A good friend of mine showed me a work of fantasy in progress not long ago. There's a character in it who was introduced as a feminine man; maybe gay, maybe genderqueer or ambiguously gendered; but certainly someone with a nonconforming gender presentation. And a particular word was used, not just to describe this character, but to describe what kind of human being that character is in this world. For our purposes, let's say it's "Pansy."
In the course of this character introduction, the point of view character shows contempt for the Pansy. So of course I flagged it as problematic.
My friend was horrified at the thought. After all, my writer friend is not a homophobe, quite the contrary! Would never want to offend anybody at all! The character is quite cunning, and uses this contempt to his advantage later in the work, plays upon how society views him, and is very clever all around! It's just how that society is, that's all. And that point of view character is morally ambiguous, anyway -- so surely we can't take their opinions as gospel!
And it's true -- this friend is a fine and decent human being and would never intentionally set out to hurt someone. And when I set about trying to think about how to explain why I felt this particular character was problematic and how I would prefer to see this handled, I realized I have so much to say that it's a whole blog post of its own.
So here you go!
Throw the Book at the Wall
There are elements you can put into a story that are dead showstoppers for some readers. Killing animals. Child abuse. Rape. This is one of those showstoppers.
If I had purchased that book and came across that piece of text implying the existence of an inferior Pansy class of people in this society, I would quietly stop reading the book. I would never recommend it to a friend. I would never purchase a work by this author again. I might begin some angry Tweeting and blogging, if I were in a ranty frame of mind.
I wouldn't actually throw the book at the wall, but there are people who would. Because the book has started out the introduction of this topic in what appears to be a show of bad faith.
When a man on the street makes kissing sounds at me and tells me all about the vulgar thing he'd like to do to my ladyparts, I'm not going to move on to getting his phone number and going out to dinner to see if he'll prove to be a nice guy. Show's over. I don't need more information to reach my conclusion.
Likewise, if a book introduces its sole gay or genderqueer character framed as a figure worthy of disgust, I don't need more information to conclude that this isn't likely to be a friendly, affirming book in its implicit opinions about such folks. It doesn't matter if that idea is subverted later. The damage has already been done, and some share of your potential audience already stopped reading, and maybe have been hurt by their interaction with your work.
A Fantasy Society Is Of Your Own Making
Now let's address the idea that this is simply how the fantasy society feels about non-straight or non-gender-conforming characters. An immutable factor.
When I teach transmedia workshops, I often talk about load-bearing plot points. These carry the weight of the story and can't be changed without the whole thing collapsing on your head. Usually the things that matter most are character motivations and relationships. If Sonja needs to be in a bad mood going into a meeting so she says something undiplomatic, there are a lot of things that can do that. Spilled her coffee on her suit. Dented her fender on the mailbox. Found out the hot UPS guy is already dating someone else. Doesn't matter how Sonja got mad, only matters that she is.
Being able to separate the stuff that you need to keep the clockwork of the story running from the stuff that's just color is a very important skill for a writer to have. You need to know what creative decisions you're making, and sometimes you're making creative decisions without realizing you've made a conscious choice at all.
In this particular case, the important thing is that the society feels contempt or dismissiveness for this character. That's a load-bearing plot point. But there are lots of other things that could do that work just as well, and this just happens to be the one the writer chose on this occasion. It could just as easily have been bestiality or pedophilia. It could've been adherence to an unpalatable religious cult with foul-smelling practices. Coprophagy. Smoking or gambling. Addiction to an exotic drug. It doesn't have to be anything to do with gender or sexuality; that's a choice they've made.
So look, if you're dead set on the gay or genderqueer people in your fantasy setting being vilified or seen as distasteful, it behooves you to examine why you made that precise creative choice. You are the god of that universe. You can change that society to suit yourself. And plausibility or historical accuracy just don't cut it -- certainly not all pre-industrial societies have had the same views on these topics.
You probably didn't make any choices because you're a bad person. Odds are that you, like my friend, are a fine and decent human being! But maybe you didn't realize you were making a creative decision at all, and that it could've gone another way. And once you know... you should stop and think about how else you could accomplish that same result. Dig deeper.
Homophobia, Racism, and Sexism, Oh My
And here's our icing. These same kinds of justifications are used to dismiss or excuse equally problematic treatments of women, people of color, people with disabilities, and more in fantasy and in other genres of fiction. "Historically correct." "I'm subverting the trope." "It's just how that society is structured." As if these things weren't entirely a construct of the mind of the writer to begin with.
And look, if you introduce your first female character to me with a show of breasts and giggling, I'm going to have a hard time turning the next page. If your dark-skinned characters are beast-like, illiterate savages, same-same. Don't ask me to sympathize with a rapist, and yes, Stephen Donaldson, I am looking at you.
This isn't just an exercise in political correctness for its own sake, either. This is a matter of not alienating potential readers, for one thing. Finding success as a writer isn't so very easy that it's a great idea to go around offending people who might otherwise be super into your work, you know?
But the responsibility here is much larger and heavier than it looks at first glance. Just a story, right? Just entertainment. No big.
Listen. Every story we tell becomes a part of our consensus culture. Another brick in the edifice of society. Stories are our way of telling one another how to be human, how to understand the world. We tell ourselves that crime doesn't pay, love conquers all, heroism can be found in anybody.
But we also use stories to reinforce some awful messages: men are inferior parents, brown people are terrorists, no doesn't always really mean no. We hear these messages again and again, and we start to believe them. In a sense, every story we tell is true. They become true, like it or not.
Going a little out of your way to make your work reflect a more compassionate and varied world is definitely an act of self-interest. But this isn't just about sales and markets and alienating subsets of readers. Writing about a world where people of all stripes are visible, are represented, are richer and deeper than a grab bag of tired-out archetypes, is just plain the right and decent thing to do.
You're not just making a better story. You're making a better world.