Coming Home: Queer representation in science fiction and fantasy

The tagline of this blog speaks of the past, “embodied in language,” as that which shapes our lives. In my mind, however, language can embody not only our past, but also our present, our future, our possible and impossible. Narratives provide frames through which we can see ourselves as we might be.

Of course, part of that vision of possibility is being able to insert ourselves into the narratives we are offered—not so easy for those of us who don’t quite fit the “norm” (white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied, etc.) in one way or another. If you belong to a marked identity category, chances are you will have more difficulty finding characters who resemble you. That’s not to say that we can’t connect to characters unlike us; people empathize across differences all the time! The problem is, most of that empathy goes one way, from “minority” to “majority”. As a queer woman, I can tell you that I am generally expected to content myself with overwhelmingly (and disproportionately) straight, male-dominated cultural productions. How exactly do you navigate an identity when there are so few variations to try on for size?

It’s no surprise, given this view, that I should love fantasy and science fiction. As Holly L. Derr recently wrote for Ms. Magazine, “In a made-up world, anything is possible. Speculative fiction exists to show not just who we are but also who we can be.” Creating new and different worlds means that we don’t have to live with prejudice and invisibility; we can build this world (or any other) as we would like to see it.

Fantasy is the first place that I came home to queerness. Although I now see the extent to which he plays into media stereotypes of gay men, Mercedes Lackey’s Vanyel Ashkevron provided an important queer role model in my early adolescence. I empathized with him deeply, and despite not yet having identified my own sexuality, there was something about him that made me feel less alone. Vanyel may not have been a great character on which to base my identity development—the guy had a major martyr complex and was in many ways Too Good for This World—but he was eminently relatable. On some level, I think that most teenagers go through phases of wishing their lives measured up to their internal sense of drama. I certainly spent a lot of time thinking that my feelings would be easier to handle if I had some sort of existential justification. Vanyel had that in spades: doomed love, unbelievable power, and the responsibility to save people.

Flawed as they may have been, Vanyel and the other non-straight denizens of Lackey’s Velgarth provided some of my only clear representations of queerness for many years. (For the record, I started reading the Valdemar series at age 11, which was really too young for some aspects of the books, especially their representation of violence and abuse. I don’t regret it, even though a few passages bother me more now that I fully understand what’s going on.) It wasn’t until my mid-to-late teens that I began to find characters such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Willow, and I think I hit twenty before discovering the existence of YA fantasy with LGBT characters. Many of the latter novels have only come out in the last few years. I can still enjoy them, but what a world of different they might have made if I had had them as a young teen! In the interim, it took me a while longer to suss out my own identity, and my potential role models came increasingly from television rather than books. By the time I got around to watching Willow come out on Buffy, I knew why I was excited, although I hadn’t come out to anyone but myself. Once again, the sci-fi/fantasy world made Buffy into a realm where anything was possible. As recent essays on The Toast and Autostraddle note, Buffy is largely about constantly redefining your identity, something that I’ve done a lot of in the past few years.

My desire to see more of who I might become eventually led me away from my home territory of speculative fiction for a while as I came to terms with my bisexuality. I tried on so many narratives—The L Word, Glee, Sarah Waters novels, massive quantities of fanfiction—and in many ways that foray was good for me, because it taught me to find the representation that I needed in a much broader array of media. Recently, however, I’ve been returning to my old favorite genres, and I have been pleasantly surprised by what I’ve found. Even Jeanette Winterson writes science fiction these days, and authors like Malinda Lo and Lynn Flewelling are building fantasy worlds where queer sexualities are open and accepted. I am so excited to see the emergence of speculative fiction that not only includes queer people, but posits realities where we are truly free to be ourselves. I can’t wait to see what new worlds I’ll discover next!