I started reading a book recently, a romance, and the female lead had a male best friend. Even before it was stated I knew he’d be gay. I sighed, and to be honest, cringed a little. Stereotypes weaken a novel. They’re predictable, and readers are there because they want something new and interesting (otherwise they’d be reading the books already sitting on their real/virtual bookshelves). They want to be entertained and challenged. So how do we avoid the gay hairdresser with a lisp or the butch lesbian that walks with a swagger?
Knowledge. Yep, the age old super power.
And that’s where psychology, the science of human behaviour and thought, has done lots of research and reporting. We know that lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people are just like any other human on this planet, shaped by biology and environment and the interplay between the two. Many of their experiences are universal, but we also know that in many ways they face their own unique hurdles and triumphs.
They Face Discrimination and Exclusion
It’s a sad truth that same-sex attraction was classified as a mental illness only as recently as 1973. Consensual sex between men was a criminal offence in Australia until the 1990s and the World Health Organisation did not remove homosexuality from its International Classification of Diseases until 1992. Thankfully we’ve evolved past that, but it’s a telling reflection of our roots. I believe our culture embraces and celebrates diversity in a way we haven’t historically, and marginalisation of a population based on who they are attracted to (or the colour of their skin, or their faith, or their IQ level) is no longer accepted.
But this doesn’t mean that homophobia doesn’t exist. Those who identify as LGB aren’t allowed to get married in many countries (mine included). The word ‘gay’ still carries negative connotations. They still experience discrimination and exclusion. In fact, they experience enough discrimination and exclusion that LGB people have higher rates of mental health issues and suicide. This also means that members of LGB communities are exposed to higher rates of mental health issues and suicide amongst their friends. So if your character isn’t touched by the effects of discrimination, they are likely to know someone who is.
These challenges mean that LGB individuals need to develop their own coping strategies to deal with the fact that some of their fellow humans won’t accept the life they lead. Their coping strategies could be pretty darned unhelpful – like promiscuity, drugs or alcohol. Or they could be healthy – support seeking, community building or making it their mission to advocate and raise awareness.
Consider Your Character’s Background
An individual’s own personal background is going to influence the level of stigmatisation they experience and the impact it has on them. On an immediate level, a character’s family of origin is an obvious influence. What is your character’s family’s view on homosexuality? How close and connected are they? Are they the doted-on only child, adopted, or the seventh child in a church-going Catholic family?
Speaking of religion…religion and culture are highly influential. What if your character is Muslim? Or born deep in the Bible belt? What if they’re African-American, Aboriginal or Asian? Has your characters’ family experienced a history of discrimination and oppression? These variables will impact on factors such as expected gender roles and procreative beliefs. It could also mean some of our characters may struggle with spirituality or religious affiliation.
Our identity is powerfully influenced by our immediate and extended environments. Think of them as layers, or concentric circles. Family, friends, community, culture. Consider this; add homophobia to sexism, racism or ageism and you’ve got a double whammy. A character’s backstory and current context can either bring struggle and heartache or support and acceptance. It’s certainly going to influence their self-esteem, self-acceptance and self-concept.
The ‘Coming Out’ Process
Identifying as something that’s not the way of the majority has an impact on you, whether you’re goth, gay or don’t know who Jon Snow in Game of Thrones is (yes, I had to look it up). It takes time and soul searching to be able to declare it out loud.
If you’re LGB, there are two ‘stages’ of coming out – the first is to yourself. In the beginning an individual will self-identify as gay, acknowledging same-sex attraction and what this means. Once a level of acceptance has been reached, and that in itself can be instantaneous or take years, they’ll need to make the decision to tell others. Like we’ve already discussed, your characters backstory will influence the trajectory of this transformation. An adolescent’s experience of coming out will be different to that of a forty year old married guy with kids. Someone living their life in a wheelchair has a very different closet to step out of than if they are a star athlete.
Depending on the individual, and all these factors and so many more, coming out could be a lonesome path or a liberating process.
They Forge Their Own Path
This is where stereotypes fail us. LGB individuals, by virtue of being a minority, don’t have the great big pool of predetermined ideas that heterosexuals do. Their definitions of masculinity and femininity are defined along a continuum, far more flexible and variable. Without the clear definition of male and female roles in a same-sex relationships, like who’s the ‘bread winner’, who’s the ‘primary carer’, who’s responsibility is it to mow the lawn, they’re able to make their own. The results are a diverse nature of LGB relationships and our writing should reflect that.
Lesbian, gay and bisexual people have depth and diversity, they’re as diverse as the Homo sapien species to which they belong. An LGB character is only limited by our mind’s tendency to group and stereotype. Step outside of these cultural and biological boundaries and your writer’s mind is your limit.
What do you think? Have you written a LGB character, and how do they fit it with these suggestions? Are you a LGB yourself, and what do you think? Comments and feedback are always appreciated. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.
Have a wonderful week,