Show, don’t tell: allies and minorities in fiction

I happened across this article. On the surface, it looks positive, right? A man writing lead female characters of colour? Representation in a genre that still denies representation to people who are not cis/straight/white/able-bodied/neurotypical/thin/male? Isn’t that awesome?

Unfortunately, to me, the piece pretty much encapsulates one of the major problems with majority people writing minority characters: the ‘look at me I’m writing about minorities’ mode of self-promotion.

I can’t help but read this as ‘I look at WOC and see them as human!’ It’s not so pretty when phrased like that, right?

(Warning: very long post. I talk about queer genre fiction, who writes it, who reads it and my place in it as a queer writer of queer genre fiction.)

Example time. The lead character in my novel is a DFAB neuroatypical genderless pansexual empath with depression, sensory processing issues, chronic pain and trauma. I will talk about how ze is those things until the cows come home, because those things relate wholly or partially to my identity and my position in the community of people with these overlapping identities. I get to stand up and complain about how characters like hir don’t exist in our literary tradition, and I get to promote the fact ze exists because I know that I am not the only one who needs to read about a hero like hir. The feedback I’ve gotten from one of my test readers – a neuroatypical trans woman with mental illness – has been absolutely amazing because she says she relates so well to hir character. Believe me, I feel absolutely chuffed when read her comments, not because it means I write well, but because the characters I need to matter as a reader do in fact mean something to those who, like me, are in want of heroes to emulate. It means I’m doing something right and worthwhile. It means that this character and hir story must exist, and it reminds me I am not alone to want that.

You know all this because I’ve mentioned it in a few (many) posts.

Here’s the thing I mention infrequently (usually to make a point about my identity and representation, certainly not as the subject of a whole post, never with overtones of giving advice). Ze isn’t white. Ze isn’t thin. I’m white and thin, in case you can’t tell (that’s sarcasm).

I wrote hir that way because there’s enough white and thin characters in the world. That’s it. I could go on and on about how I have several amazing not-thin relatives and friends who deserve to be heroes of a novel, and likewise for POC, but, seriously, it shouldn’t need explanation or justification.

And that’s all I’m going to say on the matter. I wouldn’t have even said that much if I weren’t writing this post to make a point of how I think an author should behave. I actually despise the fact that to write this article I need to name-drop this character’s race and size to make my point. Hypocrisy, my friends, but I’m not sure this article would work without it, so I’m leaving it in.

Why am I not talking about it? Because I don’t want to be a condescending arsehole patting myself on the back for being inclusive when, really, being inclusive means operating at a basic level of kindness and awareness. It’s step one of being a decent human being. It’s like going online and bragging to my friends that I gave a homeless person five bucks. Wow, you bothered to include a minority in your book? You bother to see us as human? So fucking good of you, mate! I’m so flattered and pleased that a majority writer included us and then rattled on about how good he is to do it!

(The author in the article linked might be a really awesome person with the best possible intentions. Unfortunately, his piece rubbed me the wrong way not because of his content but because it’s a really good example of a trend that has been pissing me off for a long time. I link only to provide an example, not knock the author himself. He is, after all, a majority writer, and most majority writers just don’t know better. Such is the reality of being of a majority identity.)

I’ll bring this back to a genre in which I can speak about with authority: queer fiction.

Queer genre fiction is made up of a massive percentage of straight cis female authors writing romances about gay cis men. (Typically: m/m.) There are gay male authors like Barry Lowe among many who write about gay cis men for primarily straight cis female readers*. Some of my best friends online are straight cis female authors who write gay cis man and trans folk romances, and when it comes to my sexuality and gender they are the most accepting, accommodating, understanding cishets I know. They beat my IRL friends, hands down, in giving a fuck about my pronouns and remembering them. If writing and reading about gay cis men opens them to a world where they can treat me like a fucking human being? Bring it on. I’m yet to find it in any other non-queer community, and, to me, this is a case study for why we need more queer representation in the mainstream media: it not only validates queer folk, it educates cishets and creates a place where we queers are accepted. It can happen: the m/m genre proves it.

(* Note: plenty of queer people, from the LGBP to the trans, non-binary and asexual, read m/m stories/books/manga/print media. I read them. For queer lady fiction – although not visual media – and trans fiction, queers are the primary audience, but this is less true in m/m. It is erasure to say that we’re not readers, but it’s not erasure, I don’t think, to admit that the genre isn’t skewed towards those who ostensibly form the natural audience.)

In fact, although I’m not a woman, and although I’m queer, and although I wrote about men as an expression of a gender I could not live at the time, it can be argued that some of my works (Death is Only a Theoretical Concept, particularly) fall under this label. I resisted that for a long time, to be honest. For a while I wanted to reject that part of my writing history – even though I wrote stories to allow me to affirm my own masculinity – because the thought of being like one of those not-queer writers who appropriates a queerness not mine (and this is a simplistic view) left me pretty uncomfortable.

(I look back on that and feel sad for me. That’s a subtle kind of self-hatred at play if I want to reject, wholesale, an important part of my growth and conceptualisation of my own identity. I’m not a man, but I am masculine. I shouldn’t be uncomfortable with the mode of my own expression. It is, in a sense, a kind of internalised transphobia.)

My feelings on this trend are complicated to say the least.

On the one hand, I will fight to the death to defend anyone’s right to write the words that move them. If I declare that nobody ever gets to tell someone else what they can and can’t write, that also means acknowledging the Shadow side: the opening of the door for appropriation by majorities who also claim that right. I believe, though, that I’d sooner allow appropriation to flourish than deny any minority the freedom to express and create. When I wave my flag for expression, I know the dangers of that. Others may disagree, but I accept that price, because that price is what allows me to write what I write with the freedoms I have.

I also believe that misogyny has more to play in this trend than the fetishisation of gay cis sexuality accounts for: if women are bombasted with weak, limited, disempowered, passive and one-note Strong Woman female characters, can you blame them for not wanting to write about women? I wanted to live as the man I was and did that through my words; don’t women, who are regarded with such hate for their gender, experiences, bodies, sex organs (I mean all women) and modes of sexual expression if they are not outright fetishised or both, want a chance to live through their words as someone who doesn’t live in that world? How wonderful and liberating would it be, for a time, to not be a woman in this shitty misogynistic world?

(I can answer: very.)

On the other hand, the fetishisation of gay cis sexuality, and one that leads to a lack of cis lesbian/queer woman fiction, the fetishisation and lack of transfeminine/DMAB non-binary identities and the lack of transmasculine/DFAB non-binary identities* (and intersex people don’t ever get a look in, ever mind asexual folk), is dangerous as a queer creative. Most publishers take non cis gay romances, but much do they publish in comparison? Queerness in its myriad other expressions is so seldom depicted in comparison, and it’s a lot harder to not only be published but to then have your work purchased once it is.

(* Note: there’s also problems with transmasculine/DFAB identities being lumped in with queer lady works while transfeminine/DMAB identities aren’t included in queer lady works. I have one specifically-lesbian anthology where the title is explicitly about being lesbian and the summary mentions trans men. No. This does no-one service, not when there are trans woman lesbians dying for want of positive representation.)

Here’s some numbers for you as per my Smashwords downloads, given that they’re both free: Crooked Words, my non-binary/trans/womanist short story collection, has had about 650 downloads over nine months. Death is Only a Theoretical Concept has had just over 230 downloads in just over two weeks. (I had ten downloads in the last twenty-four hours.) True, Death has a better cover, but Crooked Words’ cover isn’t so terrible, I think, that it accounts for the discrepancy. The difference between the two? Crooked Words is about queer, trans, non-binary and female people. (And yes, there is some hooking up, although not all the stories involve it.) Death is pretty much about two queer cis (Steve isn’t cis but is yet to know that, so it doesn’t count as representation) guys hooking up. I think it’s a slightly different take on that old saw, but, at heart, it’s nothing terribly new.

(Admittedly, there’s probably going to be more downloads at the start and then things taper off, so I offer this statistic: after six months, Crooked Words had four hundred ten downloads. So in the last three months it’s had about as many downloads as Death had in two weeks. I’ll be interested to come back six months and see where Death is at: that will be a determining statistic. Right now it’s just a curiosity.)

Romance about queer cis dudes (although Steve will come out as gender-fluid because non-binary representation, but then we get the DMAB transfeminine fetishisation thing so I doubt it’ll make a difference) sells. The people who don’t actually need representation – queer people, after all, are dying for want of books that affirm and celebrate their identities, and we need to never forget that – have a controlling voice in the genre, and while I have seen plenty of arguments that m/m romance is not queer fiction (I agree, in fact), the fact is that they’re often sold in the same categories at the same vendors by much the same publishers. They’re lumped together such that the only thing that stands aside from m/m is queer literature and memoir: there is no functional difference in terms of categorisation (if not form, theme and content) for it to matter to an audience. As a queer reader and writer, I need to wade through m/m to find the works that appeal to me – and I have to wade through cishet-authored m/m, f/f and trans fiction to find works written by queers.

I’d love to see a world where every cishet queer genre fiction author establishes their gender identity and sexual orientation so that readers in search for authenticity can easily find works written by queers.

(I say cishet because no, it’s not always safe to be queer, but when is it ever not safe to be cishet?)

Yes, I admit it: I prioritise the buying of works by queer writers.

Why should cishet writers fear this establishment, though? Queer readers will, can and do promote the hell out of those cishets who write good queer fiction. Write well, write honestly, write passionately, write with a mind to inclusion over appropriation, and we will love you as much as we love our favourite queer wordsmiths because there is not enough good queer fiction in the world. We want inclusion (especially if you are writing anything that is not gay cis men) and we will take it wherever we can get it. Several works on my recent rec posts were written by cishets. Some cishets have written things that have blown me away, and cishets most definitely need to do what they can on the quest for inclusion.

(Unless, of course, you’re going to do a hack job of it: I don’t need unexamined homophobia, transphobia or gender essentialism in my portrayals, thanks. Please just stick to writing about cishets, otherwise.)

We still need to prioritise queer writers and queer voices in a genre about being queer, simply because we are the ones who need to speak and be heard. We need to make an income from our words so we can keep writing the validating, life-affirming, empowering, educating words our queer siblings need to hear. We need to have an audience. Our lives depend on it. I have taken to promoting my gender, mental illness status and pronouns in everything I do in part because I want people to use my correct pronouns but also so people know my gender identity and sexual orientation (and mental illness status, given I write about crazy queer people) and can take that into account. All I want to do, very simply, is give queer readers as much information as possible so they can make the best possible choices. I don’t think that’s too much to be asking, and if you don’t understand why queer readers would even want to make such decisions, I think you need to look very hard at your privilege.

(Don’t think a non-binary DFAB person has anything meaningful to say in a book about dudes? Okay, don’t read. I’m happy for you to make that choice, but I should give you the info you need to make it. If I fear that you make such a choice or that discriminates against me in some way … well, I don’t think that says anything positive about me. And if you’re going to not read my works because I’m openly crazy and queer, you’re both a shitty human being and not my fucking audience.)

I don’t know if my dream is workable or practical (I’ve talked about the dangers in outing queer writers and the consequences of not outing) but it’s what I want to see because of the nature of the genre.

What’s my point, now that I’ve established queer genre fiction in two thousand (plus) words?

My friends don’t go on about how awesome and accepting they are for writing about gay cis men and trans people. They just write what they like and treat me like my words are real. They are mature, responsible people who know the difference between writing about gay cis men and trans folk and making their writing all about gay cis men and trans folk. This, however, isn’t necessarily standard behaviour among cishet writers. I’m not going to link because I don’t want to be targeting individual authors, but I don’t know how many times I’ve seen cishet m/m authors talk about how they are open-minded for their subject matter of choice, give advice for writing queer characters (or talk about how it’s no/little different from writing cishets) or broadcast their genre as if the act of writing m/m is a profound, subversive blow for queer representation – a form of activism. I’ve seen cishet f/f writers carry on much the same; the amount of cishet dudes I’ve seen laud themselves over the inclusions of lesbians in their work is enough to inspire rage. Too many cishet writers, unfortunately, write blog posts and even entire blogs all about the importance of queer writing and representation (and again, I won’t link) as if they have something meaningful to say on the subject. I sign up to read about queer people giving their thoughts on queer fiction and discover a host of posts where cishets tell me what I already know. There’s this disconcerting impression I get from some cishet writers that just by dint of writing queer fiction they have an authority to engage in dialogue about the writing of this genre beyond the craft of words – even if that only means writing a post about how of course they write queers as human.

(And this is where we come back to the continual struggle between the right to self-expression, saying things that have already been said because someone is in need of hearing those words, and who has the right to speak about such things from a position of authority in the first place. The Shadow side, of course. Good allies, though, will do their best to be aware of not speaking for the people they’re trying to champion as opposed to promoting the voices of those they support.)

The authors I respect are the ones who flat out say I like writing about hot gay cis men/hot lesbian cis women and then go on to talk about something else. (Bi/pan people don’t really exist, remember.) The authors I respect are the ones who don’t touch coming out, queerness and mental illness or the lived reality of being queer in favour of hot cis dudes/ladies romancing and fucking – or only touch it as an aspect of character/worldbuilding/plot/situation as opposed to being the profound central motif/element of the book. They’re not activists and they’re not promoting their superior vision of humanity; they’re just storytellers writing the stories that move them about the characters that excite and inspire them. It’s still a complicated issue – authority, authenticity, appropriation, representation, oppression and expression are a moral entanglement with no simple answers – but it is to my mind a more honest approach that still allows space for queer voices to come in and talk queer. We can co-exist. I don’t think a cishet writer, with this approach, should have to be uncomfortable about what they write or why.

It is not actually all that profound to believe that queer people are deserving of both humanity and representation as humans … and I’m inclined to believe that any cishet author who gets on that pedestal while writing solely or mostly about gay cis men (or lesbian cis women) is in fact revealing more about themselves, their privilege and their attitude towards said privilege than they are their (limited) thoughts on queer equality. (Nobody has to include all the queer characters in their work. They shouldn’t pat themselves on the back for their activism, though, either.) But this brings us right back to the need for allies to sit back and listen to minorities, doesn’t it?

This last paragraph is my problem with the linked article.

Unfortunately, though, it is operating within the same sort of context as cishet writers of queer fiction in their respective genre (and sub-genres): we live in a world where it is acceptable for allies to swoop in, write about minorities, dominate a genre that should be about minorities and applaud themselves for their actions. This isn’t a one-off example. This is a pattern.

Allies, if you are talking about your representation, you’re not only being obnoxious but also missing the point: providing representation for minorities is not about you. If I wrote a post on how white people need to include POC in their fiction and I totally include POC characters in my novel because I’m totally not one of those white racists (never mind the fact that as a white person I’m racist by default), it would be arrogant beyond belief!

(And there’s nothing groundbreaking in a majority person rattling on about including minorities in their works or advising the world on how to write them. Something minorities have been doing since day dot. It’s just harder for us to get an audience, and majority writers need to never forget this.)

This is the change the world needs to see: the simple, casual, natural inclusion of minorities in works by allies without fanfare.

Show, don’t tell.

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6 thoughts on “Show, don’t tell: allies and minorities in fiction

  1. Pingback: Author ramble: inclusivity in fiction | Adventures in Port Carmila

  2. This is the change the world needs to see: the simple, casual, natural inclusion of minorities in works by allies without fanfare .
    Agreed. In fact, when I write characters, I write the necessary things such as gender, but leave skin tone completely undescribed. That way, the skin tone of the character is often the same as that of the reader, which is better for making characters everyone can relate to in some way. The few times that I’ve written trans characters as a cisgendered male, it was never for the purposes of ‘representation’ (a meaningless term), it was instead an exercise in empathy and imagination.

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    • I don’t feel qualified to comment with any meaningfulness on race in writing and how best to handle it, being a white person, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I let that part of your comment stand unanswered.

      I think representation is very meaningful when one is part of the group in question, yes – speaking as someone who desperately wants more queer characters with mental illness as a queer with mental illness – but when one stands outside it, the meaning does shift.

      I’d say, very much, that empathy and imagination are the things that bring power to any piece of writing. Without them, how can we write characters that are not identically ourselves at all? And how much would our creativity suffer for that lack?

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      • I think representation is very meaningful when one is part of the group in question, yes – speaking as someone who desperately wants more queer characters with mental illness as a queer with mental illness – but when one stands outside it, the meaning does shift.
        That’s why I don’t use the term when writing about groups I’m not a part of. It’s not meaningful representation unless you’re representing those like yourself, IMHO.
        I’d say, very much, that empathy and imagination are the things that bring power to any piece of writing. Without them, how can we write characters that are not identically ourselves at all? And how much would our creativity suffer for that lack?
        Quoted for truth.

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        • I know that I’m really not comfortable in talking about all the non-personal inclusion I try to add in my works. I really don’t want to be part of a dialogue about it, especially because I know that, at the end of the day, it’s a privileged person doing their best, but it’s a privileged person who will inevitably fuck up and has no real right to build a platform on it – what can I say that’s meaningful?

          It’s always flattering to have one’s words quoted back at you. Thank you!

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          • It’s always flattering to have one’s words quoted back at you. Thank you!
            Well, I don’t quote stuff unless I agree with it (quoted for truth tag) or I believe it’s necessary to discuss what’s been said, but you’re welcome. BTW, I didn’t really quote your words at you, but rather for the benefit of others who may come across this blog. I’mma keep reading it because you have a lot of interesting things to say.

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