How Do You Write LGBT Characters?

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Hey, all, Sara Lima wrote an article called Controversy In Comics: When Is It Genuine?, and it got me thinking. The response was turning blog length, so I decided to just go ahead and make it a blog, and post a link in the comments on the article. So here we are. Since the focus of the article was on the reveal of two transgender characters, the controversy over LGBT characters is what I got to thinking about. So when is controversy genuine in comics?

As a writer, I've struggled with this question for a long time. I don't think it's possible to write gay/ lesbian/ bi/ transgender characters, without them garnering a lot of attention. For one thing, the LGBT community jumps on any new LGBT character as another triumph over media exclusion, and support and debate inevitably follow. I have yet to ever read an LGBT character that didn't feel like pandering to an audience, and I don't know if it can be done so that it doesn't feel that way.

The first thing is: being LGBT is different from being straight. Straight people aren't defined by being straight. They're often defined by their profession. "Oh, he's a policeman/ lawyer/ doctor..." etc. For Joe Gay, it's "Oh, he's gay...what does he do? Oh, he owns two restaurants." And don't get me wrong - I think a lot of that is the fault of straight people. We tend to identify LGBT people as LGBT, before anything else. "He's the gay guy that owns two restaurants," rather than "He's the guy who owns two restaurants. I think he's also gay." Or better yet, just "He's the guy who owns two restaurants."

The other thing is: how do you write an LGBT character? If you start off with them being openly gay, then you have also started off with LGBT defining who the character is, and it comes off as pandering to your audience. On the other hand, if you start off with the character in the closet, then when you finally have them come out, it comes off as forced for the sake of attracting an audience, no matter how you do it.

I keep a running list of all the characters I've created over the years. I have about a thousand different identifying tags for my characters, so I can sort them in a variety of ways, and one of those identifiers is "gay," which covers all LGBT. Of all my characters, only twenty-seven of them carry the "gay" tag, although I know there's others I've forgotten to put the tag on, so let's round it up to forty. Frankly, that's not even a whole page out of my 201 page list.

Why? Pretty simply: I don't know if I can write an LGBT character competently. I've debated with myself on how best to go about it, and the conclusion I have pretty much settled on is that the best I can do is write the character as normal as possible, until it's time to show that they're gay. So in other words: something like this: Joe Gay gets up from his desk one day, says goodbye to his coworkers, takes the elevator to the lobby, hails a taxi from the sidewalk, buys a paper from the guy at the newsstand, takes two flights of stairs to his apartment, sets down his briefcase and keys at the door, goes in the kitchen, grabs a beer, and kisses his boyfriend, before sitting down on the couch.

With the exception of "kisses his boyfriend," that could be the end of a straight guy's day. For me, I think that's the most competent way that I can write any LGBT character. Now, the problem that comes in for me is that my gay characters, like many of my straight characters, tend to have other ideas about how they'll be presented. I've got one gay character whose father completely disapproves of him being gay, whose mother is in denial about him being gay, and whose brother is a priest, but supports him because he's his brother (and the gay brother doesn't know whether to trust that support). Another gay character is a superhero, and completely flamboyant about being gay, even though I don't know if I can write that or not. Several of the other gay characters on my list are just cyphers - I know they're gay, and that's really all I know about them. Your characters will screw you up like that sometimes.

I'm sure many would ask me, "Why create a gay character, if you don't think you can write a gay character?" I have a couple reasons. First, I try to never throw away an idea, whether I think I can do it or not at the time. If the idea came to me, then what's likely is that there's a way, in my subconscious somewhere, of how to implement it. This usually proves true. Second, I'm a real flesh-and-blood person, and as a writer, I have curiosity about a great number of things. One of those things is the gay/lesbian psyche and my own psyche. Can I write a gay/lesbian character as a person, rather than as a stereotype? I honestly don't know. My experience with LGBT as a whole is that whether they mean to or not, LGBT people seem to embrace their stereotypes, so it's hard to separate the stereotype from the characters, and still feel like I've made a true representation of an LGBT person.

That is probably my biggest problem with writing an LGBT character: true representation. I get very frustrated with LGBT characters in comics, because they're almost always presented as perfect - they're successful, everyone likes their personality, everyone accepts their being gay, and they're just as accepting and supportive of others. Well, I'm calling b.s. That just isn't the case. Real life LGBT people deal with a crud ton of prejudice, have their own prejudices, and their success levels vary as much as any straight person's (although my personal observation is that the gay people I know tend to use the same strength that allows them to withstand so much prejudice to aid their drive to be successful).

Creators can't present LGBT that way in comics though, because if they show anything negative about the character at all, then they're labelled as prejudiced and hateful against LGBT. I'm sorry LGBT people, but the fact is: you're just as messed up as the rest of us. In fact, with the stuff you deal with on a daily basis, you're probably more messed up, and justifiably so. So get over it. Entertainment media presents straight people in all walks and all personalities, from homeless to successful, and from the worst evil to the purest good. And as straight people, we deal with it, because we encompass that entire gamut. LGBT people encompass that same range, and until that can be accurately reflected without a buyer backlash, no LGBT character is going to feel genuine.

So I suppose that personally, my problem with how to write LGBT boils down to "what feels genuine" versus "how much backlash am I prepared for?" I haven't decided my personal answer for that. What I lean towards is: write what feels right for the character, and hope that it feels right to the reader as well. In the end, I think that's how every character should be written.

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20 Comments
20 Comments
Posted by RDClip

I Think that the best way to approach writing a comic book story with a LGBT character is to not go into a story intending to "make a statement" or draw attention to the fact that the character is gay/bi/trans/whatever. Just do what feels natural to the character. When I read a superhero story, I just want some cool action with a good story and engaging characters, I don't want to be preached to one way or another. If the character is straight okay, if the character is gay okay too. I'd don't mind as long as they feel like a real person.

I think that Batwoman is one of the best ongoings right now. I can say that without any qualifiers (i.e one of the best ongoings featuring a gay main character), it's just a damn good book that happens to have a gay lead. There is no angst or serious issues of predjudice, because that's not what the story is about. The story is about a badass lady fighting crime and being cool.

I'm not saying that LGBT rights cannot be addressed in a book, but as the OP said, being LGBT should never be what completely defines a character. It should be part of them, just as being ex military and being the daughter of a soldier is part of Kate Kane.

I agree with you that writers tend to shy away from LGBT villains or seriously flawed LGBT characters. They are just people and there are good people and bad people no matter what sexual orientation. It's just that for decades gay/trans people have been the scary bad people in the media and thats just starting to change now. There are still close minded people who think gay=sadistic pervert. So, I do understand why writers want to shy away from those dark times. I think it could work in books that have a positive gay character like Batwoman to have a LGBT villain without being fearing accusation of homophobia.

As for how to write a LGBT character, I say just write them like a person. There are people you meet who you have no idea are gay or trans or bi until they tell you, so there should be a good benchmark. As you said they wake up, go to work, complain about their boss, worry about bills, have a restaurant they really like but can't go to very often because it costs too much, etc. Those people just happen to be born feeling different from hetero people. I guess if it really bothers you, you could have a gay friend read through your story and tell you if your portrayal is true or not.

Posted by BumpyBoo

@rdclip said:

I Think that the best way to approach writing a comic book story with a LGBT character is to not go into a story intending to "make a statement" or draw attention to the fact that the character is gay/bi/trans/whatever. Just do what feels natural to the character. When I read a superhero story, I just want some cool action with a good story and engaging characters, I don't want to be preached to one way or another. If the character is straight okay, if the character is gay okay too. I'd don't mind as long as they feel like a real person.

I think that Batwoman is one of the best ongoings right now. I can say that without any qualifiers (i.e one of the best ongoings featuring a gay main character), it's just a damn good book that happens to have a gay lead. There is no angst or serious issues of predjudice, because that's not what the story is about. The story is about a badass lady fighting crime and being cool.

I'm not saying that LGBT rights cannot be addressed in a book, but as the OP said, being LGBT should never be what completely defines a character. It should be part of them, just as being ex military and being the daughter of a soldier is part of Kate Kane.

I agree with you that writers tend to shy away from LGBT villains or seriously flawed LGBT characters. They are just people and there are good people and bad people no matter what sexual orientation. It's just that for decades gay/trans people have been the scary bad people in the media and thats just starting to change now. There are still close minded people who think gay=sadistic pervert. So, I do understand why writers want to shy away from those dark times. I think it could work in books that have a positive gay character like Batwoman to have a LGBT villain without being fearing accusation of homophobia.

As for how to write a LGBT character, I say just write them like a person. There are people you meet who you have no idea are gay or trans or bi until they tell you, so there should be a good benchmark. As you said they wake up, go to work, complain about their boss, worry about bills, have a restaurant they really like but can't go to very often because it costs too much, etc. Those people just happen to be born feeling different from hetero people. I guess if it really bothers you, you could have a gay friend read through your story and tell you if your portrayal is true or not.

Absolutely :)

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Posted by Joygirl

Yup. In my series I have several gay characters, and two bi characters. Besides their actual conduct they don't act any gayer or straighter than anyone else.

Edited by cbishop

@rdclip: @bumpyboo: "Write them like a person" is pretty much the conclusion I've come to. I just want to come out of the gate with strong characterizations, not cruddy, pandering ones. I won't commit an LGBT character to publication until I'm satisfied with it.

@joygirl said:

Yup. In my series I have several gay characters, and two bi characters. Besides their actual conduct they don't act any gayer or straighter than anyone else.

Is that an accurate portrayal though? The best portrayal I can think of on TV of gay characters were on Six Feet Under and Brothers & Sisters. B&S was trying hard to make a statement about LGBT though, and the characters were mostly perfect. The gay characters on SFU seemed more real, and had a fair share of problems, although I felt that show too was trying too hard to make a statement about LGBT.

Does a statement have to be made? Or can a character just be LGBT, without the statement? If there's no statement made, then what's the point of revealing them to be LGBT? For myself, I have LGBT characters, and I want to write them, but frankly, they're not likely to be leads, simply because I don't have big statements to make - I just have characters that happen to be gay, and I know how they interact with other characters.

Again, in the end, I'm going to wind up writing where the story takes me, and hope that readers like the result. I think that's all I can do, really.

Edited by Veshark

Wow, great blog post. I especially liked the final paragraph - I think it sums up the issue really nicely. Every character, regardless of sexual orientation, should be written from a genuine standpoint.

I don't really understand homosexuality, but I have enjoyed some gay characters in the medium before. Apollo and Midnighter make a great couple - and even though many define them solely as 'the gay Supes and Bats', I actually liked their relationship. Their bickering was that of an old married couple, but there was also a lot of sincere love. On the flipside, there have been some homosexual portrayals that have irked me. Hulkling and Wiccan's relationship in the recent Young Avengers relaunch was a little weird to read. I can't quite figure out why, but their long-winded sentimental teenage emotion-thing stood in contrast to Apollo and Midnighter's mature relationship. I have to admit, I actually felt a little uncomfortable reading their dialogue and kiss.

Posted by BumpyBoo

@cbishop: Good for you, mate :) Also, may I say I adore the way you file and index your blogs? From my own OCD perspective its...*sniff*...its beautiful, man ;)

Moderator
Posted by cbishop

@veshark: I didn't like Apollo and Midnighter. They were eventually well written, but I felt they were created to pander to an audience, and not an LGBT audience. They were created to make fun of Superman & Batman, on that juvenile level that doesn't understand the difference between a "buddy cop bromance" and a "gay relationship." Someone finally got past that and made the characters work, like you said, but to no avail - now that DC owns those characters, I doubt we'll see much of their relationship again.

@bumpyboo said:

@cbishop: Good for you, mate :) Also, may I say I adore the way you file and index your blogs? From my own OCD perspective its...*sniff*...its beautiful, man ;)

LOL! Thanks. :D

I'm actually really disappointed with my indecies right now though - the site redesign ruined them. I've been trying to get them back into shape, but I'm having a hard time getting the tables back into spoiler blocks - that doesn't want to work anymore, now that I've got half of them done. <le sigh> I'll get it straight eventually.

I started doing those, because I found I got more hits when I made it easier for people to navigate to the next blog, or to the index. When I'm posting regularly (which I'm not at the moment) I find that people typically comment on 3 to 5 of my blogs at a time, which is kind of cool. They're a pain to get set up, but if you maintain them as you go, they're worth it.

Edited by BumpyBoo

@cbishop: Gah stoopid redesign! >_<

Well I like that you put the effort in, if you're gonna do something then might as well do it properly, right? :) And it is absolutely worth it, if it makes it easier for people to go through your stuff. In particular, I like the blog/forum view option - if anything that should be a standard feature, makes a lot more sense :)

Moderator
Posted by cbishop

@bumpyboo: I actually have been wondering if the blog/forum view option is necessary now. On the old site, the forum view was scrunched between ads and site navigation bars, but the blog view was the full page width. Now, blog and forum views look pretty much the same. I like having links to both though, so they're probably not going anywhere. ;)

Posted by BumpyBoo

@cbishop: That's a good point, actually, it is not as big a difference as it used to be. I must say I do prefer the new look of the blogs, and the new site in general (blasphemy! :P).

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Edited by cbishop

@bumpyboo: Oh, BumpyBoo, you hurt my heart! I adore you, but we are in total disagreement about the new site. blech! ;}

Posted by BumpyBoo

@cbishop:

Forgive me, it was a moment of weakness! It came onto me! That home wrecking hussy, with its superior image handling system and its comprehensive comment tracking and general swishy shininess...how am I supposed to resist?? I mean I still love the old site, but this one is only an online user list away from out and out superiority. There, I said it! Man, I feel so dirty, don't look at me! :P

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Edited by Veshark

@cbishop

I guess one could interpret them as lowbrow pastiches (and a reflection of Ellis' dislike of superheroes in general), but overtime, I found them more endearing than anything. Yeah, the whole Superman-Batman gay thing is a little juvenile, but I think they were pretty well fleshed out beyond their initial origins. I'm not sure about the state of their new 52 relationship though, besides the fact that they're both in the present incarnation of Stormwatch.

Posted by cbishop

@veshark: Yeah, they fleshed out eventually. I haven't read any of their New 52 appearances yet.

@bumpyboo said:

@cbishop:

Forgive me, it was a moment of weakness! It came onto me! That home wrecking hussy, with its superior image handling system and its comprehensive comment tracking and general swishy shininess...how am I supposed to resist?? I mean I still love the old site, but this one is only an online user list away from out and out superiority. There, I said it! Man, I feel so dirty, don't look at me! :P

You're going to make me cry. I especially hate the new image system. You can't "copy image" or "copy image url" anymore. You can't click on an image and have it blow it up bigger - it either displays same size Facebook-style, or it displays on a separate page. The only way to copy images is to download them to your computer, but you can no longer copy the smallest cover images. Every one of my 12-Month Trades and Would U Buy It blogs are decimated by those changes. I cannot make new ones, and if I try to edit the old ones, the site tries to delete the old pictures in the blog, which I absolutely do not want. The new site has wrecked my enthusiasm. Don't even get me started on the new look for tables. Ugh.

Posted by BumpyBoo

@cbishop: *hugs* Awww no, I can feel the disappointment oozing from my computer screen... Luckily I haven't had any horrible experiences with it in that way, but I am sorry to hear it has screwed you over to such an extent. *arm punch* It's gonna be okay, man! ;)

Moderator
Posted by cbishop

@bumpyboo: Lol, but *sniff* I hate it. ...But I will get over it (like I have a choice). I just have to figure out how to get around the new formatting. I'll figure it out eventually.

Posted by BumpyBoo

@cbishop:

That's the spirit! I am sure that with a little tenacity and cunning, you will feel right at home in no time :)

Moderator
Posted by cbishop

@bumpyboo: If I can just find a way to fix the existing blogs, I'd be happy. In the meantime, I'm coping. lol. ;)

Posted by queenfrost_

A very good, intelligent and interesting blog post. This paragraph in paticular:

The first thing is: being LGBT is different from being straight. Straight people aren't defined by being straight. They're often defined by their profession. "Oh, he's a policeman/ lawyer/ doctor..." etc. For Joe Gay, it's "Oh, he's gay...what does he do? Oh, he owns two restaurants." And don't get me wrong - I think a lot of that is the fault of straight people. We tend to identify LGBT people as LGBT, before anything else. "He's the gay guy that owns two restaurants," rather than "He's the guy who owns two restaurants. I think he's also gay." Or better yet, just "He's the guy who owns two restaurants."

Was really thought-provoking. That actually has name: Heteronormativity.

Posted by cbishop

A very good, intelligent and interesting blog post. This paragraph in paticular:

The first thing is: being LGBT is different from being straight. Straight people aren't defined by being straight. They're often defined by their profession. "Oh, he's a policeman/ lawyer/ doctor..." etc. For Joe Gay, it's "Oh, he's gay...what does he do? Oh, he owns two restaurants." And don't get me wrong - I think a lot of that is the fault of straight people. We tend to identify LGBT people as LGBT, before anything else. "He's the gay guy that owns two restaurants," rather than "He's the guy who owns two restaurants. I think he's also gay." Or better yet, just "He's the guy who owns two restaurants."

Was really thought-provoking. That actually has name: Heteronormativity.

I could pronounce that word with some practice, but it would take less time to just read you the paragraph again. ;)