During a recent #GayYA chat, Lucas and Robin both expressed dissatisfaction with the term “Just Happening to Be LGBTQ”. We asked them to tell us more about it . This is Part 1 of a 2 Part post they wrote for us on “Just Happening to Be Gay”. Enjoy! (Update for #BestofGayYA readers: Part 2 is up here!)
Robin Talley: So we discovered in a recent #gayya chat on Twitter that we’re both peeved by, and have gone so far as to blog about, the frequently expressed desire by many readers to see more books with characters who “just happen to be LGBT.”
Now, I can understand where people are coming from when they say this, but nonetheless it drives me up the wall. And you too, right?
Lucas J.W. Johnson: Absolutely. I’ve seen it when talking about real people too. And I know what they’re meaning to say. They’re meaning to be supportive, to say that being LGBT isn’t the only thing that defines a character. Which is true. But that’s not the end of the story.
Robin: Right, totally. I think with books people usually just use the phrase as a shorthand term for when they really mean something like, “I wish there were more paranormal thrillers with LGBT characters in them.” Which is obviously a very understandable desire.
Lucas: Yes, and one that I share! The problem I find with it is that the shorthand term almost seems to downplay that part of the character, like them being gay isn’t really important.
Robin: Absolutely. If a character is LGBT, I as a reader WANT to know about that aspect of the character’s life. I want to know about it now as an adult reader, but I would’ve wanted to know about it a lot more when I was 16.
People don’t just “happen” to be anything. And there’s a certain dismissive tone to the “just happens to be” phrase that I think is generally not intended. Just “happening” to be LGBT is not the same thing as just happening to have green eyes.
Lucas: Exactly. Unlike, as you say, having green eyes, being LGBT hugely affects a person in many many ways.
Robin: It very much does. If the main character of a story is knowingly LGBT, and the story doesn’t take place in an alternate universe in which sexual orientation and/or gender identity is a complete non-issue, then to some degree the book has to be at least a little bit “about” that, if it’s an authentic representation of the character’s life.
Lucas: Yep. You can’t just pass off that aspect of the character. It will affect how they grew up and developed, their relationships with parents and friends, obviously their love life, and their relationship with society as a whole.
Robin: And little day-to-day things too. Especially if we’re talking about high school, where your social life is your ENTIRE life.
Lucas: And not only is the social life your entire life, but it’s when you’re first really discovering your sexuality, having your first relationships… It’s hugely important.
Robin: Not to mention that the bulk of teenagers’ time that is not actively engaged in the having of a social life is spent talking with other teenagers ABOUT their social lives.
When I was a teenager I didn’t read books with LGBT characters, because I didn’t know such things existed (I was stuck furtively renting Go Fish from my local independent video store for cultural representations of lesbianism, which messed me up but good), but if I had, and the story hadn’t addressed that aspect of the character’s life, I’d have been pretty darn frustrated. I mean, the entire reason I started watching Buffy was to see Willow get her gay on.
Lucas: Ha, right??
As a writer, choosing to make a character LGBT isn’t something I can just tack on. It’s not like I plot out a story, develop some interesting characters, and then say “Oh, hey, one of these guys should be gay,” and then make it so. It’s a conscious part of developing a character, and an integral part of a character’s development.
Robin: Totally. My protagonists are always LGBT (though sometimes the particular letter in question surprises me), so I always know that out of the gate, and that informs every decision I make about them when I’m constructing them. I have to decide who they’re out to, when they came out to themselves, how much self-loathing they’re dealing with, how their particular set of friends feels about their orientation and/or identity, how it’s affected their relationships with their lifelong BFFs, and on and on and on. Not to mention figuring out how the LGBT social circles work in their particular environment, community, universe, etc.
Lucas: And even minor characters should have enough of a character of their own to warrant that choice having some effect on the actual writing of the character.
Robin: Totally. One of my favorite things to see in a book is an LGBT side character whose sexual orientation or gender identity is organically woven into the story in a really interesting way, even if it’s not integral to the main plot. My favorite example of this is always the best friend character in How to Ditch Your Fairy — her crush on an older female athlete is just tossed into a scene offhandedly, but it feels very natural. Though I have to admit, I’d always rather the LGBT character take center stage rather than being a side character.
Lucas: Right. When I’m writing a main character who’s gay, and it’s not the primary focus of the story to any degree, it’s not about him coming out or dealing with the reactions of people around him ― but he still has to deal with the reactions of people around him, and he still has different love interests and difficulties than he would were he straight. It affects everything he does and deals with, even in just a small way.
Stay Tuned for Part 2 of Lucas and Robin’s conversation coming tomorrow! In Part 2, they discuss coming out stories, utopian worlds, The Princess Bride and writing Gay YA!
Lucas J.W. Johnson writes speculative fiction, queer fiction, and YA fiction — often all at once. Visit him at http://lucasjwjohnson.com, http://silverstringmedia.com or on Twitter at @floerianthebard.