Monday, October 3, 2011

Gays in Literature - Avoiding Stereotypes

(Reposted from my Weebly site)

Recently, several readers asked me to do a blog post on an issue that plagues many readers and writers – stereotyping in literature, or more specifically, the stereotyping of gays.

I have to be honest, although I was aware that stereotyping was a problem in literature for any minority, I never really noticed how big of a problem it is for the LBGT community. While doing research for this blog, I found pages and pages of blogs from writers and readers expressing their concerns over the way gays are consistently stereotyped in books. Most have the same complaint. Whichever one the character is (Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, or Bisexual) they are always portrayed in similar fashions. At first, I kept thinking, "Is it really that big of a deal? It doesn't happen that often, does it?" I mean saying that all gays are feminine, skinny hairdressers, who think about nothing but sex is like saying all Jewish people are cheap, or all women are weak. No one thinks that way anymore, do they? At least not anyone outside the dark ages.

It's unfortunate, but yes. They do. Case in point - while looking for a cover to post with the blog, I saw exactly how big an epidemic generalizations, assumptions and ignorance still are today with regards to LBGT's. Since I was asked to do a blog on "Stereotyping of Gays in Literature," that's what I put in the search box. I clicked the images setting in Google, and can anyone guess what happened? I got pages and pages of...wait for porn and naked men/women. I the only one who sees a problem here? So all gays care about is sex? They're all into orgies and porno? What gives? Ok, so it wasn't ALL sex, but the rest was rainbows, which isn't much better. They aren't all about sex, and they are not all bright, shiny, sparkly people either. It isn't all rainbows and shag carpets.

If you read a lot of literature that has gay people in it, you see it. The men are either all feminine and lispy, or they are big, macho type men in the closet, and at the end of a book over which a guy struggles with his sexuality, he embraces his gayness by wearing a lot of pink, and suddenly talking with a lisp. And women are all butch, masculine and against marriage, man-haters, or, again, overly preoccupied with the horizontal mambo. In addition, when gay couples enter the story, they are always portrayed in strict gender roles. That is, one plays the female role, the other plays the male. I didn't notice it until I started doing the research, but when I thought back to all the books I read with someone who is gay, I realized, the complaintents are right. One is hard pressed to find someone who is gay, or a gay couple, who does not fall into one of those cliches. Or if not them, then into another one.

It's true that most of us think of a romance as involving one person who is more male, and one who is more female. One buys the flowers and holds the door open, and the other wears makeup, pretty, clothes, and does all the household duties. And these days, everything is cliche. With so many stories out there, everything has been done. So the question at hand is, if you are a writer and looking to make a character a member of the LBGT community, how do you avoid stereotypes? 

On some of the pages I read, I found some great suggestions for this. For example, lets say you want to portray a two men or two women in a romantic fashion. Why have them placed neatly into the gender role cookie jars? Why not have them both act male? Or both female? Why not have them both buy the flowers, and both wear feminine/masculine clothes? And lets say you want to portray a lesbian with her own story to tell, but you don't want her to come across like every other lesbian character you've seen? Why have her be tough and masculine and hate men? Or overly feminine and meek, in love with said character? Why not have her wear a bit of makeup, have lots of male friends, and in love with a mechanic who is even more feminine than she? And instead of making the story about an overly macho guy in love with a lisping, rainbow toting hair dresser, make him a shy, quiet guy who gets annoyed at people who think he likes pink, and he's in love with a regular Joe bartender whose overbearing mother has no idea he's gay? (You need tension, in there, somewhere. LOL.)

Another thing of note I discovered, in literature, gays/lesbians fall into one of two categories. Recognizing them may help you to form more original characters. In general, there are "gay characters," and then there are "characters who happen to be gay." The difference? With the first, the plot revolves around a character whose gayness is the driving force of the plot. So, someone who is struggling with their sexuality, or whose being gay somehow otherwise effects everything that happens in the story. With the other, the plot has little or nothing to do with his or her being gay - they just are. Like everyone else, gay people like to read stories about themselves. And like everyone else, they want something original and new.

One tip to avoid annoying or offending them is, if your story is about a character who happens to be gay, don't make a big fuss of it.  Just let them be whomever they are without over-dramatizing it. And if the story is about a person whose gayness is integral to the plot, make it only as big a deal as it has to be for the story. Over-dramatizing it is you, as the author, waving your hand at the gay community shouting, "Look, see, I'm writing about gays! See how tolerant and accepting I am? See?"

Ugh. Not only is that annoying, but it actually comes across as though you are uncomfortable with it. After all, in most stories, do characters preach about their heterosexuality? Not if they don't have an issue with gays, they don't.

Generalizing and stereotyping of gays annoys me, and I'm hetero. The more I researched it, the more it grated. Can you imagine how annoying it is for someone who is gay? Another common complaint is how many authors write in a character who is gay, and then kill them off for fear of losing readership. Don't create a gay character just to die.

One other thing I think should be pointed out here. A common question that kept coming up in my research was, how to deal with gay/lesbian sex in stories? How much do you put in? How much is too much? I agree with the writers who answered thus:

When adding gay sex into a story of any kind, show the same amount of sex from them as you do with the hetero partners. So if your story is a hot and heavy romance with a hetero couple always going at it, then the homosexual couple should be getting some too. If the novel has only one or two short scenes with a hetero couple, or it's offstage, then why should the homosexual couple always wind up in bed? In short, treat your gay characters with the same attention, originality, love, and care as your hetero ones. And when in doubt, ask. If you aren't sure if it is original enough, or you're afraid of offending someone, find a gay person and ask them. Ask them what they see too much or not enough of. Ask them what they would like to see in a story that features someone who is gay.

Minorities either get too little attention or the wrong type, so they love having people ask them about their lifestyle. Being someone who has Cerebral Palsy, I am a minority. So trust me, I know. There is nothing worse than a writer who assumes that because I have a limp, I must feel sorry for myself or that I'm bitter and angry. Or that I'm too slow to understand. And if the person you ask gets twitchy, well, then ask someone else.

Originality is hard with any character. But it can be done. Ask. Research. And read. A lot. Trust me, the LBGT community will appreciate it, and so will your character.

Until next time everyone, write on!



  1. Your post is about a very important topic! People really need to consider stereotypes and make sure that they are not using them when writing. Well done!

    I found you through Book Blogs and signed up to follow you. When you have a chance- please stop by and follow the blog for my middle grade novel that I am hoping to get published.

    Take care-
    Jess- although I may show up as Fairday, the main character from my novel. I can't figure out why that happens and I can't fix it. :)

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  3. Hi!! This is great and so useful! I'm writing a novel atm which happens to include a lesbian main character but I've made sure her sexuality is not the driving force of the book, in fact it's hardly mentioned as it's not fundamental to the plot. Your comments above confirmed that I'm going down the right route thank you!



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