October 12, 2015

Talking Shop: Queer Voices in Paranormal Romance

Writers, have you ever wanted to try your hand at queer romance? It's a very passionate subject to me. I feel strongly that the Romance genre as a whole, and especially it's speculative sub-genres like paranormal, fantasy and sci-fi, could do with a good deal more queer voices and stories.

But writing queer romance comes with a hefty research cost, especially if you're not queer yourself. This is not an area in which to charge blindly forward. The LGBTQ spectrum, like any medium for relationships, is a lot more nuanced than pop culture and mainstream media tends to express.

The following are some beginning points to research and writing LGBTQ romance, based on my own research and reading experience. I don't claim this post to be a "cheat sheet" so much as an introduction, for those who either haven't written queer romance before or want a little insight to different areas of it. I can't include all the details I'd like to include about each identity that makes up the queer community. I can, however, offer up what I've learned so far in writing the genre myself.

“Queer” is widely recognized as a blanket term covering the entire LGBTQ spectrum. Originally an offensive term, it's being "taken back" by the community as a term of pride and self-esteem instead. Far from just a literal definition, however, “queer” refers to an identity, personality, mindset, and community. Each of these aspects will vary from character to character and from setting to setting.

Let’s break down the acronym LGBTQ, and talk about each of the different sexual identities that make up the queer spectrum. Sexuality and gender can be fluid, and each person (or character) will have a different outlook on their own identity. Sexuality can change over time, and you may have “late-in-life” LGBTQ characters coming from a previously heterosexual background, as well.

Breaking Down LGBTQ
NOTE: At the time of this writing, the LGBTQ spectrum has been expanded to LGBTQIAP+.  This stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual, Pansexual, and identities which do not fall into those already listed. As we learn more about our diverse human sexuality, more terms are bound to surface.

Gay Characters (Homosexual)
A gay character is romantically and/or sexually interested predominantly or exclusively in same-sex or similar-sex partners. “Gay” actually refers to homosexual men or women, but is commonly understood to mean a homosexual man.

Gay characters commonly present in paranormal literature in a dominant/submissive (Alpha/omega) dichotomy, where a binary between masculine and feminine plays a significant role in the character’s identity. Or, they may appear as the archetypal sophisticate: a character of a higher class or rank, exposed to the “finer things”, whose homosexual attractions are considered a matter of “taste” or “enlightenment”. I would personally argue that these commonly used archetypes often misconstrue or stereotype homosexual identity.

Less reflected are characters unaffected by or unconcerned with rank, privilege, or social standing (homosexual characters tend to be those whose sexual identity would somehow affect such things).

Underrepresented in stories of gay paranormal romance are characters whose sexual identity is independent from the plot. Often a gay character’s story revolves around how their sexual identity affects or changes them, their outlook on romance, or their perception of circumstances, whereas a “straight” character’s orientation usually affects their plot about as much as their hair color. When writing a gay character, be selective about how much his sexual orientation changes or affects the storyline you’ve put him in. Some stories will call for it, but keep in mind this is not the only theme to explore.

Lesbian Characters
Lesbian is the more specific term for a gay woman.

Common lesbian characters in paranormal romance may be supernatural creatures who take on an enhanced femininity, such as vampires, Valkyries, sirens, and Amazons. Less represented are “tomboy” or “butch” lesbians, or lesbians in the context of a less feminine supernatural sect such as werewolves. Super-sexualized paranormals like witches or succubae are often moved into a different part of the queer spectrum, but not exclusively lesbian, even if a given story includes only lesbian interactions.

Much like gay characters, the characters in lesbian paranormal romance are often defined by their sexual orientation in relation to the plot. A good litmus test for this is to imagine how the story changes if you change the gay/lesbian relationship to a straight relationship. If the plot could not survive such a change, it relies on the sexual orientation of the leads. Again, plots revolving around the characters’ orientations are not bad, per se, as long as they are strong plots addressing orientation for specific reason. Beware of falling into clich├ęs and tropes.

Bisexual & Pansexual Characters

The commonly accepted definition of bisexual is, "attracted to both men and women". However, it's a misconception that this is the only definition. Some bisexuals (myself included) consider ourselves "bi" sexual in the sense of being attracted to either 1) genders different from our own or 2) genders similar to our own. The "bi" in our bisexuality refers to "different vs. similar", not "male vs. female".

Some identify this as “pansexual” instead.  Let’s take a minute to talk about pansexuality. If you haven't heard this term, a pansexual is an individual who experiences attraction and desire for members of both binary genders and non-binary genders such as intersex, genderqueer, or agender. Sometimes this is described as "attraction regardless of gender".

If you find yourself with a character somewhere between bi- and pan-sexual and not sure which one he is, spend some time channeling him and see how he defines it. A bisexual character may be interested in different characteristics in women or feminine-identified individuals than men or masculine-identified individuals. In the same vein they may find different things attractive in feminine men or masculine women. You can't assume they will respond to the same things in each case. If your character feels ambivalent or static to the gender characteristics of their potential mate, they may be more pansexual than bisexual, and fall closer to the sense of "attraction regardless of gender".

This is where those super-sexualized paranormals tend to go, if they fall on the queer spectrum. Witches, succubae, sometimes vampires, and etc. Also in this mix are the more androgynous characters like elves. This usually serves to identify a character as more open-minded in their sexuality, and more promiscuous. Beware these stereotypes: it is a false assumption that bisexual individuals are more promiscuous or more prone to cheating, or that bisexuality is the result of greater open-mindedness (indicating other orientations are less open-minded).

Underrepresented in bisexual stories are male characters. Quite often female characters are bisexual—perhaps due to the erroneous expectation that females are more fluid in their sexuality and can “go back and forth” more than men—but male bisexuals are not as often seen.

Transgender Characters
A trans individual is someone who identifies as a different sex/gender than they are designated biologically. On a related note, a person who identifies as the gender they are biologically designated is cis-gender. A person who feels sometimes ‘cis’ and sometimes ‘trans’ is genderfluid. A person who identifies with no gender whatsoever is ‘agender’.

A transgender individual may physically transition from one biological sex to another. Transgender individuals may undergo hormone therapy and sexual reassignment surgery to physically become the sex with which they identify. In Orange is the New Black, Laverne Cox (a transgender actress) plays a transgender character, Sophia Burset.

Transgender individuals might also not undergo physical transition, or not fully transition, but find and remain at a point which feels comfortable and right to them.

A person is either a transgender man or transgender woman, not “a transgender” nor “transgendered”.

Transgender characters are receiving more attention in media, but are still underrepresented or misrepresented in erotica and romance. It’s important to note that transgender lives and stories are not limited to the romance/erotica genres, and do not solely revolve around the issue of their gender as it pertains to their physical or emotional sexuality. For the purposes of this blog we are focusing on characters in romance and erotic fiction, but representations of transgender characters must go beyond sexuality and sexual situations.

Transgender characters are commonly fetishized or exploited by writers without a solid research foundation. Very often transgender characters are featured in plots which revolve around one partner not realizing the other partner is trans, until the clothes come of and they receive an unwelcome “surprise”. Most often this pairs a cis, straight man with a transgender woman (specifically a transgender woman who has not fully transitioned and therefore has male genitalia). This plot is highly transphobic, exploitative, and insulting to transgender individuals.

When writing about transgender characters, a writer must consider more than the physical appearance, especially physical sex characteristics, and concentrate on mental and emotional identity. Equally important is the character’s experience, their perception of themselves, and their journey to bring their true identity to the surface. While one story doesn’t need to encapsulate all this information, the author must consider it and understand it, and how it informs the character they wish to write.

In paranormal, fantasy, or science fiction romance, a transgender character may more easily be able to alter their gender or gender appearance through means of magic or advanced science, rather than contemporary medical means. This leaves room to explore stories focusing on a character’s perception of gender, their own or that of their love interest’s, and what traits most contribute to the gender they perceive themselves or others to be. It gives us a lot of opportunity to look at the role gender plays in sexual attraction and romantic interest. It may also create opportunities to contrast the journey a modern-day human character must undertake with the capabilities of paranormals they may encounter in their particular speculative plot.

The sci-fi/fantasy webcomic El Goonish Shive often explores ideas of gender, gender-transitioning, and gender fluidity. Recently more transgender characters have been introduced to the storyline. The comic also features a character named Tedd (or, when she is female, Tess). Through different means within the sci-fi/fantasy setting, Tedd is able to change from male to female (usually) at will. He chooses to be Tess during times when he feels more female and/or wants to call on his more feminine identity traits. Tedd is a very good example of a “genderfluid” individual. For an excellent “visual” example of exploring gender identity, I highly suggest perusing this webcomic at http://www.egscomics.com/.

Intersex Characters
Intersex conditions are variations in sex characteristics resulting in an individual’s biological gender being indistinct, or not readily apparent. Intersex conditions present in a variety of ways, from genital ambiguity to biological genotype/phenotype combinations other than XY or XX (male or female).

Historically, intersex individuals have often been pushed into conforming to
one binary gender or the other, as soon as their condition is identified. Many doctors recommended hormonal or surgical solutions to assign a more clearly designated sex to an intersex infant. No evidence exists to the benefit of doing so, however, and most find the practice only creates greater confusion and frustration in the intersex person as they grow up. Like other members of the queer spectrum, the intersex community as well as their allies are seeking greater acceptance in society as they are, without requiring assignation to a binary gender.

I struggled with the decision to discuss intersex characters in erotic and romantic literature, because I feel it’s very easy to fall into exploitation of the intersex experience, or fetishizing intersex conditions. However, it soon occurred to me that paranormal and other speculative genres can provide a very good stage to discuss and examine the stories of intersex individuals.  Much like with transgender characters, paranormal and fantasy plotlines allow greater opportunity for characters to be of intersex or other genderqueer designations within a more permissive and open context.

Consider paranormal creatures and characters for whom gender is not distinct, or is more fluid: ‘androgynous’ elves, angelic beings, and non-binary cyborgs and robots, to name a few. If you write stories featuring these types of characters, you may have an excellent setting in which to present aspects of intersex experience and relationships. As with all branches of the LGBTQ spectrum, however, don’t jump headlong into representing an intersex point of view without a solid research basis, and examination of the real-life backgrounds of intersex individuals.

Asexual Characters
Someone who identifies as asexual does not experience sexual attraction. There are many variations of this orientation, including asexuals who experience no sexual attraction at all, asexuals who experience a degree of sexual attraction, asexuals experiencing attraction arising only out of long-standing emotional bonds, and etc. For the most part, asexual characters are not primarily interested or concerned with sexual attraction or activity with others.

This is another orientation I struggled with when it came to discussing the LGBTQ spectrum in relation to writing erotic romance. Common misconceptions of asexuality center around the idea that everybody experiences and prioritizes sexual attraction and arousal, and an asexual will as well if he or she can simply find “the right person”.  Other misconceptions arise out of the thought that one can be “cured” of asexuality, or that asexual individuals are less fulfilled, due to their lack of interest in sexual engagement.

However, many asexual individuals are calling for more visibility and acknowledgment in fiction and media, and some asexual writers have even recently admitted to writing about asexual characters in an erotic context. Just because asexuals primarily do not experience or pursue sexual attraction and engagement the same way sexual individuals do, does not mean they cannot experience arousal or be sexually involved. The key, perhaps, is to focus attention on those things which an asexual character finds arousing or fulfilling outside of the context of sexual pursuit.

When writing about an asexual experience, use the opportunity to legitimize a non-sexual engagement in relationships, including what traits and emotions will draw the character’s attention, and what sort of romantic engagement they seek. Remember that erotic and romantic stories don’t always have to have sex scenes in them. Additionally, remember that there will be readers out there, asexual and sexual alike, who may want stories more accurately reflective of their own not-so-hyper-expressed sexuality, and characters they can more easily identify with when it comes to sex attraction versus romantic attraction and need. Asexual viewpoints can be an amazing angle from which to develop non-sexual, but really meaningful, romance.

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