“Just Happening To Be Gay” Dismisses A Depth of Character (Part 2)
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 2 of the post they wrote for us on “Just Happening to Be Gay”. Do you agree?
Robin: I think there is a tendency to lump “about being LGBT” and “coming out stories” in together. Whereas I don’t think either one of those things can ever really stand alone. But whether a character is especially focused right now on coming out or on saving the world or on getting onto a reality TV show or whatever, if they’re LGBT, it’s going to matter.
If two boys are on a date it’s a different thing than a boy and girl going on a date. They have to think about things like “Is it safe for us to hold hands here?” “If he’s not out, then how will we handle it if we see someone we know while we’re out together?” etc. Straight couples, not so much, usually.
Lucas: Not to mention the unknowns of sexuality before the date even happens ― the LGBT community isn’t usually a “visible” minority. If a boy has a crush on another boy, the first thing he has to wonder is, “Is he gay too?” and potentially “How do I ask him out without the risk of getting punched in the face?”
Robin: Oh yes! Yes, this, so much! Looking for tiny signs and then being CRUSHED when you realize you misinterpreted them.
Lucas: Been there!
Robin: “I think she’s into me! She was totally flirting with me during gym! … Wait, why is she making out with that dude?”
OK, now I’m just having flashbacks. This is embarrassing. But anyway! Yes, all the tiny ways in which LGBTness makes day-to-day life, especially dating, a very different animal.
And no, as the writer you don’t have to dwell on those things ― we always have to make choices about what to include in our stories. So one could decide to leave that stuff out, if one were primarily concerned with making the character’s sexuality NOT the focus of the story. But then, I would argue, one would be a disingenuous storyteller. Disingenuous to LGBT teens, who deserve to have their entire stories told, because that hasn’t actually been happening for very long.
Lucas: I think even if you don’t focus on it in your writing, it still has to be present, or the character isn’t realistic.
I think there’s such a breadth of what stories do need to be told. All aspects of LGBT life, especially in high school.
It doesn’t need to be about coming out ― though we still absolutely need coming out stories. But LGBT teens need all the types of stories that straight teens have had for decades. We’ve had the stories about drug addiction, for instance. But how is that different when the addict is LGBT? Does that affect why they’re an addict, or how they deal with it, or the other problems they must deal with simultaneously?
Robin: Also? This may be controversial but I think even in gay-utopia alternate universes where coming/being out isn’t an issue, I still want to know stuff about the character’s LGBTness.
Lucas: Absolutely. Just because it’s a non-issue culturally doesn’t mean it’s not going to affect the person. They still have to deal with being in the minority, for instance.
And (speaking of controversial), while escapism is certainly nice, and I’d like to think about a world in which being LGBT is completely within the norm, if you manage to write a story where being LGBT would truly not affect the character at all (which as the entire previous discussion suggests, I don’t think is really possible), that seems to no longer be dealing with an issue that speaks to me as a gay person. To me, reading about an LGBT character is about dealing with being an LGBT person, even if just in the small ways.
Robin: Wow. Hmm. I can see that. I can also see the case, though, for losing yourself in a fairy-tale-like world with yourself cast as the hero, where you don’t have to suspend disbelief about the heterosexual romance. I think that holds particular value for teens who truly just want to forget about their LGBTness for a while.
Like, I watched Princess Bride over and over and over when I was eleven, and if there had been a Princess Bride with Wesley as a chick, I’d have watched it at least 80 gazillion more times.
Lucas: Ha! A fair point! And I certainly can’t speak for all LGBT people or writers out there. But even then, as we’ve discussed, it would make a difference to the story, small as it may be.
Robin: Right! If, in Princess Bride, Wesley had been a chick, it would have totally emasculated Prince Humperdinck. Even better comeuppance! But I would want to see Prince Humperdinck actively addressing the fact that Wesley was a chick and that he, the Prince, was obviously not doing it for Buttercup in that department.
But mostly they’d all still just have spent the movie running around the hills swordfighting and such, same as ever.
Lucas: Haha, yep! And Buttercup would too have been dealing with more than just not being in love with Humperdinck.
No matter the situation, making a character LGBT is going to affect the story. Even if it’s just in a small way! It is, in fact, those small ways that matter most.
They’re what make the difference between a character trait like that being tacked on, and having actual organic, realistic characters and situations.
Robin: Yes. And the dangerous thing is when you try to write around those traits in the name of making sure your character “just happens to be” whatever.
Well-rounded characters are well-rounded in every single aspect of their being. You need to sit and think about the impact of every single aspect of your character’s identity on how they act, how their lives work, etc. Even when it’s hard. As it often is when we’re writing about characters who are different from us.
Lucas: And it needs to be a conscious choice. If you do it, do it because it’s what right, because it’s what you want to do. Not just to have a token LGBT character (who “just happens to be” LGBT)!
For those of us who are, it does affect us in huge ways. There’s not a day goes by that the fact that I’m gay doesn’t make some difference in my life. Even if it’s that I had the opportunity to take part in this chat!
Robin: Haha, yes. (Although of course our ever-lovable non-LGBT friends are welcome to chat as well. GayYA is a discrimination-free zone!)
What about the rest of you? How do you feel about the “just happens to be” terminology, if you’ve come across it before?
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.