientation, there don’t need to be words about it in the language, because essentially everyone would be potentially bisexual.
5. The existence or lack of homophobia is not necessarily related to the existence or lack of modern technology or sexism in the fantasy world. I think that sometimes people believe that a fantasy set in a medieval-esque world would automatically be homophobic and sexist, but that’s not necessarily true. It is within the author’s power to control all these elements; they are all part of world-building.
Personally, I want desperately to read more books in which homophobia is not an issue, but people still fall in love with others of the same sex. That’s the kind of world I want to live in, so I’m not surprised that I write those worlds and want to read about more of them.
Being gay, lesbian or bisexual isn’t an issue. Homophobia is the issue. While it’s a significant problem in the real world, I think that leaving it behind in a fantasy world is a wonderful and empowering way to say that being gay really is OK.