So you’re not Ready to Represent?

Well, that’s understandable. As I’ve said before being actively representative of cultures, orientations and lifestyles that aren’t your own demands research, time and, even then, you open yourself up to a world of criticism. You don’t have to be J.K. Rowling retroactively claiming LGBT representation to line yourself up for accusations of cultural-appropriation, tokenism, stereotyping or other things. So, if you’re not ready to go all out what can you do? Today I want to talk to you, not about representation, or even normalisation of LGBT or Trans people, today I want to talk about the day-to-day ways writers actively exclude the members of these communities without even thinking about it.

So, one of the biggest concerns I have with my current WiP’s is that my so-called ‘diversity’ characters will be seen as ‘token’. I also tend to over-think how I’m bringing awareness of those characters to the audience. Signposting is like begging for a pat on the head and a cookie so I want the whole thing to feel natural. I’m never going to write a ground-breaking Science Fiction centred around gender and sexual fluidity or the experience of trans people because it’s not my experience. In all my writing I want to write characters and if some of them happen to be queer or gender-fluid or trans it’s in no way intended as a gimmick, a joke or an attention grab. ‘Mainstream’ media is still predominantly CIS, Het and White and that is one pale palette to draw from, especially if you’re writing Fantasy or Sci-Fi.

So, how does a humble writer unknowingly exclude whole groups without trying? I’ve written before of the pitfalls of ‘Stereo-Types’, using the ‘everybody knows’ image of a certain ethnicity as a short-cut is how we ended up with Marlon Wayans as ‘Snails’ in the 2000 Dungeons and Dragons movie, personally I’d rather aim for Morgan Freeman in Robinhood: Prince of Thieves, wouldn’t you? When it comes to LGBT and Trans exclusionary language in writing there are a couple of common instances that I want to talk about.

The first is a mainstay expression in all sorts of historical fiction, fantasy and science-fiction, especially in gathering scenes and crowd addresses, big speeches and banquets. I am, of course, referring to the idiomatic phrase “Ladies and Gentlemen”, you’re basically excluding anyone who doesn’t fall or count themselves in the traditional gender-binary and it’s unnecessary. We fall to it’s use because it’s seen as polite and it’s common but, as I said before, completely unnecessary. “Assembled/Honoured guests”, “Fellow warriors/Warriors of…”, “Esteemed counsellors/ambassadors”. Tailor the phrase to the situation but leave gender out of it. Whatever you do don’t just tag “and others” onto the end. How would you feel being an ‘And other’? It treats the entire spectrum of non-CIS identity as an afterthought.

The second is the ongoing argument that ‘they’ cannot be used as a singular, non-gendered term of reference, which is absolute tosh. According to the Oxford dictionary the first singular form of ‘They’ was in a 1375 poem, William and the Werewolf. Employing ‘they’ is a way to normalise a none-gendered pronoun, you can also create a situation where a characters gender-identity is more abstract allowing the reader to introduce their identity in it’s place. Especially when writing Science-Fiction or Fantasy, the idea of forcing a two-dimensional gender binary on mythic or alien cultures and creatures is, frankly, ridiculous. So, maybe you want to employ that as a filter for your representation, one word of advice, don’t us ‘it’ as a pronoun. ‘It’ is beyond dehumanising. Non-gendered pronouns are on the rise so, with some research, it *might* be acceptable to use carefully chose examples to normalise their use. Pronouns like xe, xim or xer. Bear in mind that these pronouns are deeply personal to some people so, like I said, research first.

Coding, oh my word, coding. One of the biggest faults in a lot of modern media is queer-coding villains. Employing effete or stereo-typically ‘queer’ personality traits to the bad guy is a reinforcement that what is different is bad. It’s like enforcing the stereotype that African-Americans are criminals, or that Mexicans are lazy or that people from Norfolk have webbed toes because of incest. It’s cheap, it’s low and, a lot of the time, it’s done without thinking. whether in parody or homage to earlier work. The fact that it’s know as ‘coding’ is a reference to the Comics Code Authority of the 1950’s and early 60’s America. Conservative groups putting pressure on what could acceptably be included in media with a focus on sexuality and gender roles. So the practice of having characters present as gay, using mannerisms and modes of dress recognised by the community, without ever clearly stating that they were was a way to fly under the radar but, more often than not, it was used as a way to present a character as decadent, different or ‘bad’.

Something the Borderlands game series has done is to casually drop in representation in in some of it’s background dialogue. Okay the main characters may not be defined either way but the games are littered with echotapes of male voices pleading for their husbands or female voices referring to their wives. Okay it’s limited, but it’s there and it’s a great queue for the rest of us. The puritan Victorians are largely responsible for much of the ‘conservative’ censure we see today and, over recent history there has been much in the way of erasure of LGBTQ acknowledgement, culture and history. The Nazis took over the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (or Institute of Sexology) of Berlin. An institute studying sexual and gender identity, researching early medical transition procedures and promoting emancipation for women, sex education and  LGBT rights and tolerance. Wth the rise of the fascist right the institutes library of twenty-thousand books, studies and reports was burned. But, let’s not forget that, after the war ended, when the Jews were released from the concentration camps, thousands of gay and trans people were kept locked up by the allied forces for their ‘perversion’.

So, while outright representation might be a step too far for some writers, what is important from the outset is to be aware of exclusionary language. Try to broaden your scope, even if it’s outside your experience, do it among the supporting cast. The variety of the human experience should not be limited to CIS, White, Het, there’s a whole kaleidoscope out there to reference and, as much as it brings variety to a writers work it might also help to make someone else’s life a little brighter, either by familiarising the majority or by allowing them to feel ‘seen’.

2 thoughts on “So you’re not Ready to Represent?

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