I know I said I was going to get into an analysis of Rolemaster and GURPS this week, but I’m sure you’ve all seen the red equal signs popping up on Facebook, and know that the Supreme Court is reviewing the question of whether gays have a constitutional right to have their marriages recognized at the federal level. I had intended to save this post for closer to the release of Covenant [now released!], but given the news I thought it appropriate to accelerate it to today.
I normally don’t get into politics on this blog. I certainly have my views, but this genre has room to explore many takes on things, and I value fiction that doesn’t decide everything for the reader.
That being said, my fantasy writing does get into philosophical and moral issues, and different characters have different takes on things. However, one of the things I’m not ambiguous about, as an author, world-builder, and narrator, is that being gay is natural, and that gays should have the same rights as everyone else. My dwarven culture doesn’t “get it”–they’re more conservative–but in When Dragons Die, (starting with Lightfall) all the lead heroines and heroes don’t equivocate on this. They may disagree on the nature of the gods, the presence or absence of an afterlife, but not sexual orientation.
I’m splitting the rest of this into two parts. The first is about story crafting gay and lesbian characters from a writer’s perspective. The second is about how Lightfall approaches the issue, and so contains some minor spoilers for the middle third of the book. These are clearly annotated in case you want to skip spoilers altogether.
PART 1: Writing gay and lesbian romance as a straight guy.
I’ve made it no secret that When Dragons Die is R-Rated fantasy. The camera stays with characters during sex, but the story isn’t about the sex. There are straight characters, bisexual characters, and gay (I’m using “gay” here inclusively to refer to both homosexual men and women) characters in the world of Ahmbren, just like real life. So, when writing Lightfall, I was faced with the challenge: how do I write gay characters?
The pledge I made to my work was this: If I’m going to include sex scenes in the book, then I will write gay scenes to the same level as I would the straight scenes. I can’t fade the cameras for one permutation and not the other, and maintain any kind of fairness for my readers. I do fade the camera at times, if the sex scene isn’t “new” for the story (meaning, the sex scene doesn’t advance plot or character development). There’s no reason to repeat encounters. The first encounter between lead characters, however, I tend to follow through, with the “camera” focusing on faces, emotions, and verbal exchanges rather than getting into the nitty gritty. But the point is, I apply my “camera fades” vs. narrative follow-through equally across orientations.
Ok, so at this point I realized I’m going to write sex scenes involving gay characters. In When Dragons Die, this means lesbian scenes, based on the characters involved. Another realization came to light: there are inherent challenges in gay sex scenes as a straight man. This is true whether we’re talking about gay men or lesbians; though the challenges are different, they boil down to the same thing: credibility.
(As a side note, I’m sure straight women might have a different set of challenges, or gay writers might have challenges writing about straight couples–but since I don’t fall into either of those categories I won’t try to address them, and will stick to what I know).
The problem with [writing] lesbians: I am a straight man.
As I alluded to, the biggest challenge is credibility with your readership. Specifically, the male dominated aspects of our culture has sexualized lesbians for the pleasure of the straight man’s fantasies. As I lurked in online LGBT forums to get some perspective before writing, this was brought home to me even more. Our sex culture worships the idea of two hot women getting it on for the pleasure of a male audience.
This completely degrades and misses what lesbian love is… two women who love each other, and not for the sake of an audience. It’s a cliche rebuttal to say, “Yeah, well lesbians don’t want the man there.” While this is most certainly true (no, the lesbians aren’t going to invite you into their play time), it doesn’t really drive the point home because we’ve also heard that enough to be desensitized to it. Nor will it discourage the straight male response, usually goes along the lines of this: “Well, they’re bi, and they’ll invite me in.”
If they were straight women, it’s most likely that neither of them would give you the time of day, but somehow you think because they’re into each other, they’re suddenly sluts?
And that’s what drove it home to me… the realization that bisexual women are assumed to be sluts. Why is it that guys think that a bi woman is immediately interested in a threesome? (Actually, this is not just a male assumption? Why is it that straight and lesbian women sometimes accuse bi women of just attention getting?) Why is it that if you have a bi girlfriend, you (male reader) think she’s going to invite her BFF over for you… or that if you run into two bi women dating each other, they’re looking for a third wheel?
Sexual orientation and views on monogamy, loyalty, or polyamory have nothing to do with each other. They are separate and distinct things, and most people tend to be monogamous. Which means, the bi girl dating the other bi-or-lesbian girl doesn’t want a man in her life right now (or maybe ever). And the lesbian couple certainly not.
So the question becomes, how do I write lesbian love without sexualizing it for the male reader? How do I write it without sexualizing it for myself?
I made a special effort to not come across as a creepy narrator with my lesbian scenes. I’ve tried to preserve the integrity of the relationship and experience as it exists for the two characters, and not for the benefit of the audience, or narrator. I don’t know how well I succeeded at that, but feedback from my readers indicates I did.
One might ask why I wanted to have lesbian romance if it wasn’t to sexualize the reading (or writing) experience. I’ve already provided one answer to this–Ahmbren has gay characters just as the real world does. The second part of this is that I’ve known two lesbians rather closely. The first was a high school sweetheart I dated before she became self aware to the fact, and the second was a close friend who also realized that about herself and was able to talk about her awakening with me.
And, while some might object to my inclusion of homosexually or bisexually oriented characters, I’ve never shied away from writing controversy into my stories. As I’ve stated in this blog numerous times, I think the Spec-Fic genre rises in stature when it challenges your assumptions and world view even while it entertains. I strive for my writing to reach these heights.
The problem with [writing] gay men: I am a straight man.
This actually poses more of a problem, in some ways. For all the things I said above about sexualizing lesbian love, it’s still an inescapable fact that the idea is a turn-on for most men. This makes writing about lesbians easier because it’s inherently more interesting to me. In the same way, writing a straight love story and scene is inherently interesting.
So here, the challenge becomes… how does one write the same emotional and sexual charge into a scene in which one has little interest? This might be more difficult than the lesbian challenge, because again, the issue comes back to credibility. In this case, it’s going to be credibility with gay male readers.
In When Dragons Die, it happened that there are no gay romances on screen. There’s allusion to historical characters (of significant importance, I might add) that were gay men, but that romance happened in the back story to the trilogy. I had thought about going out of my way to write a gay relationship into the third book for completeness sake, but decided against it. I didn’t want to have the “going down the checklist” feel.
I do intend to write a gay love story. I see this as an interesting challenge as a writer, so see if I can connect with a gay male audience in a way that’s credible, and to see if I can connect with a straight audience in a way that communicates the emotional intimacy of the relationship. As I said, the two significant gay men are part of the back story to When Dragons Die, so when I write the prequel, set 1000 years prior to Lightfall, I’ll address the gay male relationship.
And, I intend to keep true to my pledge: I’ll write it the same way I write straight sex scenes. The real challenge will be how to do it without turning off the straight male portion of the audience.
How will I pull this off? I don’t know yet, but for starters I imagine there will be many instances where I think, “If one of these characters was a woman, how would I write it?” and then write it that way.
Aside: the concept of sexual fluidity.
Before I go into the discussion about Lightfall‘s lesbian society, there was one other interesting concept I discovered during my time lurking in online forums: the concept that sexual orientation can be fluid.
So the idea is this: if you consider a spectrum from “pure straight” to “pure gay”, with a mid point being “pure bisexual,” it’s believed that most people fall somewhere on this spectrum and not in the absolutes. The closer you are to one end of the graph, the more you find the opposite idea personally repulsive. You could have a person who’s mostly straight or mostly gay, but open to off-character encounters.
The idea of sexual fluidity holds that a person’s sexual orientation isn’t fixed in one spot on this spectrum, but can fluctuate. So, a gay person can move towards bisexual attractions, and back again.
I encountered this idea while researching why it seems that women are more open to experimentation than men. Are they wired differently, or is this just a straight male conspiracy to convince women they should get into kinky things to please the straight male? It turns out, the former might be true. From my reading, people within the community seemed to have the impression that women are more likely to display sexual orientation fluidity than men. In this case, straight men are more likely to never experiment with other men, and gay men are more likely to never want a woman… but, a lesbian might have an encounter with a man and still consider herself lesbian (without adopting the label of bisexual), or a straight woman might have a lesbian encounter and still consider herself straight for what she’s looking for in a relationship.
Now, I’m no social scientist, but I used this concept of sexual fluidity in Lightfall. They way I use is it under this rule-set: a straight person will seek a monogomous sexual partnership with the opposite sex. A gay person will do so with the same sex. A bisexual person could have a monogomous life-long mating partnership with someone of either sex. The degree of sexual fluidity in the character will dictate the tendency when choosing casual sex or one-off partners. So, a “fluid” straight person might have a gay one-off. A non fluid straight person will only seek encounters, relationships or otherwise, with the opposite sex.
Which leads me too…
PART 2: When Dragons Die on the issue of gays and lesbians.
For those who haven’t read Lightfall, the rest of this post will contain minor spoilers (no major plot points).
The middle section of Lightfall contains a troll society, called the Vemnai, of extremist matriarchy. The women rule, and love between women and men is forbidden. Sex between the sexes is for procreative duty alone, and women are encouraged to have lesbian relationships with each other.
The troll theology teaches them that originally, trolls were all women, and that men were aberrations created by an evil god. Biological attraction for men is seen as an unnatural curse by this evil god, and to be resisted at all costs. The Matriarch and High Priestess hopes for the day that women will be restored to their ability to magically procreate without need for men.
The problem, of course, is that most troll women are biologically straight, and the religion is a lie. Just like in life, the minority of women are biologically gay and fit into this society with ease. These are held to be specially blessed by their goddess according to their theology, and only lesbians can be chosen to be the Matriarch.
This creates problems for the society. The irony is, even though they worship a Goddess of Nature, their religion has crystallized into a culture that is anything but natural.
Aradma, the protagonist, arrives and is hailed by the Matriarch as a long awaited harbinger of the time when men would no longer be needed. The Matriarch–a lesbian–raises Aradma up to be adored and worship as a symbol of the Moon Goddess (consort to the Nature Goddess).
Aradma is not a lesbian, and neither is she bi. She’s straight. But, she’s sexually fluid enough to be open to a lesbian experience. At first, she’s intoxicated by the society’s complete worship of her, and she goes along with it.
One of the ideas behind the Vemnai culture, other than showing an example of how religious extremism can twist people’s views around into seeing things as the opposite of reality, was to turn the tables on straight people. The LGBT community lives every day in a world that assumes everyone is straight. If they’re lucky, they have a community that’s accepting. If they’re not, they live in a world that’s hostile to the truth of their nature. Some gays even go so far as to pretend they’re straight, marrying and hiding their orientation from the world. They are forced to live a live that is unnatural for the truth of their inner selves.
In the Vemnai culture, the tables are turned. To be straight is seen as unnatural and evil, and it is the straight women who are trying to unnaturally conform to a hostile culture, and we do see some of this from the POV of a straight troll priestess.
Aradma becomes a druid during this time. Druids are traditionally seen as nature worshippers, or custodians of nature. In this case, I’ve explored the idea of Druidry as being in tune with nature as actual reality. Nature is what is true, and every person has a biological reality of their being they have to deal with. Aradma also becomes sexually charged as she realizes the inherent sexuality of life. She sees through the religion, finally, and helps the trolls escape it’s unnatural paradigm.
In the end, Aradma shatters the culture and restores the trolls to a place where they’re free to act on their own natures. It’s not the lesbian aspects of Vemnai that made it evil and unnatural, but it was the enforced lesbianism against the nature of straight women. This is essentially the same as a straight society (i.e., the real world) that tries to enforce straight expectations on lesbian women. In both cases, the person is forced to lie against the truth of their natural selves. Aradma didn’t come to cure lesbianism. She came to restore the Vemnai people to themselves.
In Lightfall, we don’t get a real lesbian love story. We have a religiously insane Matriarch and an at-first naive straight druid who later awakens to what’s really going on.
In Covenant, we do see a deeper, genuine lesbian relationship between two women that grows over time. One of these women is a lesbian who is something of a prude, scared of her sexuality, and is told that desiring other women is evil (we’re back to real-world challenges here). The other woman is bisexual, comfortable in her sexuality, separates casual/recreational sex from relationships, but when she does enter a relationship she’s monogamous and loyal. We see a further development of the theme of being true to yourself, or lying to yourself.