My YA novel has gay characters. The protagonist has two Dads, who just happen to live together and to love each other and they both own a business together, a hairdressing salon.
But as I work on my first draft various questions emerge:
Gay characters – hairdressers – stereotyping?!
Can I write authentically about gay characters when I’m not gay?
How can I not offend readers?
One of my favourite TV watching is Modern Family. A programme built on stereotypes, but with love, passion, humour and poignant moments. Possibly you could say the two main gay characters are stereotyped, as well as the neurotic blond mum/housewife, and the crazy Hispanic wife. My favourite character is Cameron. A gay man, who has played football, comes from a farm and who has a love for the theatrical.
Fun with Cam
Now you could say Cam’s character was slightly stereotypical of some gay men, with his love of theatre, and with some feminine mannerisms. Some gay men are like this, not all, but some are, or is that what TV/movies would have us believe?
So I did some research. (I googled):
“Although less-than-tasteful portrayals of those in the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) community exist, some shows have broken through to a larger audience to bring positive messages to the forefront.”
“The [couple] that I automatically go to are Cam and [Mitchell] from ‘Modern Family.’ While they are really stereotypical in a lot of ways, they show two gay men having a family, that they go through everything that everybody else goes through, and I think that’s really important,” said Amy Northcutt, graduate assistant in the LGBT Resource Center and graduate student in architectural engineering. “I think things like that are really important in the portrayal of [the LGBT community in] the media to show that we’re just like everybody else. We’re not off having orgies every Saturday night, like, that’s not our usual thing. We’re probably sitting at home watching a movie with our partner or friends, you know, whatever — not doing anything funky, necessarily.”
The above view is mirrored in many other blogs and reviews of Modern Family in regards to Mitch and Cameron’s characters and storylines.
So yes some characteristics of Cam are cliché but overall the comments were positive because the overriding relationship between Cam and Mitch portrays a loving couple and family. (They have an adopted child.)
So what is my YA novel about?
My YA novel is not about being gay or LGBTQ but about young people finding their voice and discovering who they are despite the barriers they may face. One character is a lot different from his parents and is in a constant struggle in having to stand up to his parents who think differently. Another character has a mother missing-in-action, a father in jail and turns to gangs for the feeling of family. And the protagonist has moved schools a lot, struggles in knowing who she is, and in the past has adapted her interests and personality to different groups at each school, in her attempt to discover who she is. Also she has two fathers who live together and raise her. Although this is never seen as a huge issue, or the main reason the protagonist has trouble fitting in.
Originally the protagonist had a conventional mum and dad, then she just had a solo dad and this eventually evolved into two dads.
Having two dads hasn’t been my biggest concern, it’s been the fact both are hairdressers. Is this too much of a cliché? Gay men being hair dressers? I have male hairdressers in my family and none are gay. I have gay male relatives and none are hairdressers. Also one of the characters is more flamboyant, loves outrageous clothes, etc.
Maybe some of the characters’ characteristics could be considered stereotypical but I hope through my story, the characters become more than a cliché because generally I love my characters and so far I’ve portrayed a couple devoted to each other and to their daughter.
So will I make changes to my draft?
Malinda Lo in her blog writes:
I think that including LGBTQ characters as supporting or walk-on characters can create a more realistic world for the main characters, and I definitely support including them. So how do you write a non-stereotypical LGBTQ supporting character? Here are some tips:
1. Ask yourself if this secondary character needs to be identified as LGBTQ. Is it truly important to the story? If not, you don’t need to identify them as queer. Just remember that their queer identity will inform their actions and beliefs, and use that to develop the character.
2. If their sexual orientation is important to the story, watch out for loaded words (especially relating to gender) when describing the character. It’s often better to just have the character identify him or herself as queer, or have it come up in conversation, rather than hinting about their queerness through description.
3. Read books that include well-drawn secondary LGBTQ characters and study how the writers do it.
After reading Malinda’s blog I decided to make one of my characters less flamboyant, so others reading the book may see themselves, a man who comes across as heterosexual in appearance, but is attracted to other males and who is gay, even though he doesn’t fit the obvious ‘gay stereotype’. Plus I want to show more of their relationship as a family and not identify them straight away as ‘gay’.
Should a non-gay person write gay characters?
Megan Rose Gedris shares some reasons why to write gay characters into your stories:
1: Challenge yourself. It’s very easy to write about people who are a lot like you. But “easy” and “good” are not always one and the same when it comes to writing. Get yourself out of your comfort zone, stretch those writing muscles in new ways.
2: It means a lot to us. One thing that fiction can do for people is give them an escape, a place they can go to feel less alone. For a lot of gay people, being able to see themselves reflected in their media is a big boost to the self esteem, especially for those who are in the closet.
3: The world needs more gay characters. I am constantly trying to find fiction that is both interesting to me, and includes gay people. You’d be surprised how hard this is. I find books that include gay characters, but often they are boring to me. There isn’t a lot of variety in the current selection of gay fiction. The more people who write it, the more different stories get told.
4: Profit. The result of #2 and #3, gay people are desperate for stories they can relate to, and they don’t have a lot to chose from. Often, we are so desperate for depictions of ourselves that we pounce on anything remotely gay. Writing for the sake of money is rarely good. But I understand that people do write for money, and some of them still manage to be good at it. If this is your goal, consider writing some gay characters.
5: Art reflects life. The world is not a place without gay people, so why should your stories be? Add them in because it’s realistic for them to be there.
So yes, I am going to keep my gay characters and with my best ability write characters who are well-rounded and yes it isn’t ‘easy’ and I’m terrified I’m going to offend someone, but I don’t want ‘to straighten’ my characters. At the end of the day I have to be true to the story I am telling.
Are you true to the characters in your stories? Or do you let others’ opinions either real or imagined affect what you write?
What difficulty have you faced when writing characters that experience a life very different to your own?
(This is a re-published post)