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How genre has failed and served queer representation

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Feb 13, 2019, 6:00 PM EST

Two years ago, during my annual pilgrimage to the Lesbian Herstory Archives’ book sale, I stumbled across Kindred Spirits, the first anthology of gay and lesbian science fiction stories ever, to my knowledge, published. First published in 1984 by Alyson Publications, one of the oldest LGBTQ publishing houses in operation, the anthology boasted twelve queer science fiction stories written by authors of varying identities, ranging from legendary lesbian author Joanna Russ to openly gay Star Trek screenwriter David Gerrold, who wrote the iconic episode "The Trouble With Tribbles."

In the introduction, editor Jeffrey M. Elliot discusses how far queer representation in science fiction and fantasy has come since the ugly homophobic stereotypes of the ‘60s. “This change,” he writes, “is directly attributable to the influence of the lesbian-feminist and gay liberation movements, which fostered a new consciousness about gays/lesbians. […] Fictive literature is a mirror of the real world. As real-world attitudes change, so does literature.”

“It is hoped,” Elliot concludes his introduction, “that this work, when viewed in its totality, will speak to you in words that are powerful, and yet plain, revealing, and yet entertaining. After all, that is what fiction is all about. And maybe, just maybe, it will stimulate a heightened awareness of what it means to be gay/lesbian — both in the real world and in the world of the imagination.”

Elliot clearly hoped that anthologizing these stories would engender empathy and acceptance in his readers, but he was also cognizant of the limitations of fiction, citing the clear and urgent work of queer activists as moving the goalposts forward. Turning away from the darkness of the past, Elliot looks hopefully to a future where speculative fiction both reflects increasing acceptance of the LGBTQ community and can be used to increase acceptance of the LGBTQ community.

It’s been 35 years since Kindred Spirits was published in that hope. Have we lived up to it?

Genre fiction’s appeal lies in two unique strengths: the ability to utilize its own agreed-upon conventions to play with the reader (either by conforming to or subverting them) and the ability to imagine fantastic worlds and ways of being in order to both entertain and examine our own foibles here on Earth.

It is, then, natural that queer themes have long had a place in genre, beginning with gothic fiction conflating queerness and villainy, especially unnatural villainy, as in the first lesbian vampire novel, Carmilla. For decades, queer representation in genre literature fared little better. In the 1940s and 1950s, Joanna Russ claimed that the topic was ignored entirely, according to the introduction to Uranian Worlds, a 1990 guide to “alternative sexuality” up to that point in genre. Even Theodore Sturgeon’s 1953 short story "The World Well Lost," considered a landmark in queer representation in genre, ends with the gay protagonist watching his companion sleep, aware that if he were ever to speak it, he would destroy their friendship.

It was in the New Wave of science fiction starting in the late '60s that queer themes began to be more fully explored, such as in Ursula K. Le Guin’s rapidly dating genderfluid classic The Left Hand of Darkness, and queer authors started cropping up more and more, such as Russ, Samuel R. Delaney, and James Tiptree Jr. When Diana Wynne Jones published the tongue-in-cheek trope guide The Tough Guide to Fantasyland in 1998, there was an entry for gay mages, undoubtedly inspired by books like Mercedes Lackey’s The Last Herald Mage.

It’s been a slow, uphill progression for queer representation in genre literature. Genre television and genre film lag a little behind genre literature, but we have more options than ever. But the very variety we have lays bare the two major problems facing queer representation in genre fiction: the limitations of metaphor and the limitations of accessibility.

Let me use Star Trek, perhaps the most accessible and mainstream speculative fiction franchise that earnestly and overtly sets out to tackle real-world issues, as an index to the whole.


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In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Outcast,” the Federation finds themselves working alongside the J’naii, an alien race that finds gender distasteful and sex more so. Soren, a J’naii working closely with Riker, finds themselves falling for Riker and trusting him, to the degree that they disclose their deepest secret: that they are, in fact, she, part of a marginalized, underground, and persecuted minority of J’naii who have gender identities and pursue romantic relationships with one another. She and Riker begin an ill-fated affair that is discovered by her superiors, who immediately sentence her to, essentially, a cross between a lobotomy and conversion camp. Riker tries to take the blame, but Soren is tired of living a lie — but after making a vocal stand for gendered J’naii, she is given the “treatment.”

I’ll admit, I was apprehensive when I began watching “The Outcast,” but I was surprised at how much agency the script tried to give Soren, centering the conflict in her own desire to stop hiding, rather than a desperate need to be with Riker. But it still falls flat in execution. Soren, after all, is played by actress Melinda Culea, and could easily be slotted into Riker’s string of female partners for the unaware viewer. Even Jonathan Frakes has remarked that the episode would have worked better if Soren’s androgyny had been more masculine-leaning. It feels like there’s someone screaming “but not too gay!” in the background, a bit like how Deep Space Nine's first kiss between women — Jadzia Dax and Lenara Kahn—was couched in the fact that, in a previous life, they had been in a heterosexual relationship. It’s a framing that both screams “It’s okay, folks, it’s really straight!” and “It’s okay, folks, they’re really aliens!”

It’s also telling that big studio blockbuster Star Trek Beyond, which announced that Sulu would be gay in the film, barely features Sulu and his husband putting their arms around each other, while Star Trek: Discovery, which does feature a married queer couple who, gasp, actually kiss each other, is only available via CBS’ proprietary streaming service, CBS All Access. One is aimed toward reaching as many human eyeballs as possible; the other is aimed toward fans willing to seek it out.

The limitations of metaphor are fairly obvious: I’m gay, not an alien. In the early days, metaphor, like queer coding, was necessary to get any queer themes on the table. Nowadays, though, it’s not enough. It’s best done in conjunction with more mundane representation, such as in Becky Chambers' The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, where an alien culture’s elaborate family structure allows Chambers to examine polyamory, touch, and filial loyalty, even as her human characters reflect the queer spectrum. Abstracting something to examine it with new eyes is an important function of speculative fiction, but it is possible to abstract something too far and render your point moot or render it unrecognizable. After all, the X-Men, “feared and hated by the world they swore to protect,” were inspired by the then-contemporary civil rights movement, to the degree that it’s commonly agreed that Xavier is Martin Luther King Jr. and Magneto is Malcolm X. But until the introduction of Storm, the X-Men were white.

As for accessibility, I can’t put it better than Steve Berman did in an interview with io9 promoting the Kickstarter for Queers Destroy Science Fiction:

A great deal of Queer speculative fiction has a shoestring budget. Mainstream publishing is, at heart, conservative. […] As the owner of a small press specializing on Queer speculative fiction, I face a constant (and continually frustrating) challenge to get the books we publish into the hands of Queer readers. Most of the gay and lesbian periodicals are no longer in print. Most of the gay and lesbian booksellers have closed shop. Websites devoted to such books tend to focus more on erotic and romantic books. How does a bisexual man in Idaho discover a science fiction story he can relate to and fall in love with?

How, indeed, do we solve that problem and get queer genre content into the hands of the people who need it most?

Well, it’s already being solved — by queer creators whose own sincere efforts have pushed their queer genre work into the mainstream and their fans. Rebecca Sugar, the bisexual nonbinary creator of Steven Universe, made cartoon history with the same-sex proposal and marriage of Ruby and Sapphire, the two Gems that make up major character Garnet. And that took years of pushing, planning, and navigating with Cartoon Network, as Sugar recounts in an emotional interview with Entertainment Weekly, that began before same-sex marriage was legal in the United States.

DreamWorks She-Ra and the Princesses of Power

Credit: Netflix

That hard-won progress set the stage for Eisner Award-winning queer cartoonist Noelle Stevenson’s critically acclaimed reboot of She-Ra on Netflix, which features queer couples like Netossa and Spinnerella and seems to promise more representation in the recently greenlit second season.

By telling our own stories, queer creators nimbly avoid the faux pas straight creators regularly pull. I do want to be clear — I don’t think it’s impossible for straight creators to get queer representation right. I just think that, for example, Assassin's Creed Odyssey’s bizarre decision to include DLC that forces players into a straight relationship regardless of how they’ve been playing the game could have been easily avoided had one queer person been consulted, you know? And by supporting these creators both vocally and financially, queer fans show the forces of mainstream media that queer content is a sound financial decision, not a dicey one.

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