Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Oh Look, Honey, the Gay Hustler is Cruising the Martians

I woke up this morning thinking a lot about something Melissa Scott once told me in an interview. We were discussing GLBT/queer content in science fiction and she pointed out that, particularly in cyberpunk, GLBT elements are often used as scare tactics -- a way to show the seedier side of life. You know you're in the deep, dark place because Jo-Jo sitting at the bar is a transsexual cyborg. Oh look, honey, the gay male hustler is getting cruised at the space station by the Martians. We must be in the dark underbelly of the future.

Where are the non-threatening, happy gay couples in space?

Of course, as a writer I understand that happy = boring. There's not a lot of drama when everyone gets along famously. But, I'm wondering if science fiction as a genre still hasn't shaken that idea that Melissa suggested nearly a decade ago -- that queerness is inherently "scary."

In the last year, I read nearly every paperback science fiction novel published in the United States (this is not an exaggeration, I was on a SF award committee). And, I have to tell you that the GLBT community was woefully under-represented.

In Elizabeth Bear’s series, we find out in the second novel that the main antagonist is a Family man, and has a husband in Toronto. Kudos to Bear for blindsiding me since my gaydar didn't go off on that one, and she did make me ask myself, "Why couldn't he be gay? Was I being heterosexist?" Shame on her for introducing the husband (and his very nice parrot) and killing them off at the end (often the usual fate for gay folks in the media.)

I would say, though, however, that Valens and his husband (of the above mentioned Scardown,) were, at least, nice men. They had a typical upper-middle class life in future Canada. Valens was of squishy moral character, but then so was the hero of the series.

So, at least some GLBT people in the future are non-threatening... but, then it's easy to be non-threatening when you're dead.

Then there’s Karin Lowachee's Cagebird. A difficult book, though a worthy one. However, there's no question that the gay people (and they're all men) in this book are broken, and broken very badly. They're broken in a way that is, sadly, very true to real life -- at least in my experience, but none-the-less this is far from the feel-good GLBT book of the year. There's some serious sickness here, and the sickness is wrapped up in being queer, and, specifically, in knowing that often in society one man's expression of love is another man's kink. This leads to ugliness and heartache. The book is about that, and about what that does to people.

I can’t think of a single other instance in a paperback novel this year in which there were even queer people present in the background. I don’t know what to think about that. Maybe people have been Will & Grace'd to death, and no one wants to even imagine a future with gay people in it. Or maybe GLBT people are no longer scary enough to even sit in the background so that the reader knows that we're not in Kansas any more.

22 comments:

Zoe said...

I think our society is just at an awkward stage when it comes to homosexuality, where gay people are sort of accepted but not yet seen as ordinary and mainstream. So we're moving past the point where seeing a gay person would be a sign of yuckiness and danger, but we're not yet at the point where a gay couple is as ordinary as a straight couple. And then there's the fear that if you put gay characters in a book, it'll look like you're saying, "Hey look! Gay people! Look how open-minded I am!"

Elizabeth said...

Dear Tate--

How funny to be making the blog rounds and trip over one's own name! In fairness, Georges didn't die because he was gay; he died because he was in Toronto! (And a bunch of straight people died right alongside him.)

There's a queer character in the third book of the series too, although I never make a Big Point of him being gay... I know he is, and all of the characters know he is, too--which is why nobody's particularly disturbed by his apparent interest in an orphaned sixteen-year-old girl. He has the luxury of being percieved as avuncular/mentorish and not predatory because he is assumed not to have a sexual interest in her.

I generally have a fair number of B/G/L/T/A characters, and they're that way not because I feel the need to shoehorn people into sexual roles, but because they show up that way. I suspect that it's a product of having grown up in a lesbian household and not, in particular, being all that heterosexual myself--so I tend to think of sexuality as one of those things I have to get to know about a character, like hair color and whether they have bad teeth or arthritis or they're athletic.

You might like Sarah Monette's Melusine, out this last year. Not a paperback, but she's got queer characters good, bad, and indifferent. (disclosure) She's my writing partner, so I'm biased (/disclosure).

--ebear

tate said...

I almost didn't write about this subject because I didn't want to piss off my fellow writers. Did I mention I love your books, Elizabeth? I should have, because I do.

I've just been thinking about the supreme absense of queer characters... and what that means.

One thing I should say that absolutely loved about the Jenny Casey universe(that's Elizabeth Bear, for those of you following along) is that gay marriage is a non-issue since it takes place in a future Canada. Brava!

Elizabeth said...

--no, totally not pissed off. For the record. I really appreciate the plug, in fact. And thank you for teh compliment!

I am usually on the lookout for queer characters as well, and find a book a little homier once I locate them. *g* I can add, I just finished John Scalzi's Old Man's War, which has a major secondary character who is gay. He dies too... but so does a good 90% of the book's cast, so I can't really hold it against John.

Have you read any of Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman's books? Poppy Z. Brite also represents pretty good. And I just read Nalo Hopkinson's The Salt Roads--a historical fantasy, but characters of various orientations are presented fairly and sympathetically.

I'm glad you caught the Canada thing, by the way. The books were written before the current social changes there, of course, but it was pretty obvious that they were moving in the direction of tolerance. Thankfully!

--ebear

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