Welcome back to the How To Write LGBTQIA+ Characters series. If you haven’t read the other articles in this series, please check them out:
- How To Write LGBTQIA+ Characters: An Introduction,
- How To Write LGBTQIA+ Characters: Lesbians, and
- How To Write LGBTQIA+ Characters: Gay Men.
Today we concentrate on how to write queer marginalized identities. DISCLAIMER: This topic is VERY broad, so we’re going to go over very broad tips. I hope to then expand on these tips in a later article and touch on specifics.
To correctly talk about this topic, I’ve enlisted author Carly Heath to help give her insight in writing marginalized LGBTQIA+ characters. Heath is an author and teacher whose debut young adult novel, The Reckless Kind, comes out Nov 2 from Soho Teen. The book centers around a trio of disabled, queer teens in 1904 Scandinavia and—like the author—the main character is queer and hard-of-hearing.
To start off, the marginalized identity influences the queer identity in different ways. As we know, the most popularly common queer stereotype in media has always been the white abled man with the “limp wrist” that loves fashion, but there are so many more people that identify as part of the LGBTQIA+ community that are not white males. For instance, according to a Queerty article, “Asians comprise about 60% of the world population,” so why is it so hard to find a queer Asian in the media? What about a disabled queer person?
Heath explains it this way:
“Due to the legacy of capitalism and western imperialism, queer people who are white, abled, Christian, and cis have more privilege than those who aren’t. Because of this, it’s important to acknowledge that a more privileged queer person is going to have more access to resources than one who experiences additional marginalizations. And people with various intersecting marginalized identities (such as disability, race, and religious minority status) will likely experience more oppression and reduced access to resources. Sadly, within the queer community, racism, sexism, transphobia, and ableism do exist. However, addressing the intersections of marginalization and queerness doesn’t necessarily mean authors must depict suffering and trauma. In fact, it could be quite empowering to show the ways in which our communities can actively push back against the forces of oppression, embracing the possibility of a more empathetic, just, and compassionate world.”
So what can we do to make sure we’re identifying and avoiding harmful queer tropes? She says that it’s important to understand the power structures that are in place in our current society and how they must be navigated by marginalized people if you have a more privileged identity than the character(s) you are trying to write. Heath highlights that “empathy is paramount.” She highly suggests this:
“Ask yourself: if I were a person with this identity, would I find this characterization empowering or hurtful? Even if you do share the identity of your character, I recommend hiring the help of Sensitivity Readers because they might have a perspective you missed and listen earnestly to their feedback. Understand that there are few characters of certain marginalized identities in media, so question if you are the right person to tell a particular story.”
Sensitivity Readers are a subset of beta readers who review unpublished manuscripts with the express purpose of spotting cultural inaccuracies, representation issues, bias, stereotypes, or problematic language.
She also offers TVtropes.org as a good resource to help identify and avoid these tropes because it has a whole section on gender and sexuality tropes. “Keep in mind some tropes can be subverted in really great ways to be more empowering than harmful.”
There are a lot of marginalized identities that aren’t seen in mainstream media. Not only are POC, Asian, and non-christian queers not as prominent, but also disabled queers struggle with discrimination in and out of the LGBTQIA+ community. So, as Heath says, when writing a marginalized queer, “the greatest resource is yourself and your ability to examine and question the power structures and social conditioning currently at work in our society.”
She offers some questions you could ask yourself as you write:
- What is your personal relationship to the spectrum of sexuality, gender identity, and marginalization? For example, if you’re an author who identifies exclusively as straight and/or ally-cishet, consider if you’ve ever questioned that or felt restricted by the rigidity of the labels that define gender and sexuality?
- Have you ever questioned why these labels exist?
- Who determines straightness?
- What privileges might your straightness/whiteness, and/or ability afford you and how could you use your privilege to dismantle the systems that function to oppress those who don’t share your privilege?
- Do your part to investigate the nefarious history behind why these systems were created in the first place. Similarly, I’d encourage authors to question who is considered marginalized in our society and why our society has been structured in a way to benefit a few (usually white, abled, hetero, Christian, cis men) at the expense of everyone else (especially BIPOC, disabled, non-Christians, and those who aren’t cis men)?
We are so accustomed to these exploitative social hierarchies that it’s hard to see or imagine how it could ever change. However, there have been many cultures that celebrated gender and sexual diversity, such as Native Americans who accepted a third, non-gendered identity known as “Two-Spirit.” Within the over 500 surviving Native American cultures, there are specific terms in their own languages and socio-cultural attitudes towards the variant of this gender identity within their communities.
Heath states that “once an author learns to question the present state of things, they’ll be in a better position to face our current injustices and envision ways they might be eradicated.”
Read more (text-based):
- American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism, by Nancy Ordover
- Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United Stated 1880-1917 by Gail Bederman
- The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses by Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí
- The Sexual Demon of Colonial Power by Greg Thomas
- Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood by Cynthia Russett
- The Heart of Whiteness: Normal Sexuality and Race in America, 1880-1940 by Julian B. Carter
Read more (online):
- Writing Queer Characters
- 35 Queer Black Writers You Need to Know About
- Best Black Queer Books, According to Black LGBTQ Leaders
- How to Tell Black Queer and Trans Stories When You’re Not Black, Queer or Trans
- Part 2: Gender and Disability | Disabled and Queer
- 5 Intersections of Being Queer and Disabled
- Gay Men Have an Ableism Problem
You can also learn more by following @alokvmenon on Instagram who regularly posts “book reports” on resources that cover subjects related to gender, sexuality, colonialism, and the agenda of white supremacy.