Tuesday, July 09, 2013

LGBT Issues in Science Fiction & Fantasy

The Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy (Lillian H. Smith branch) recently hosted a panel discussion on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues as explored by science fiction, fantasy, and comics. Chaired by Chris Szego of Bakka-Phoenix Science Fiction Bookstore, the panel featured authors Gemma Files (The Hexslinger Trilogy, ChiZine) and J.M. Frey (TriptychDragon Moon Press), as well as Christopher Butcher of The Beguiling Books & Art. The discussion opened with a look at one issue, topic or story that was positive in this past year.

Christopher Butcher, Gemma Files, and J. M. Frey

No Straight Lines

Christopher Butcher noted that he was really impressed, even surprised, by a new survey book called No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics (Fantagraphics, 2012), which collects a number of LGBT stories from the past forty years. There is indeed a history of LGBT representation in comics, and this book is the first to offer an overview of queer cartooning (with wonderful representation). The initial hardcover printing sold out in under a year; a paperback release will be available in July 2013.

DC Comics New 52: Batwoman #1

Staying with comics, Gemma Files added that she was quite happy with one particular title from “The New 52,” DC Comics’ 2011 re-launch of its entire line of monthly superhero comics. Batwoman—who hadn’t been a regular presence in comic books for almost forty years—was reintroduced as a lesbian. So far, Files says, the creators of this new Batwoman haven’t yet “screwed it up.” Butcher noted that he has also enjoyed the story, and was really quite surprised by how good it was.

Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint
J.M. Frey mentioned that there’s been a noticeable accrual of gay relationships on television over this past year—a naturalization of sorts. Examples include: Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint (Doctor Who); Stahma Tarr and Kenya Rosewater (Defiance); even, to some degree, Stiles Stilinski and Derek Hale (Teen Wolf). She appreciates that these relationships are moving away from being just part of a “special episode” that tackles gay issues; rather, these stories are simply being depicted as natural relationships.

What were some of the biggest problems this year?

The Lambda Literary Awards, which celebrates excellence in LGBT literature, has greatly reduced their bisexual representation. Previously, there were two distinct categories: Fiction and Nonfiction. However, this year, both were combined into a single “Literature” designation. However, Frey noted that the Bi Writers Association, based in New York City, premiered their own awards ceremony this year, called the Bisexual Book Awards. In contrast to the Lambda Literary Awards, this new ceremony offers seven categories, open to authors of any orientation. The Bi Writers Association made this decision in direct response to the lack of bisexual representation at other organizations, and to encourage the publication of bisexual books.

What still surprises Files (who is heterosexual) is that she continues to see online comments such as “why do you need to be a gay lobbyist,” or, “do you have to put gay characters in everything?” What needs to be understood is that many authors of LGBT fiction write the world they’d like to see, a world they want to be a part of; in reality, it’s the world we live in now. Besides, telling readers that some characters are queer doesn’t mean that others aren’t. Butcher is encouraged by the fact that progress is being made on so many fronts, but there’s a lot of push-back as well. And, perhaps, the lack of discussion has led to a lot of entrenchment of ideas.

One surprise, this past year, had to do with writer Orson Scott Card, who has a history of publicly declaring his disapproval of same-sex relationships and marriage. After he was selected as a guest author on the new comic book series Adventures of Superman, the LGBT community rallied against the idea, and pushed for DC Comics to drop him as a contributor—but the publisher initially refused, citing freedom of expression. In March, one of the illustrators left the project due to the media attention, while several comic book stores announced they would boycott the series. Shortly thereafter, Card’s story was put on hold. Butcher noted that not everyone working in the SF/F genre is open minded—Card’s views are shared by others. Frey added that Card, who wrote the science fiction novel Ender’s Game, has been removed from a lot of the publicity surrounding the upcoming feature film adaptation. This is in direct response to what many consider his “backward” views. Butcher says that, unfortunately, this controversy will really galvanize people on both sides of the issue, which is the biggest negative—especially considering he loved reading Card’s stories as a teenager.

Files had a similar reaction with Dan Simmons, the Hugo Award-winning science fiction author. She believes he’s an incredible writer, one of the best, but she was flabbergasted after he wrote an anti-Muslim blog post. In an essay, which was quite bizarre, Simmons claimed a Time Traveler visited him on several occasions, to warn him that a Muslim uprising is coming; in the future, everyone lives under the harsh rule of Islamic law. (It should be noted that Simmons has since responded to the controversy; he claims the essay was simply speculative fiction, based on some interesting books he had read.) As Files notes, why would someone go to the trouble of creating a fantasy vision of the future, then make it exactly the same as today’s social default? Why create a world with rampant homophobia? If a writer doesn’t want this in their fantasy world, then it’s their choice not to include it.

Are there specific issues that are being addressed more than others? What’s trending?

Many video games of late allow you to choose what sex the player will be, says Frey, and in some cases, even what sort of relationships they’ll have—they can be romantically or genderly queer. (For example, in Mass Effect 2, if one chooses a female version of the character Commander Shepard, she can become romantically involved with her yeoman, Kelly Chambers—an option not available if the male version is chosen. In Fable III, the hero can be bisexual, gay, or lesbian.)

Commander Shepard (male & female versions)
Butcher adds that the mainstream is just starting to cue into trans issues, and the same goes for comics—the last three months have introduced recurring trans characters, not just one-offs (for example, Alysia Yeoh from Batgirl). Comics are generally about ten years behind most SF/F stories, and it’s still a “white man’s” world—but storytellers are starting to be more open-minded, as is their audience. Yet the quality of these stories needs to be improved; the handling of the queer characters isn’t bad, but, as is often the case, the worlds in which they live tend to be less than stellar.

Alysia Yeoh (from Batgirl)
What you see, adds Files, is a distinct pattern where there was no inclusivity in the mainstream, unless it was a “very special episode.” This led to some inclusivity, but only with side characters...yet they made them the most boring gay people, so they wouldn’t offend gay people! Otherwise, there would be questions like “why is the gay character a villain”? or “why is the lesbian bad?” They really need to start making these queer characters full human beings. One good example of this is Cyrus Rutherford Beene from the TV series Scandal—he’s handled pretty well. The next step is to get more main characters representative of the LGBT community—but where their sexuality is just one part of them.

What trends would you like to see more or less of?

More amazing shows like Orphan Black, notes Files. Produced by Temple Street for BBC America/Space Channel, the series follows Sarah Manning, an orphan who discovers that she’s just one in a series of clones, one of whom is a lesbian—and the lead actress is brilliant in the roles. Some of the supporting characters are gay, including her foster brother Felix, yet some heterosexuals complain that he’s too stereotypically gay! It’s hilarious that this is the thing that the mainstream press focused on; it’s as though you can no longer present such an over-the-top character, even though it mirrors some gay men in society today. Yet Felix is a very impressive character, who might be considered parodic, but in reality, he’s true to life. Files adds that she’s fine with seeing such characters on television, especially when they are this interesting and multi-faceted. She also notes that if these women all have the exact same DNA, then why are some characters gay, and some straight? There’s no definitive statement either way, regarding nature versus nurture.

Butcher adds that he’d like to see more exclusively-queer stories...and good ones! Inclusivity is nice, but an explicitly queer story would be even better. He’s had to look far outside the mainstream media to find these, but it would be great if the creators behind this work could make money doing so. Frey adds that this is why web series are so great, such as LESlieVILLE and Seeking Simone (two series in which the main character is a lesbian). There’s a lot of amazing queer storytelling happening in web series, because the main networks are asking to dial it down too much. But it’s like community theatre; some are making money, and some aren’t—either way, you make it for fun. Butcher adds that there are a bunch of short web series, especially in the bear community, which use crowd sourcing to raise funds (such as Where the Bears Are); vote with your dollars, it’s an interesting approach.

This reminds Files of the “‘sploitation’ film angle of the 1970s. For example, there was very little black representation in film (as if white people had no interest in such stories). Then came along Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, an independent film from 1971 made by Melvin Van Peebles, which he bankrolled himself. Although it wasn’t the best film in the world, it made a lot of money—which is striking for the time, considering the story revolves around a black man in America. And this independent film seems to have led to the Blaxploitation genre; white people saw this film, then decided they’d make cheesy movies for black people! (Such as Blackenstein, Black Caesar, and Blacula.) Similarly, the 1990s saw an indie movement aimed at a gay audience, which included the parody Another Gay Movie (2006). The audience is out there, and this new phase of “movie making on demand” is reaching them.

Frey notes that it’s nice that we’re getting into an era of people like Russell T Davies (Queer as Folk, Doctor Who, Torchwood) who want to see more of themselves on screen. But she’d like to see the rest of the rainbow, and not just lesbians and gays. How about more poly characters, or bi stories? Explore simple relationships, but don’t make it define the character—a move to increasing naturalization. She appreciates the insidiousness of representation, such as in Doctor Who. If it’s okay on television, why not in the real world? She wants to see characters who act like the people she knows. Butcher notes that he likes the inclusion in such series as Modern Family.

Files questions whether or not the fight will continue on film or television. Most challenges come from the belief that “if we do this, we cannot sell it”—yet you’d be surprised at how much money you can make with these stories. With self-publishing, web comics and web series, notes Butcher, you can now publish and find an audience for anything you want to do. But you may not be able to make a living doing this, which is why some go into the mass market to make money—then try to introduce queer characters if they can. He adds that everyone is artistically operating to a higher degree, as close to their personal vision as possible. At the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, the creators who sell the most are those who are giving away their comics for free online, and he’s happy that they can offset their income in this manner.

It would be so much better if creators were left to do whatever they want in the mainstream. Files explains that writing horror is quite difficult, because it has the narrowest audience. Although horror readers tend to read other genres, there’s not a lot of crossing back over; fans who primarily read other genres are less likely to branch out into horror. She never expected that writing would be her primary income, but because it isn’t, she can write the stories she wants to tell—without interference. That’s why Frey initially went with self-publishing; there will always be someone who is interested. Even though she’s now moving into the mainstream, her agent is telling her not to change a thing. After a film studio was interested in Triptych, her debut novel published by Dragon Moon Press, they were concerned that the story (about a polyamorous relationship between two humans and an alien) wasn’t “mainstream” enough for their audience. This is why she refuses to write screenplays of her own work; the book still exists, no matter how much an adaption might change—and she’s fine with that. She already told the story she wanted to tell, and the adaptation will never negate this.

Files recalls a story about James Ellroy, who was confused about why young writers would whine so much about the changes made to their work when it was adapted. They took the money, didn’t they? If someone watches the film, then they might go buy the book! (In a recent interview, Ellroy said, “I would never criticize, for an attribution, any motion picture based on one of my books, because I took the money. Nobody forced me to take the money. Black Dahlia, the poorly-received movie, sold more books for me in seven weeks than the magnanimously acclaimed L.A. Confidential did in fifteen years. It’s about the books in the end.”) The same goes for comics, adds Butcher. There’s been a lot of bad comic book movies, such as League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; still, many sought out the original comics after seeing the movie—sometimes you sell more books than movie tickets. He can tell when comic book movies are in theatres, because more people buy the books at that time.

Queerness and Western Culture

Butcher explains that in North America, queer history and identity has been carefully scrubbed out of existence, or demonized. In the past, we didn’t have a lot of words to use when talking about homosexuality, and what we have tends to be derogatory (especially considering, for example, that the United States was founded by people who were too uptight to live in England!). The view in Japan is completely different than here; they don’t have this negative view. Because there is still so much push back, adds Frey, we need more queer stories. And because there is such a strong voice for the other side, we need a voice as well.

Still, notes Files, it’s always difficult with figurehead characters, such as Northstar from Alpha Flight. At the time, there was a certain thought that, since they had nothing for the character to do, they’d just make him gay! It’s great that there are so many gay characters, but there’s never any push-back when adding more straight ones. (Recently, a YA author was accused of “springing” gay characters onto her readers.) Butcher adds that superheroes are really conservative, traditionally. Any deviation from the white male type is met with discourse. There tends to be tension between the medium and the fandom, especially regarding LGBT issues. But young fans, who are more digitally aware, want stories that reflect their everyday life, even though older fans want to see the very conservative ideals from their childhood—an Americana that doesn’t exist anymore. This division is most pronounced with LGBT issues.

There’s an interesting tension, adds Frey, between what the fans want, and what is canonic. And it seems that a lot of creators, and actors, are becoming more open to fan response and ideas. An example of this is “Science Bros,” an internet meme that is a slash (homosexual) paring of the Marvel characters Tony Stark (Iron Man) and Bruce Banner (The Hulk)—as played by actors Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo. This pairing has inspired numerous online fan art, which showcases the two in various degrees of intimacy. Because there’s no space for queerness in some of these stories, fan-written slash fiction points to what is a perceived queerness (often, same sex characters are simply shown in domestic situations). These fans are honing their art so much that they’re becoming creators themselves; Doctor Who now has writers who used to write fan fiction about the series.

Files concludes that when there’s a story that is already queer-friendly, you don’t get much fan fiction out of it; it’s the stories that don’t include this element that receive more LGBT fan fiction. There must be a way to attract mainstream audiences, as well those who are fandom-based; an evolution of the story canon, and what it can become with fan input.

Further Information:

Friends of the Merril Collection (Merril Collection Events)
Bakka-Phoenix Science Fiction Bookstore
The Beguiling Books & Art
The Toronto Comic Arts Festival
Bi Writers Association
Lambda Literary Awards

Books mentioned:
No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics
Hexslinger Trilogy

Web series:
Seeking Simone
Where the Bears Are

Dan Simmons’ blog post & response:

The Channels interviews James Ellroy


  1. Fantastic recap of the panel, Brad. Thank you so much for being there! It was a great time and I think, with such great attendance, a topic that was very relevant.

    Just a small edit, if you don't mind: Triptych was not self-published. It was published by award-winning Canadian small-press company Dragon Moon Press (www.dragonmoonpress.com). Thanks!

  2. It was definitely an interesting panel discussion! I've made the edit, thanks for the correction.

  3. Thank you so much.