Writing is fun because you never know where your ideas will take you. I originally thought this post was about Star Wars, but it ended up being about so much more. I say this partially because A) as I wrote earlier, my own writing surprises me and B) you should feel free to read this post even if you’ve never seen Star Wars. There are no spoilers: It’s just me talking about BEING GAY and WRITING. Or, more accurately, WRITING ABOUT GAY STUFF.
A couple of weeks ago, J.J. Abrams said that he hopes there will be a gay character in the next few Star Wars movies. There are already canon queer characters in the spin-off books, but this would be the first such character in the film franchise.
Now, I’m not sure if we’ll actually get an LGBTQ+ character, because he said the same thing about his rebooted Star Trek movies a few years ago and nothing ever happened of that idea. (And it’s not as though he needed to pave the way… Star Trek had LGBTQ+ characters in the nineties, so it’s not exactly new.) Abrams will be involved in Episodes VIII and IV, although not as heavily as he was in Episode VII.
Soooo we don’t know anything definite yet, but that didn’t stop people from SCREAMING about it. In both the good way and the bad way. A lot of people love the idea of including LGBTQ+ characters in Star Wars, but there are also a whole bunch of people who are less than pleased.
They say they’re not against the idea but the truth is that they only support it under one condition, and that is that the character’s sexual orientation must be “relevant” to the story. If that sounds reasonable on paper (or onscreen, as the case may be), you should keep in mind that this generally translates to putting LGBTQ+ characters – and diverse characters in general, but I’ll get to that part in just a sec – through more hoops than non-diverse characters. It’s a lot harder to include LGBTQ+ characters without getting some type of pushback.
I saw this type of response in the comment section of many of the science fiction/fandom websites I follow, and it reminded me of something – of quite a lot of other somethings, actually.
And that’s why this post is not solely about Star Wars, because I’ve seen this before. It happens in so many fandoms. The one that springs immediately to mind is Rick Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus series, whose treatment of diversity is something I’ve written about extensively on this blog.
Including LGBTQ+ characters in your books and movies and TV shows requires a lot of resolve, because you will face challenges.Homophobia is most definitely not dead and gone – there are homophobes in every fandom, unfortunately. I do find that it tends to take a different form now, though. It typically manifests as heteronormativity, and not as outright homophobia.
What is heteronormativity? Well, it’s basically the assumption that heterosexuality is the default, and that any other sexual orientations are deviant. If you’ve ever thought of straight people and LGBTQ+ people as “normal people and gay people” – and most of us have fallen into that trap even if we’re LGBTQ+ ourselves, because internalized homophobia is a hell of a drug – that would be an example of heteronormative assumptions.
Heternormativity is much more insidious than homophobia. We explain it away, tell ourselves that although it’s OK to be gay, it’s somehow straying from the “default” setting of humanity. We see this attitude as reasonable.
What does this mean for storytelling?
To put it simply, it means that readers and viewers demand explanations as to why the writers included diversity. They want justifications: Why is this character’s gayness relevant to the story?
“Relevance” is probably the most-frequently-mentioned word in these arguments against diversity. I saw a lot of variations of, “Of course I want more LGBTQ+ characters, but only if their sexual orientation is relevant to the plot!” in those comment sections.
No one stipulates that straight characters should only be included if their heterosexuality is relevant to the plot. If you try to, you’re immediately shot down and told that you’re being silly and unreasonable. Cis straight characters’ very existence is NEVER justified, because the assumption is that it never has to be.
And that assumption is correct: It shouldn’t have to be justified. Because it’s just another part of who those characters are.
But that’s true of LGBTQ+ characters as well.
We need to get rid of this idea that diversity is something “extra,” something that doesn’t have to be included. We need to get rid of the idea that diversity is political because excuse me, my existence as a woman who loves other women is not a political act. We need to DESTROY the idea that including diverse characters is somehow pandering to a particular audience.
(Why is it considered “pandering” only if characters from marginalized groups are included, anyway? Like, please explain how having 99.9% of characters be cis straight individuals is somehow NOT biased.)
Gay characters are relevant to Star Wars because gay people EXIST. It’s very easy to start thinking that the existence of these characters needs to be justified: My first draft of this post included a couple paragraphs about how the claims that Padmé and Anakin’s (presumed) heterosexuality is more relevant to the plot since they had children are ridiculous, since LGBTQ+ are perfectly capable of having biological children as well.
But that’s an unsafe line of thought, because it’s just another attempt to justify the existence of LGBTQ+ characters in fiction. Diverse groups exists – that’s the only reason you should need for the inclusion of diverse characters.
Start questioning your biases about this sort of thing. Why do you expect authors to have to write afterwords to their books concerning the brand-new diverse character introduced on page 340? Why is it considered necessary for the producers of a popular TV show to explain this decision at length in an interview or op-ed piece or whatever? This is a useful thing to do regardless of who you are. Yes, cis straight people should question this, but so should LGBTQ+ people, because cultural attitudes are easily absorbed without us even noticing.
Including more diverse characters is a great first step. Learning to unconditionally accept them is the next step, and it’s equally important. If someone asks what made you decide to include diverse characters in your stories, it is perfectly acceptable to look at them askance and answer, “Because people like that… exist? You know, like in the real world?”
I hope Finn and Poe are LGBTQ+. I hope Rey is LGBTQ+ too, although I haven’t seen nearly as much fan support for that. And I hope equally strongly that people stop needing to find a reason for the inclusion of diverse characters.
It will be fascinating to see what comes of J.J. Abrams’ comment in the next few months and years, because The Force Awakens already challenged a lot of people’s assumptions (or just plain pissed them off, depending on who you ask) by including its first female protagonist, as well as black and Latino costars. This new trilogy is shaping up to be much more diverse than the previous two, and I can only hope that it is just one of many stories that cause people to accept diversity as a basic tenet of good storytelling that needs no justification.