Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Moving Beyond Stereotypes: Creating Characters who are Queer

Janine Harrison
A dear friend of mine is a lesbian, and when she and an ex-girlfriend were still a couple, there was no “masculine” one and no “feminine” other.  They shared a wardrobe, for crying out loud.  Both of them could use power tools to build walls and fences.  That did not make them butch.  One of them wore makeup and dangly earrings; the other one enjoyed necklaces, rings, and beautifully fragranced bath products.  That didn’t make them lipstick lesbians either.  Most queers have been out of the closet for a decade or two by now and many of today’s teens are openly gay.  As writers, it is imperative that we portray this minority group, as individuals and as couples, with accurate complexity.  Stereotyping is just so 1980’s, after all.
The two most commonly stoked queer stereotypes include the effeminate male and the masculine female.  And let’s face it—there are flaming queens and mannish lesbians.  Stereotypes exist for a reason.  If a writer developed a scene set in a gay bar and did not include a few of these character types, it may even be considered remiss.  Avoiding a stereotype completely can come across as inorganic writing.  However, no matter whether an author is writing for a mainstream or an LGBTQ audience, and the central character is homosexual, does that character have to be a skinny, male hairdresser with a lisp who obsesses over sex?  Or a man-hating, anti-marriage female counterpart to John Wayne?  I think not.  If a queer couple is being depicted, does an author have to assign traditional gender roles?  Not necessarily.  Let’s take this even further.  Does a bisexual have to be written as promiscuous?  Why can’t he or she be fleshed out instead as a person with many talents and interests who, in the area of romance, is simply an equal opportunity employer?  And what about the transgendered individual?  Does being in transition necessitate “confusion”?  Must said character be cast in the role of “freak” or “monster”?  No, no, and more no.  It would be nice to see such a character cast in the role of a successful college professor, architect, or engineer, who just so happens to be involved in a sex-change process. 
Stereotypical plots are to be avoided just as much as clichéd characters.  Writers today should strive to move beyond the coming-out-was-painful-but-resulted-in-an-uplifting-state plot.  Equally so, placing gay males in heavily testosterone-driven arenas such as football or the military and lesbians in the ultimate “pink aisle” of situations, such as cheerleading or beauty pageantry can also be chucked into the circular file of the mind.  What issues are relevant to the queer community today? is a question that writers might want to ask instead.
Once imagination, drafting, and craft are complete, yet another question is:  Have I, as a writer, represented this character or these characters respectfully, as complex human beings?  If the answer is “yes,” then click “Submit.”

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