We’ve talked about racism and sexism before, but bigotry against non-straight folk is just as important. Most storytellers know not to use blatant stereotypes these days, and yet queerphobia persists. To prevent these toxic messages from creeping into our work, we have to search for queerphobic tropes and remove them from our stories. We’ll start by focusing specifically on problematic depictions of sexual orientation. We’ll cover transphobia in another piece, so it can receive our undivided attention. Without further ado, here are six common signs that your story may be queerphobic.
1. Everyone Is Straight
The first hurdle queer folk have to face when browsing media is simply finding representation. Even now, when queer characters are clearly permissible, many stories have large casts that are entirely straight. This happens even with well-intentioned storytellers who don’t think of themselves as queerphobic. Making a character queer is seen as a statement, something that shouldn’t be done unless it serves the plot.
But being queer isn’t a statement; it’s just who people are. A character’s sexuality or gender identity doesn’t have to be linked to the plot. Storytellers have been casually demonstrating straight romances and sexuality for as long as there have been stories, and it seems natural to us. We all know that a character mentioning their heterosexual partner doesn’t have to be a major part of the story, and we need to apply that same nonchalance to queer characters. In fact, if you’re straight like me, it’s better to avoid stories that revolve directly around a character’s queerness, because it’s easy to make a mistake and send the wrong message.
Does your story have a lot of romance? Including queer romance is easy, I promise. Just follow the example set by Laurie J. Marks’ Fire Logic. The protagonist of that novel has a touching romance with another woman, but Marks focuses on how the lovebirds are kept apart by an evil army, not that they’re both women. If you’re more of a TV person, then Legend of Korra has your back. In that show’s final season, we see two characters of the same gender fall in love, and the emphasis is on the struggles and hardships they’ve been through together, the same way it would be with a straight couple.*
When queer folks aren’t represented in stories, it reinforces the idea that they are strange or rare in real life. That’s something we need to get past.
2. The Villain Is Queer Coded
Queer coding the villain is a tradition as old as Disney. Okay, it probably happened before Disney, but that’s where many of us were introduced to it. This is the practice of giving the villain queer-associated traits in order to make them more threatening. From Scar in the Lion King to the Shadow Man in The Princess and the Frog, to Jafar in Aladdin, our childhood cartoons have built an association between queerness and evil.
Coding villains in this manner is a self-perpetuating cycle. Queer traits were seen as scary by the straight majority, and so they were put onto villains. Now these traits are seen as scary because we associate them with fictional villains. And so the cycle goes on, reinforcing itself with each iteration.
As you might imagine, associating people’s identity with evil doesn’t have great outcomes. In real life, queer folk are often seen as dangerous or degenerate in some way. This leads to laws discriminating against queer couples who wish to adopt, people losing their jobs when it’s discovered that they’re queer, and a whole host of other problems. Queer coding villains doesn’t force people to be queerphobic in real life, but it reinforces their existing prejudice.
This isn’t to say your villains can’t ever be queer or have queer traits. Villains are a vital part of storytelling, and they should represent all groups of people. But queer heroes must come first. If you make your protagonists openly queer, then if you have a queer villain, it won’t seem like they are a villain because they’re queer.
Once we have more queer heroes, it’ll still be important to avoid problematic descriptions. The Lion King stands as such a clear example of villainous queer coding because Scar is slight and effeminate, whereas Mufasa* is big, gruff, and hyper masculine. Even if Mufasa was canonically gay, the story would read as a confrontation between traditional masculinity and queer femininity.
3. The Comic Relief Is Queer Coded
If villainous coding is one half of a coin, comedic coding is the other. Instead of using queer-associated traits to make a character scary, it’s done to make them ridiculous. Beauty and the Beast’s Lefou is a classic example. In the cartoon, he’s coded as the stereotype of a gay man fawning over a hyper-masculine straight man. His comedy is derived not from any jokes he makes, but because it’s supposedly amusing to watch him debase himself. The live-action film keeps this dynamic, except with the slightest hint that Lefou might actually be gay.
Like queer coding villains, this is a self-perpetuating cycle. Queer traits are seen as funny because they deviate from the norm, so they’re used to make a character comedic. Later, even when those same traits are no longer considered extreme deviations, they’re still seen as funny because comedic characters have them.
Note that there’s a big difference between using queer coding to mark a character as comedic and having a funny character with queer coding. Lorne from Angel is a clear example of the latter. His flamboyant style is obvious queer coding, but he’s funny because he makes funny jokes, not because he dresses fancy.
Coding queer traits as humorous makes queer people objects of ridicule. It’s degrading in the same way it’s degrading to make short men the butt of constant jokes, and it isn’t a business that storytellers should be involved in. Queer people have enough trouble getting their issues taken seriously, being seen as inherently comedic only makes that worse.
4. Being Queer Is Turned Into a Joke
This problem is similar to comedic coding, except more blatant. Instead of simply implying that queer people are funny, some stories will use queerness itself as a joke. Recently, storytellers have developed a bad habit of joking about the possibility that a character might be queer. In the first episode of Supergirl, Kara is trying to tell her friend Winn about her superhero persona. As she struggles to find the words, Winn preempts her with “Oh my God, you’re a lesbian.” Cue Kara awkwardly explaining that no, her secret is that she’s Supergirl, not that she’s queer. The scene is played for comedy, because isn’t the possibility of a lesbian superhero hilarious?
Supergirl’s joke about Kara being a lesbian is especially mean spirited, because queer superheroes are even rarer than queer protagonists in general. A lot of people would have really liked to see a lesbian Supergirl, and the writers dangled that possibility in front of them before snatching it away. Fortunately, the show does eventually have a touching story about Kara’s sister Alex coming out, but that doesn’t justify opening with queerphobia.
In real life, being queer is not only serious, it’s often dangerous. Queer people all over the world face violence for who they are, and turning that identity into a joke is insulting.
As I mentioned in the previous section, none of this means queer characters can’t be funny, but the comedy shouldn’t come from their queerness. If you want a queer character to be funny, write them the same way you’d write a funny straight character. That’ll be hard work, like any good comedy, but it’s worth doing.
5. The Romance Baits Queer Audiences
It’s no secret that queer audiences are badly served in representation, especially when it comes to onscreen romances. Some storytellers are aware of this, and they want to turn queer demand into viewership, but they aren’t willing to actually show queer relationships in their work. They might be scared of backlash from bigoted fans, or their own prejudices might get in the way. Either way, this is called queerbaiting.
For a real-life example, you can’t do better (or worse) than BBC’s Sherlock. The first season in particular is full of hints and jokes about how Holmes and Watson might be into each other, until the writers rush to reassure us that they’re both straight.
Lest you think this is a British problem, American TV loves queerbaiting too. MTV’s Teen Wolf has a handful of queer side characters, but the main cast has remained entirely straight. That hasn’t stopped the writers from dropping hints that Stiles, everyone’s favorite snarky detective, might be bisexual. This has been going on for six years now, and yet Stiles has only ever shown serious attraction to women. That doesn’t mean he’s not bi of course, but it shows pretty clearly that the writers won’t ever commit to it.
Queerbaiting is offering something you know people want and then refusing to deliver. It’s a cynical ploy to build a bigger audience without taking any risks. Once upon a time, these kinds of hints were necessary because censorship wouldn’t allow for openly queer characters, but we’re past that now. If you want queer audiences to see themselves in your story, write queer characters. If you have characters you know are straight, just leave them that way. Don’t make a show of queer representation if you don’t plan to follow through.
6. Queer Characters Die
There’s a long history of queer characters being killed off at a higher rate than their straight counterparts, and when there are so few queer characters to begin with, this leaves an impression. This happens so often that it’s earned the name “bury your gays.”
A well-known example of this trope is the brutal murder of Tara in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, an event that proved season six could contain no joy. But it’s not just late 90s shows; modern TV is more than happy to get in on the action. Just last year, The 100 killed off fan-favorite Lexa in a scene that seemed to intentionally parallel Tara’s death.
There are already so few queer characters in media, reducing the number isn’t a good idea. That’s why killing queer characters is problematic even in TV shows known for killing important straight characters. Straight fans have lots of other stories to go to for representation; queer fans don’t.
This doesn’t mean queer characters can’t ever die in fiction, but first queer representation must be examined from every angle to ensure it’s more than adequate. In The 100, a gay couple was introduced in the same season Lexa was killed off, and a queer woman was briefly featured. The show-runner probably thought that was enough. However, these characters weren’t as central as Lexa. On top of that, while straight love interests were also killed off in The 100, central straight couples got at least half a season of just being a couple before tragedy struck. Lexa was killed immediately after she hooked up with the show’s lead. Even when straight storytellers think they are treating queer and straight characters equally, they often aren’t.
In addition, storytellers must consider how the character dies. Queer characters are often the victim of violence, giving their deaths a heavy emphasis on tragedy. All too often, this is done to create drama for a largely straight cast. These deaths send the message that queer lives aren’t valuable in their own right. Just like central straight characters, queer characters should die heroic deaths that emphasize their power and virtue.
This list isn’t comprehensive, but keeping watch for these signs is a good place to start. If you get feedback that your stories aren’t friendly to queer readers, even if you’re following my advice precisely, the best practice is to listen and look for opportunities to do better.
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