In light of Caitlyn Jenner now declaring her female identity and appearing on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine, I thought it would be a good time to talk about LGBTQIA+ representation in creative writing.
While for the most part, the mainstream news media has made great improvements in how gay, transgender, and related minorities are represented, I still see people making offensive errors, even if they don’t mean to. Hopefully, this post will help prevent such problems going forward.
Let’s start with the initialization LGBTQIA+, which is short for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (or transsexual), queer (or questioning), intersex, and asexual. I often add a plus sign to represent other similar identities, including pansexual, polyamorous, etc.
Notice I used the word communities in the heading. The gay community and the transgender community have some overlap, but sexual orientation and gender identity are two completely different issues. While we face common oppression, they are different communities.
For the most part, writers tend to deal with lesbian and characters fairly respectfully. However, I still do see some stereotypes like the effeminate gay man and the butch lesbian. While there are many of us in the gay community that fit those tropes to an extent, you will find that the gay people come in all shapes and sizes. One of the things that I liked about the TV series Will and Grace was the diversity of gay men represented. Not every gay man acted like Jack.
But what if you only have one or two gay characters? How are you supposed to represent this diversity? My rule of thumb for writing any minority character is the make their minority status the least interesting thing about them.
Look at Orphan Black. The character of Felix is quite the gay stereotype. But what makes him such an interesting character has nothing to do with his effeminate demeanor. He is loyal to his sister Sarah, willing to risk his life for her and her daughter. His sexuality is such a small part of who he is.
The same is true of Cosima Neihaus, who is bisexual, according to Tatiana Maslany, who plays Sarah, Cosima, and the other Leda clones. Cosima’s passion for science and determination to help her sisters is far more interesting than her attraction to Delphine or anyone else.
Speaking of bisexuals, there is a tendency to assume that all people in same-sex relationships are gay. Many people in same-sex relationships identify as bisexual. Bisexual does not mean that they have to be in a relationship with both at the same time. It just means that their sexual attraction isn’t based on whether a person is a man or a woman.
Some people in same-sex relationships identify as pansexual, which means that not only are they attracted both men and women, but also others in the gender spectrum.
Some people in relationships are asexual. Asexuals are attracted to people emotionally and romantically, just not sexually. It doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with them. Sex just isn’t a thing for them.
Understanding the Trans* Community
You may be wondering what that asterisk indicates in the word trans*. Let me start by clarifying the word transgender. Transgender people are people who identify as one gender, but were assigned a different gender at birth.
Some people use the term trans* because not all people who fit the above description feel the word transgender describes them. Some identify more with the term transsexual or genderfluid or genderqueer or non-binary, all of which mean different things to different people.
Men, Women, Neither, and Both
I recently read a wonderful book that contained a sentence that I found offensive, even though I know the author didn’t mean it to be. Here is the sentence:
Finally she does go, and basically every pair of eyes in the area—girl, boy, trans—falls on her and follows her.
The author was trying to be inclusive of transgender people. But what he really did was other trans people by suggesting that trans people aren’t girls or boys, but something else entirely. Not helping!
The thing you have to understand is that transgender women, while they may have been assigned male at birth, are WOMEN. It doesn’t matter what surgeries we have or haven’t had. It doesn’t matter if we are on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) or not. We identify as women, and likely always have.
The same goes with transgender men. They are MEN. Period. Even if they can still give birth. If they identify as men, they are men.
There are some transgender people who identify as genderfluid, which means they may identify as male sometimes and as female other times. People who identify as genderqueer may identify as both male or female. Some identify as non-binary, meaning they don’t feel like male or female. They may prefer pronouns like they, ze, zhe, hir, etc.
When you encounter someone whose gender identity you are not sure of, ask how they identify. Ask what pronouns they prefer. Then use those identifiers and pronouns when you refer to them.
Transgender is an Adjective
An adjective is a word that modifies a noun. An adjective is not a noun, nor is it a verb. Therefore you would could say someone is transgender (adjective), or is a transgender (adjective) person. But you would not say that person is a transgender (noun). Nor would you say that person is transgendered (verb).
Also, don’t write transman or transwoman. It’s trans man or trans woman. It’s an open compound word, not a closed compound word.
Challenges Faced by Intersex People
Some people are born with indeterminate genitalia, that is, the doctor wasn’t sure if they were male or female, based on their genitalia. This may be due to a genetic mutation (such as an XXY chromosome) and/or a failure of the body to respond to certain hormones during fetal development.
Sadly, too many intersex children are surgically altered at birth, either with the parents’ consent or without. But the doctors in these cases have no idea how these children will identify in terms of gender later in life. As often as not, the doctors guess wrong causing problems for the individual years later.
Words Best Avoided, Especially if You’re Not a Member of the Community
There are a lot of epithets and slang used towards members of the LGBTQIA+ communities. Some of the worst are faggot, homo, tranny, he-she, sissy, it, she-male, hermaphrodite and cocksucker. There are many others.
The term dyke has been “reclaimed” by some lesbians, while others still find it offensive. Tread with caution.
Treat People Like People
As writers, we have good characters and bad characters, most are a mixture of both. When it comes to gay and transgender characters, treat them like people. If bad characters are bigoted and engage in homophobic or transphobic behavior, let there be consequences for them in the story.
Gay and trans people face discrimination and brutal violence on a daily basis. How your stories deal with gay and trans characters adds to the public perception and can help or hurt how real people are treated. So give these matters some thought when writing.