I’m not the best person to tackle this subject, but I’m going to do my best, with empathy and respect. I’m a straight white guy, arguably an old straight white guy now, and there have been a ton of protagonists that have looked like me and sounded like me. Representation matters, and it’s easy for me to find a character in a book or a movie that is superficially like me.
Maybe I’m going too fast. Let me slow down and break down what I just said, one piece at a time.
What do people mean when they say, “representation matters”? It starts when we’re young. We look up to our heroes and we try to see ourselves. When a child sees an astronaut or a superhero that looks like them, it’s easy for them to imagine being that person. Our dreams as children are only as big as our heroes. I’m pretty sure I wanted to be Superman with a lightsaber at some point. Maybe Melissa wanted to be Wonder Woman.
If I had been something other than white when I was little, I might not have been able to see myself so easily as Superman or Luke Skywalker. It’s hard for me to say. I had the privilege of getting to grow up not really thinking about race. As far as gender and sexual orientation, it was a completely different time and what I was exposed to was neither kind nor compassionate.
Representation matters, and as I said at the beginning, it’s simple for me to find characters that are superficially similar to me. Why did I include the word “superficially”? Doesn’t that imply that representation doesn’t matter? Am I trying to hedge?
I don’t think so. Not every black person has the same lived experience. Neither has ever gay person. I described myself as a straight old white guy, but that’s not really my lived experience, either. I’m adopted. I grew up in a household with a mother that wasn’t always there and a father that was drunk most of the time, until my early teens. I was surrounded by people that made devastatingly difficult life choices, and like a lot of Gen X folks, I muddled through on my own. I had panic attacks in Junior High. I was afraid all the time, and I got into a lot of physical fights.
There are lots of people that look like me, but there are not a lot of people that are actually like me. Sometimes that’s for the best, because I can be a lot.
I think representation matters most for the younger folks. All kids, regardless of their race, gender, or sexuality, should be able to find heroes like them, and be given the opportunity to dream big and aspire to be anything. By the time someone is my age, they should have learned to look beyond appearances to discern what lies beneath the surface, where our true similarities may be found.
What about queer protagonists in genre fiction? Why is there so many now, and what is that about?
Let’s look at the history of genre fiction. Until the last couple of decades, it was on the outskirts. The world we live in today has been inherited by The Geeks, but before that, geek culture existed behind closed doors. It was nerd stuff.
Awards in genre fiction, such as The Hugo, The Nebula, and The Dragon, carry some clout these days. When The Hugos were first handed out, it was not quite so prestigious. Weirdos ran those conventions and attended them, and the weirdos were the ones selecting which other weirdos should get recognition for the strange and wacky fiction they all celebrated. Tolkien’s contemporaries even tried to shame him for writing fantasy, which was considered unserious and “a waste of time, only useful for escapism.”
Genre fiction has always been where societal boundaries are stress tested first. Genre fiction is where progressive voices get to practice. When the stories are exploring what could have been or what might be, sometimes the narrative dives straight into what should be.
Presently, there should be more queer protagonists. There should be more queer writers, writing queer protagonists, celebrated by audiences, queer or otherwise.
Will I write a story featuring a queer protagonist?
There are lived experiences that I cannot claim, experiences that many queer readers would expect from a story that is meant to speak to and represent them. It would be wrong of me to try and write a queer story. There are other writers that can write that, and we should make sure there is room for them to do so.
I can include queer characters in my stories, though. My main character can be queer, as long as I don’t make that the focus of the story. Some folks are gay. Some folks have dark hair. Some folks have gluten allergies. These are descriptors, and not necessarily character defining traits.
It can be a little confusing when a story is appropriation, and when it is representation. When in doubt, there are readers that can provide feedback and help the writer keep from doing harm with their stories. Misrepresentation and stereotyping can be extremely painful and continue a cycle that oppresses or mischaracterizes people that are already not well represented. So, hire a sensitivity reader, and listen to them if they tell you that you’re doing harm.