A Comprehensive guide to diversifiying sexual identification and romantic expression in your writing
by Kayla Ancrum*
Whether you like it or not, everyone is not straight. Everyone is not either a boy or a girl. And everyone is not sexual. Though that may be upsetting or confusing to hear at first—like learning the earth is round and that carrots used to be purple—this is an inescapable fact that cannot be out shouted, run away from, or cried out of existence.
As writers, we have a duty to consider how the spectrum of humanity appears in our writing. A part of that includes taking a long look at how people relate to each other, what kind of people exist and how common they are.
And I am going to say this: Everyone on earth has met and/or intimately knows someone on the LGBTQAI+ spectrum. Whether they know it or not. This is not a guestimation or hubris, it’s likelihood and probability, numbers with both global culturalization and historical support.
So for people who want to include more LGBTQAI+ characters in their books, Bravo! Here is where to start. I’m going to break this down into “what, “how” and “why” so you can approach writing LGBTQAI+ characters with confidence. Representation is important and we need all the inclusion we can get if we are going to change the fabric of our media for the better.
LGBTQAI+ or GRSM (personally I like GRSM): Gender, Sexual, and Romantic Minority(s).
In general, for writing purposes all of this stuff can be broken down into three categories:
- Sexual Identity
- Romantic Expression
Sexual Identity: Identification based on sexual attraction (or lack thereof)
I’m going to list the general umbrella term sexual identities in order of cross cultural frequency:
Meaning that though a large percentage of people are straight, if you pooled all the “non straight” people together, we take up quite a bit of room. So ignoring us in your narrative is targeted (or ignorant) bigotry. Also, I placed bisexual above Gay/lesbian in this because of the frequency of homosexual attraction that goes unaddressed in “straight identifying” people added to the number of actual identifying polysexuals individuals, this is a HUGE percentage. It can certainly be contested, but I stand by this assertion.
It would not be unusual or even nuanced for characters within your text to not be straight. Or to question their sexual preference. Because if you spun a wheel with all the sexual identities on it, there is a really fucking high chance it won’t land on straight at all. And even if it does, there is also a huge chance it would land on bisexual, you feel me? It’s just probability kids.
Also, sexual preference is fluid on two levels:
1. Self identification can change over time.(I’m not talking about corrective identity treatment. that is horrible and rarely works)
2. Sexual identification can be explored as a range on some levels. Though currently, this is an incomplete/imperfect view. Not incorrect, just… imperfect.
Gender: Gender is a wonderful spectrum of interestingness and we’re currently in a really great time where everyone is discussing gender and what that even means and how we are affected by it and if it really exists. But for, the moment, for clarity, and for the sake of representation, I’m going to break it up into chunks.
In Western society, people are either Cis, Trans, Intersex, Non-Binary or Agender.
Cis– You identify with the gender provided you at birth.
Trans– You do not identify with the gender provided you at birth.
Intersex– You have ambiguous primary sex characteristic presentation.
Agender– You are none of the genders.
Nonbinary– You do not adhere to the gender provided you at birth and have your own definition or adherence to gender.
If I were to chart this on a black to white color spectrum, Cis would be black, Trans would be white, Intersex would be heather gray, Non-Binary would be grey with distinct black and white flecks and Agender would be like, red or something. All colors are awesome. All colors have worth and all colors should be respected. If you don’t agree, you are wrong and belong in the trashcan.
People’s gender identity, like their sexual identity belongs on a spectrum. Its a more rigid spectrum of course, but its a spectrum nonetheless. Occasionally people will change their gender identity.That is okay and should be respected and represented in fiction.
Another aspect of Gender in the Western world is gender expression.
In general (and god, forgive me for this oversimplification) because of the gender binary that pervades nearly every aspect of our culture, most things are designated as **Femme or Butch/Masc. Basically any object, habit or clothing item that you would see being advertised by our horrible media as for “women only” is Femme and any object, habit or clothing item that you would see being advertised for “men” is Butch/Masc. I prefer those words to describe such a thing because they do not denote gender presentation on sex. Ie: “boy clothes”. But, I am aware that we are still building neutral vocabulary for this phenomenon.
This too is a spectrum and is strongly linked with cultural origin. Certain items can shift from one side of the spectrum to the other based on where your story is set AND when it is set. (Ie: Long hair on men)
It is important to note that when it comes to gender, people can and often do mix and match those aspects when they’re crafting their gender presentation and identity.
You could, for example, have a character who is A Femme Trans-Man. Participating in Femme culture doesn’t make that character any less Trans or any less of a man. And when writing such a character, one should consider that when designing their personality/behavior, as well as the way they look.
You could also have a Straight, Femme Cis Man character. The best real life examples of this I can think of are probably RDJ or Jeremy Renner.
Femme and Masc/Butch designations are arbitrary and cultural, but still VERY IMPORTANT TO CONSIDER AND HANDLE RESPECTFULLY. This may only dawn on you when you’re reading a book and a horribly exaggerated stereotypical femme gay cis male character appears and you feel yourself welling up with hatred and you can’t figure out why.
(Hint: Its because his femme expression is not being respected/is being used as a joke and he’s just as tokenized as the “smart asian” “black thug” racial trope).
Romantic Expression: Romantic expression is so diverse and nuanced. And like the sections above, there are multiple versions of how it appears (or does not appear)
I’m going to say right now and very boldly that everyone who is Asexual/Aromantic is getting shafted by every aspect of every type of Western media. Constantly.
Why? Because the concept that a person is incapable of romantic attraction or can have romantic attraction without sexual attraction frightens people.
Some people metabolize that fear as anger. Some people metabolize that fear as disbelief. Everyone is handling it terribly in my opinion and I think it needs to stop.
Basically, Romantic Love and sexual attraction are two separate things—though they often appear in pairs.
General Information: Most people are capable of Romantic attraction, some people are not. This is called being “Aromantic”. and it is okay. Often, Aromantic people have strong relationships and bonds with people whose strength can rival and surpass romantic love. Some people have lots of romantic attraction but very little or no sexual attraction. That is okay too and should be respected and handled well. I’ve seen this best handled in fan fiction, though I’m certain there are books that touch on it as well. They’re just rare.
Gender based information: Occasionally, things get interesting and people develop romantic love that defies their current sexual identity. Because Romantic love and sexual attraction are separate, such a thing does happen. A lot of the time, it appears between people who have been under extreme duress, quarantined with certain people (ie: in the military, in apocalyptic situations, as refugees, being trapped in a brothel) BUT it very often happens in extremely causal situations as well—usually in middle school/early high school. In some cases, when the romantic feelings are reciprocated, members of the couple will defy their sexual designation for this one person only—as an exception. In other cases, they decide to have a romantic friendship that is highly intimate but does not cross certain lines in regards to sex (I think Sherlock and Watson are like this, at least in the original Doyle books).
These kinds of relationships are very fun and difficult to write, in my opinion. But they exist and are a part of the human condition. And occasionally, like gender identity, people shift back and forth.
You can have a character who is Gay, but Bi-romantic: Meaning they only have sex with men, but fall in love with men and women (or same and other genders). You can have a character who is Bisexual, but hetero-romantic. Meaning they have sex with men and women, but only fall in love with men. You can have a character who is Aromantic and Asexual. Meaning they don’t fall in love with anyone and prefer not to have sex, but can have close/meaningful friendships. You can have someone who is Bisexual and Aromantic, who has sex with everyone, but falls in love with no one ever. All of it is okay and none of it is worth more than any other category.
Diversity is fun and important. Look at all the cool options above! Your characters can be so unique and special. You owe it to yourself and to all these people who exist in real life to consider their identities just as valid and usable for fiction as straight/cis/hetero-romantic people.
Well, first, you should spend some quality time researching whichever group on the GRSM you’re actively looking to create representation for.
Of course research cannot trump real life experience, but with persistence, patience, empathy and respect, you too can create a decent piece that doesn’t instantly piss everyone off or create negative representation (which is probably worse than no representation tbh..cough cough bisexuality in GLEE cough cough) for a community with very little representation in general.
First, I would suggest you take a gander at as many academic articles as you can find. Knowing what something is, and our current scientific/sociological understanding of it is horribly important. There is nothing worse than not knowing what you’re talking about.
If you can stay up for four hours looking up ways to secretly kill someone for your murder mystery novel, you could at least spend five hours reading some hardcore journal articles written by someone with a PHD in gender studies and sexuality so you don’t sound like a dolt.
Second, I would take to the blogosphere to see what the most common complaints and discussions that are occurring within your chosen GRSM community. This is a good way of learning about the intimate struggles and annoyances that people have so you know what to avoid in your writing. For example, right now, there is an argument going on in the Trans community about whether or not one should include an asterisk after the word Trans. The general consensus seems like “no”, but there are compelling arguments from both sides. Even just seeing that such an argument is happening can help you veer away from problematic topics, vocabulary and gestures. Which will ultimately help your writing,
Another example: A friend of mine is currently trying to write a story in which there is a Queer character, but she’s concerned about how to approach such a thing because she’s done her research and knows that there are some outstanding issues in regards to the portrayal of femme queer men. Just having that perspective alone has saved her from writing a really really shitty character. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
And again, like I said in my article about how to write POC. If you’re browsing through blogs and you see people being angry and having toxic arguments about Cis/Straight/hetero-romantic people, understand that anger is a secondary emotion and it’s being fueled by digital mob-mentality. It is born of living in fear, exhaustion, isolation and/or despair. These people are angry about a system of oppression, not you personally (though if you barge into their discourse like a raging bull in an antique store, chances are, they’re mad at you) Be a fly on the wall, not the koolaid man. You’re here to learn.
Third: Once you’ve compiled a decent amount of research and you have a reasonable set of do’s and dont’s, You should proceed straight to the empathy/respect section of your writing journey. Every character and character trait should be written with respect and without deliberate misinformation.
You should write these characters as if your book was the only book in the whole world in which this type of person was represented and that everyone’s prejudice/understanding of this type of person is what they’ve been exposed to via your book. Forever. They should be well rounded, well researched, accurate and well developed. And they should be designed with empathy, affection and respect.
EVEN IF THEY ARE VILLAINS.
An example of this being handled well:
The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff— a story about a bi-romantic trans-woman that was written with care and did not forsake trans historical accuracy for romanticism.
An example of this being handled poorly:
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides,—-A novel about an intersex person that, while well written and heavily empathetic, is rife with misinformation and stigma inducing plot points such as incest being the cause of intersex people. A dangerous gesture when there is so little fiction about intersex people to begin with.
Neither of these authors are the GSRM identity that they wrote about. Both wrote stunningly gorgeous books. But one is actively helping with representation and one is hurting people.
And Finally I would top all this off by reading the existing books for your chosen GRSM identity. There is nothing that teaches you better than other people’s writing mistakes. It might not be as obvious that you’re doing a piss poor job unless you see someone else doing a piss poor job first.
Learn from other people’s mistakes
You may be sitting here after reading all of that and welling up with a feeling called “why.” Why should you go through the effort? Why should you care about Non-Binary people. Why does any of this even matter? All you want to do is write a good book. GRSM people should be happy you even tried to include them.
1. Change your mind about this immediately or you belong in the trashcan with the rest of those people I mentioned.
2. The reason all of this is important is because all of these people exist.
They are a part of the gorgeous fabric that is the human condition. They are our mothers, fathers brothers, sisters, friends and neighbors, bosses, children, and that guy you hate. They wake up and make coffee and pick out clothes to wear. They watch TV and go jogging and buy cool gadgets to play with. They have fears and dreams. They feel sadness and happiness and anger.They probably cried while watching The Fox and The Hound. They grow up from toddling little bits to rad old folk. They get embarrassed about being weird and they get lonely sometimes just like you do.
It is our job as storytellers to report on the human condition. Books are amazing because they’re the closest we get to immortality. They are worth your effort and these people are worth being remembered.
Worth being recorded and explored and respected and loved.
They are worth being able to have the pleasure of seeing themselves immortalized in fiction. To see people like them dying and falling in love and being triumphant and going on quests, and fighting in the stars and surviving monster attacks and being hard boiled detectives and grizzly police officers or just having a really good special friendship that people resonate with so deeply that they literally mourn when one character dies.
To deny them this is a disrespect to the craft.
To not consider their stories valid and important enough to allow for diverse representations in your work is a misuse of fiction. As well as being incredibly unrealistic due to that probability thing I mentioned.
So, try your best. And if you get stuck or confused, ask for help or do more research.
You’re a storyteller. Your hands are the hands that illuminate the history of who we are and who we were.
Do not devalue the importance and validity of that intimacy.
*As a queer writer and reader, I see people fretting about this topic often, but I haven’t found a quick one stop shop post/article that addresses how to approach the inclusion of LGBTQAI+ characters from the perspective of someone from outside the community. So, like my article about writing POC characters I’ve done my best with this subject. I hope it helps everyone. And if you see anything here that you would like to contest or anything that you want to add, feel free to contact me about it so I can discuss it with you and hopefully change/edit the article for the better. Also, my apologies for being so general. I’ve tried to link to sources that specify certain things I’ve said. So, Please Please Please go back and click the links.
**On the use of Femme and Butch: I’m a member of the very specific community that can use these words. If you, yourself, are not a lesbian or a bisexual woman, I would consider seeking out alternate terms.
Kayla Ancrum is an American YA novelist. She graduated from Dominican Universities with a BA in English. She currently runs the blog KAYLAPOCALYPSE, where she provides information about the writing and publishing process for other young authors, as well as original articles about writing tropes and diversity in media. Find her on twitter @Kwritesfiction
- How to Write Women of Colour and Men of Colour if you are White (mediadiversified.org)
- The ‘Diversity Test’: Is the London LGBT Film Festival a white-only affair? (mediadiversified.org)
- “The gay community tends to pride itself on being anti-discriminatory” But Is that true? (mediadiversified.org)
- Separate is not equal: A personal reflection on South Africaâs LGBTI movement (mediadiversified.org)