Gay/bi supporting character

by Katz

Question: So, I have a supporting (important) male character who is, it is revealed, in love with the MC, who is also a man. The way I have written said character is, not making a big thing out of his sexuality, but putting his traits, strengths and weaknesses at the front and then adding "Oh, and by the way, he's gay" almost as an afterthought. As examples of characters like this, I like to cite Captain Jack Harkness from Doctor Who and [SPOILER ALERT Nico di Angelo from the Percy Jackson book series (who in fact only came out in the most recent book). These are characters who are known and loved for their personality, who they are, and who they love is really not a major thing. This is how I am writing this character of mine. Am I, in your opinion, doing this right?

Answer: Yours is a sound strategy.

It seems to me that the tolerance of differences evolves in four stages.

First, the outsiders start making an appearance, which raises anxiety that they may be a threat. Usually they are portrayed in stereotypical roles that emphasize differences and reassures the dominant group of their own superiority. In these stories, there is little attempt to learn much about the outsiders or see them as human beings. They are "them," not "us."

Next, the outsiders start to be integrated. They increasingly appear in stories that teach the readers about the outsiders' culture. We start to see more sympathetic portrayals of the outsiders. There are more stories that demonstrate that the outsiders are just like everyone else, except perhaps that they are victims of prejudice.

In the third stage there is a wavering about how to see the outsiders. Sometimes they appear fully integrated. Sometimes the differences are more like novelties or personality quirks than threats or dividing lines. But some of the old stereotypes reassert themselves on occasion as well.

The final stage is where the outsiders are no longer portrayed as outsiders. They become "us" rather than "them."

You can see this evolution in how black or Afro-American people have been portrayed in popular Anglo-American culture over the past two hundred years or so. I think a similar process has unfolded (though much faster) regarding homosexuals. In some parts of Anglo culture, we are nearing or in the final stage. Other places are still wavering.

(Sadly, our culture is still wavering regarding Afro-Americans too. For instance, in the TV series Almost Human the impact character/sidekick is a black robot. He is essentially a slave who must constantly make efforts to prove his humanity.)

If your goal is to contribute towards ending intolerance, not revealing the character's sexuality until late in the story is a way to influence homophobic or undecided readers. First you make them like or admire the character, then you introduce his sexuality.

The experience for the reader is rather like what happens if a homophobic person develops a friendship with a gay person who only comes out to them after a long period of time. The homophobic person then has an opportunity to reevaluate their prejudice in light of the friendship.

Another approach would be to make the character openly and obviously gay but also very sympathetic from the start. (Such was the case with Captain Jack, whose first appearance established him as openly bi-sexual.)

In this case, you assume the reader is either already enlightened in his/her attitude or open-minded enough to let themselves see where the story takes them. It establishes a ground rule on page one that the reader must set aside any prejudices for the sake of enjoying the story.

The risk is that you might turn off a few homophobic readers. But it could also win over some who are on the fence. You might appeal to gay readers who are glad to see their group represented (because it means acceptance) or straight readers who want to learn more about people unlike themselves.

Both these strategies can promote tolerance and are used frequently today.

Of course, the fact that it's an issue at all for readers and writers shows that we have not fully reached stage four. As long as we feel the need to send the message that "gay people are just like us," it indicates that we do not fully see them as "us."

We'll know we're there when a character's sexuality has nothing to do with how readers judge them. In other words, when no readers are surprised to find a likeable or sympathetic gay character, when a villain can be LGBT without his sexuality seen as symptomatic or contributing to his evil behaviour, and when there is therefore no reason for an LGBT character's sexuality to be closeted any more than a heterosexual's.

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