Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Being a Straight Ally

This post is part of GayYa.org's Gay in YA blogathon.

If you had asked teen me to name LGBTQ characters and canon pairings in YA lit, most of them would’ve come from Asian comics. The novels I remember reading as a teen—LJ Smith, Christopher Pike, RL Stine—were all hetro couples; manga was where to find the variety.

It was probably Cardcaptor Sakura that I most connected with; CLAMP had written a story reflecting the relationships already existing in the world around me: Boys liked boys; girls liked girls; some characters liked both. (One of my best guy friends came out to me on my seventeenth birthday—try topping that present—and I had a bisexual classmate.)

This was over ten years ago. While gay characters are hardly common in contemporary YA, at least they have more of a presence than they did. Bisexuality, however, still tends to be accepted even less than being gay. Usually if someone says they’re bi, it’s concluded that they’re “confused.” But if you talk to people in the LGBTQ community, you’ll learn that a bisexual is someone who loves individuals regardless of their gender.

A couple years ago I wrote a tie-in novel for TOKYOPOP based on a Korean comic series. The plot isn’t really important, but there was a romance conflict that involved a young woman being engaged to a guy who it’s suggested may have cheated on her with another man.

I raised the issue to my editor that we should perhaps give some indication that the dude was bisexual, because why would a sane woman worry about her heterosexual fiancé fooling around with another guy? My editor agreed.

Except the problem was that we weren’t allowed to explicitly state the character was bisexual. By the rules of the shonen ai genre, this character had to be seduced by an older ‘experienced’ male. We couldn’t imply that the character being seduced was also experienced.

It bothered me, because it left a logic flaw in the character behavior. But it bothered me more because it might support an underlying implication that people can be “turned gay” or that the seduction had “confused” this character.

I don’t believe people turn gay; I don’t believe people who are bisexual are confused. I certainly don’t want to propagate either misconception to readers.

So we found another way. We were subtle instead of loud. We never explicitly state the character is bisexual, but I think there’s enough there that a reader can guess. While I would’ve preferred to state that the character had had previous same-sex relationships, being a professional writer is about compromising—and choosing which battles you want to fight.

The challenging part of being a straight ally to the LGBTQ community is similar to the challenge of writing ethnic minorities: Some times we who are not worry that we’ll offend those who are by getting something “wrong.”

I’ve been outlining a new project—and getting nowhere with it until I realized that the main character is gay. Is there a huge commercial demand for stories where boys fall in love and pilot battle robots? Maybe not; it could just be one more factor that makes this difficult to sell. But I’m not going to worry about that before I’ve even written a first draft.

Authors have to be true to their characters regardless of gender, race or sexuality; the story will tell you what it needs. Whether it sells or not, wouldn’t you rather spend the time writing something you believe in?