This article, written by Eris Young, is from the October 2022 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
It would be impossible to sit down and list every LGBTQ+ stereotype that might pop up in a work of fiction. For one thing, stereotypes change as society changes, and they can be hard to pin down, it’s more a feeling you get while reading than a specific image.
A stereotype might only be noticeable to someone from the group being depicted, which means that authors writing outside their own experience need to take steps to make sure they won’t hurt or alienate their readers.
Is this my story to tell?
Before fiction became so globalized and widely accessible, it was standard practice for non-marginalized authors to write stories about marginalized people—crucially, people who were excluded from literary circles and therefore could not tell their stories themselves. As authors, we need to make sure we’re not accidentally reinforcing this harmful dynamic.
But just because you’re writing outside your lived experience doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t write the story; I wouldn’t be writing this article if that was the case! Instead, writing responsibly is about doing your legwork, and being prepared to have your work read by the people you’re writing about.
There are a handful of best practices to keep in mind that should help you protect both yourself and your readers. These pointers are drawn from my own experiences as an author, editor, and sensitivity reader, and from a lifetime as a queer, transgender reader of books.
We’re people, not decoration
Recently, reading a new installment in a favorite fantasy series, I was surprised and excited when the author included two transgender women in a scene; until then, trans people hadn’t been mentioned in the series at all.
My excitement quickly took a nosedive when it turned out the trans women weren’t characters at all but set dressing: they were never given names, and it became clear they were only included to give the scene—which took place in a nightclub—a sense of sleazy criminality.
If the author had asked any trans person before including this, frankly throwaway, line, they’d likely have politely explained why it was harmful. Instead, the author relied on their own preconceived notions associating trans people with degeneracy and artifice, and ended up writing a stereotype.
As a trans person, reading this scene made me feel as if people like me didn’t belong in the author’s world—or if we did, it could be as decoration only, not as characters with interior lives. So the first, most important thing to remember is that the people you’re writing about are human beings: any person, no matter who they are, is a potential character, and no one deserves to be treated like part of the scenery.
The people you’re writing about will be reading your books
As a critic on a short fiction writing course, I regularly come across stories featuring nonbinary or trans characters, where the author had obviously written with the assumption that no real-life nonbinary or trans person would ever read the story—much less have cause to edit or critique it.
It’s an excellent rule of thumb to always assume that, whatever group you’re writing about, someone from that group will read your work at one point or another. Try to imagine how what you’re writing will make that person feel.
Do your research
This one is obvious. “Research” takes many forms, and research material can mean books, podcasts, TV shows, interviews, or almost anything else, but it’s always important to check who created those materials. Is the author, artist, or showrunner themself LGBTQ+, or, if not, did they hire LGBTQ+ consultants?
Research can also mean talking to people from that specific group, be they friends, family members, or even strangers off the internet. You are allowed to ask questions about someone’s experience, or even ask them to take a look at what you’ve written. But whoever you speak to, remember that no one person will be able to speak for their entire community, and no one owes you their time.
Especially for less visible groups such as intersex or asexual-spectrum identities, it can be exhausting to have to explain your identity or lived experience over and over to different people. Always ask politely first, and don’t take it personally if someone says they don’t want to look over your work or give you advice.
If it’s more than just a few lines, it’s best to hire a professional sensitivity reader. It’s their job to help you make your writing as good as it can be, and unlike a friend or family member, they’ll be unbiased and won’t just tell you what they think you want to hear.
Listen to criticism
If you’re writing a story about mountain climbing and you consult an experienced climber, you’ll listen to them when they say something you’ve written is inaccurate, right? LGBTQ+ people have the expertise and lived experience to be able to say if what you’ve written rings true, or if it feels like a stereotype.
I recently did a sensitivity read for a novel featuring a nonbinary character. The character was well-written and multilayered, but there was an odd moment where that character’s partner talks about their gender and says, “No one but me will ever love them.”
As a nonbinary trans person, I intuitively understood that the line made me uncomfortable because there’s a long history in fiction of gender-nonconforming characters being portrayed as unlovable or undesirable because of their gender. I was able to suggest a more positive, compassionate approach that framed the character’s nonbinary gender not as an obstacle to a relationship, but as just another reason to love them.
Stereotypes are more than just negative images
There are plenty of highly visible LGBTQ+ stereotypes—the theatrical, “limp-wristed” gay man and the wise, ethereal, cardboard-cutout nonbinary person, to name a couple—but the more insidious stereotypes are those that operate beyond the page, on a metanarrative level.
Ask yourself, for example, how your story treats gender-transgression or ambiguity? Are the aesthetics or trappings of queerness in your story always associated with misery, artifice, or evil? Are you queer-coding your villain? Are your lesbian characters “punished” or even killed off implicitly for not conforming to heteronormative expectations? Is the only gay man in your historical novel tragically closeted? An LGBTQ+ stereotype could even be the simple act of denying your only queer character a happy ending, implying that being LGBTQ+ can only lead to a miserable, tragic end.
Queerness isn’t a bad thing!
My final piece of advice for writing LGBTQ+ characters, then, is simply to remember that being gay, trans, intersex, asexual—or any other queer identity—is not a bad thing. So many of the stereotypes and harmful images we have of LGBTQ+ people come from the ways society has framed us as criminal or ill, or has only seen us when we’re hurt or killed for being who we are. But remember, we’ve been finding love and family and creating our own joy, even within societies that criminalize or pathologize us, for centuries.
It’s impossible to plan for every eventuality. What you can do is your due diligence. Educate yourself, and consider hiring a professional whose job it is to be attuned to the ways that unconscious bias can manifest in fiction.
Practice empathy with both your readers and the people you’re depicting, and question your instincts when writing experiences you’ve only passively heard about through media and pop culture: ask yourself what feels natural for this character or storyline, and why you want to include it?
If you hold onto the touchstones of empathy, research, and critical thought, your LGBTQ+ characters and storylines are much more likely to be positive, authentic, and enjoyable to read.