Apr
23

Where are the Gay Fantasy Characters?

[Note: for your convenience some of the links go to Amazon to give additional info. on a particular book]

Pam gay vamp in true blood

Pam gives lesbian vamps a good look.

It shouldn’t be that surprising that there are not many strong gay characters in fantasy or science fiction. If you have ever attended a SF or fantasy convention, you will see predominantly a white male audience. True, there are more women in the audience then before, and even up on the guest panels. But it is still a fairly conservative crowd, not one prone to giving a “high-five” to gay characters. It is certainly not a genre that has traditionally gone at all out of its way to portray gay characters as strong leads.

And yet we do see some gay characters portrayed in fantasy genre television. Pam in True Blood has never made any bones about her preference for women. Russell Edgington, the very flamboyant and dangerous King of Louisiana was as out as you could get. Even the cold blooded Eric was known to swing on the other side of the fence from time to time. If I recall, he mentions that he doesn’t understand why anyone would care after all this time. His attitude is that he has seen it all, and that includes feeling that the sexual identity of who you want to have sex with is immaterial. That sounds like a bi-sexual attitude to me, and pretty fitting for someone who is over a thousand years old.

But curiously, these gay-centric attitudes are not in the books. Can it be that when it comes to the question of being gay-friendly that television and film audiences are more accepting than fantasy or science fiction readers? It certainly appears to be true. Buffy the Vampire Slayer still to me has one of the most balanced loving lesbian relationships seen on the boob tube with Willow and Tara. Although Xena and Gabrielle were never stated as a lesbian couple in the show (they are “companions”) I sure as heck counted them as a gay couple. At the least, I rooted for it to be so. So where are all the gay characters like this in fantasy or science fiction books?

A History of Conservative Views

gay fantasy literature

Oscar Wilde was an early writer of sexual identify in fantasy.

I guess to understand how truly revolutionary it is that there are any gay characters in fantasy or science fiction; you have to understand its history. Science Fiction in particular has long had very conservative views, both politically and sexually. While quite free to speculate on the nature of man, how we will get off this planet or live elsewhere in the future, heterosexuality is a given in early SF.

I think one of the earliest fantasy books I read that openly had homosexual characters in it was Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Grey. For many, that book was shocking. If you read it today, you would probably wonder why. I highly recommend it to anyone who has heard of the book and never read it. I think it was as scandalous for admitting to sensuality as much as it was for admitting to homosexuality. By today’s standards it would be considered fairly tame, but it is still an amazing fantasy. Especially when you stop to consider it was written in 1890.

You would think that the Roaring Twenties would have shown more adventure but openly gay characters will still pretty much out of the picture. The thirties saw the rise of the pulps, with leering aliens menacing pretty girls on the covers. But the stories seldom delivered the promise of the covers and any kind of sex was pretty much cut from SF. One exception to this was Olaf Stapleton’s Odd John. Written in 1935 about a man born several steps above us on the evolutionary chain, its main character considers he is above ordinary laws or ways of thinking. This includes his taking advantage of a young man in the story, though nothing is explicit. But it is still early in the 20th Century, and sex is really not talked about in polite circles, let alone same-sex relationships.

Ah- but then the 1940s and 50s saw the launch of the “Golden Age” for science fiction. Although I ate up such authors from this era as Philip Jose Farmer, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, if gay characters were mentioned at all they were generally in the negative. If anything, the solid post-war banning of even thinking gay thoughts is what you will experience here. One big exception was Sturgeon’s short story World Well Lost, a touching homosexual love story that was well ahead of its time. You can still find it in the collections of his short stories.

 

Sexual Identity Turns the Corner

the left hand of darkness

LeGuinn’s Left Hand of Darkness introduced some new ideas of sexual roles.

You would think that the 60s, that counter-culture period of revolution would have spawned plenty of non-hetero thinking and writing. Believe it or not, the free love movement was just not that interested in free homosexual love. Nope, that was still pretty much underground in the SF and fantasy world of fiction.

There were some brave souls, such as Michael Moorcock’s influential New Worlds Magazine that explored many themes, including other forms of sexuality. Even more importantly, authors such as Samuel Delaney and Joanna Russ came out of the closet to shock the world of fantasy and science fiction. I have always considered Ursula LeGuin to be a feminist fantasy writer who supported sexual identity rights.

It therefore was not surprising to me to read that she regrets not being more adventurous in her exploration of sexual roles in her seminal book The Left Hand of Darkness. It is a book I think every young person should read at some point. In the story, the people of Gethan who are basically nonsexual most of the time go through periodic times when they actively engage in extreme sexual activity and can become either male or female. It was when I first began to question the role of society in determining sexual orientation and yet she says:

“I quite unnecessarily locked the Gethenians into heterosexuality … the omission [of the homosexual option] implies that sexuality is heterosexuality. I regret this very much.”

Another author that began to impact the role of sexual identity in SF was John Varley. His Gaea Series beginning with Titan featured central characters who were lesbians. His series Eight Worlds is a collection of short stories and novels that explored the concept of fluid sexual identity. Both series were to have a big influence on SF. But the biggest impact was still to come.

Samuel Delaney came out with Dhalgren in 1975, a book that blew everyone away with a depiction of a world with multiple sexual identities and interpretations. It was to become the book that defined him. From there it simply became easier to introduce the concept of different sexual behaviors as part of the brave new world we were all hurtling towards.

Modern Love

black dagger brotherhood

Are Qhuinn and Bllay the next fantasy lovers?

Although the last decade or two has seen the depiction of gay characters in SF and fantasy more prevalent than before, it is still not the norm. David Gerrold, an openly gay writer in SF that has been enormously popular has written a number of very successful SF books with gay main characters. His most famous, The Man Who Folded Himself, looks at time travel and personal identity in a whole new way.

A fascinating series that came out in the late 1990s was Nicola Griffith and Stephen Pagel’s anthology of gay SF, fantasy and horror called Bending the Landscape. Written by both gay and straight writers and edited by one of the leading lights of SF, the series of three books were to become a landmark in gay speculative fiction.  In many aspects it led the way for the next generation of writers to explore more frankly the question of sexual identity within the realm of fantasy and science fiction.

Lately I have actually been surprised how often I run across gay characters (I use the inclusively to include everyone on that rainbow) in speculative fiction. A very successful series such as The Black Dagger Brotherhood by J.R. Ward has a gay vampire in it and he even has a secret crush on his best friend. That the friendship between Qhuinn and Blay is destined to grow beyond mere friendship is part of what makes this couple so romantic. They are easily at the point where they cannot imagine life without the other. Now, we are simply waiting for the book in the series that tells their love story.

Patricia Briggs werewolf series Mercy Thompson has Warren. He is a very strong member of the pack and in a very committed relationship with Kyle. They have to deal with a lot of the same stuff any gay couple deals with, just the added mix of Kyle being human to Warren’s werewolf side.

In SF I recently reviewed a book here at BestFantasyStories called Debris Dreams. Most of the characters in the book are either gay or bi, including our heroine Dru.  I loved that in this version of the future this is not even a big enough deal to talk about. I didn’t even realize Dru was gay until half way through the book!

dumbledore

Revealing Dumbledore as a gay character broke many stereotypes.

Of course, the biggest surprise for many was that Dumbledore in the Harry Potter books is revealed towards the end of the series to be gay. Rowling has stated that if she knew everyone would make a big deal about it she would have revealed it earlier. I guess this is as good an indication as any that gay characters in fantasy and science fiction are finally becoming accepted.

-Do you have a favorite book that features a gay character?
-Do you think we should see more gay characters in sci-fi and fantasy books?

Answer either question, or both. Just tell us what you think!

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