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Dispatches from Hogwarts G.S.A.: When is queer tragedy cliché?

Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian
Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian by Il Sodoma. Saint Sebastian is often referenced as one of the earliest gay literary martyrs.

We were recently drawn into pondering this question while reading Kai Ashante Wilson’s The Sorcerer of Wildeeps and looking at the book’s Goodreads reviews. One review stood out because it gushed about the book, but the reader said the tragic ending kept her from giving it five stars because (paraphrased) hasn’t gay tragedy been done enough already?

Spoilers: One interpretation is that the main character Demane’s love interest dies at the end, though our take was the story left a sliver of hope he could have survived.

Reviews of course are subjective, every reader is entitled to her opinion, and we’re not writing about this to argue with that particular reader. It just got us thinking about an issue that bothers us from time to time. When is queer tragedy cliché and when is it just tragedy? There are a shit-ton of stories about straight people with unhappy endings, and no one complains about unfair, contrived treatment of straight characters, right?

We partly get where that reader was coming from. Commercial sci fi and fantasy is seriously lacking in the number and quality of queer portrayals, so when you actually encounter one, it feels kind of sacred. Many of those characters are short-lived (i.e. the “bury your gays” trope), which reinforces the attitude that LGBTs are expendable and necessarily tragic in contrast to all the resilient, deserving-of-a-happy-ending straight heroes. Ianto Jones in the HBO series Torchwood is one example. Loras Tyrell in the HBO series Game of Thrones is another, which the Hogwarts G.S.A. lamented in our recent GoT Season Six Report Card. Lexa on the CW’s The 100 is another recent example from the small screen that outraged fans so much, the writers put out an apology.

We found this substantial list of LGBT characters in the comics who were killed off by writers. We bet it happens a lot in commercial SFF lit as well, though we had a hard time finding recent, popular examples (help us out, if you like). Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series, which is hardly recent and not quite a household name, has been criticized for its tendency to make quick work of the love interests of its gay characters, and we suppose you could say that our beloved J.K. Rowling disposed of the only gay character in her Harry Potter series, though that was a strange case of an author outing a character by eulogy.

We do see a related, insidious problem in popular literature in the form of queer villainy, perversion, and oppressive/effeminate societies, vis-à-vis the work of Orson Scott Card and—some have argued—Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series.

All of that contributes to an “ugh” factor with queer tragedy, but here’s the thing: commercial SFF that sends token queer characters to early graves is pretty much unarguably bad, but is it fair to paint a book that centers on queerness, such as Wilson’s, with the same broad-stroke criticism?

We think there’s a difference, and it’s some parts point-of-view and some parts the characteristics of the audience. Change is happening gradually, but commercial SFF is still dominated by a white, straight, male point-of-view. When queer characters appear, we see them through the eyes of straight guys who encounter queer people every now and then. The writer may have laudable intentions about including diverse characters. But the major storyline is always about a straight hero or heroine.

Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments and Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson are a couple of examples. They both have secondary queer characters, those characters are depicted well, in our opinion, and that’s all great to an extent. But the queer characters are a side show to the main action which is happening with the heterosexual characters. They serve to move forward the bigger heteronormative story.

In Wilson’s book, and many, many works of what we would call queer SFF, queer characters are primary, and often secondary, and tertiary and on and on. Naturally results may vary, but there’s generally more care put into the development of those characters and their worlds. As a growing galaxy in the SFF universe, queer SFF includes stories from the broad perspectives of queer people (in Wilson’s case, delightfully, a gay man of color’s perspective). Queer characters are at the forefront of the tension, drama, comedy, victories, and the misfortunes.

So when tragedy occurs to a queer character in well-written, well-conceived queer SFF, it doesn’t feel like a betrayal, and we would venture to say it feels less contrived. In some cases, there’s a balance of happy and unhappy endings for the cast of queer characters, which reflects the variety of our experiences in the world.

We mentioned the book’s audience as another factor, because the majority of commercial SFF fans don’t come in contact with queer stories too often, so those few portrayals have a tendency to become a sole point of reference for how queer people are or should be depicted in SFF. How many superhero fans know about Perry Moore’s Hero or Nathan Burgoine’s Light? Those are stories focused on gay superheroes, and they have “good” and “bad” gays, and some who triumph and some who lose out, and characters who do and do not find love and happiness in the end. How many Buffy fans know about Allison Moon’s Tales of the Pack and Nell Stark and Trinity Tam’s Ever After series, which similarly have a variety of paranormal lesbians in largely lesbian worlds? We think for most of us who read such stories widely, the appearance of queer tragic characters feels less jarring, since we understand that one story isn’t the sum of queer experiences.

Queer happy endings and queer unhappy endings can both be done well. What helps is the perspective of the story teller and including a variety of queer characters.

4 thoughts on “Dispatches from Hogwarts G.S.A.: When is queer tragedy cliché?”

  1. Alas, cliched endings, happy and tragic are all over. The best tragic endings were ones where the character learned, grew, and survived the tragedy. Their strength was an inspiration to others who suffered to be strong and to cope, too. The best happy endings were when a character worked and strove to bring about that happy ending. Or s/he realized/learned the value of what s/he had, through what s/he went through during the story.

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  2. Hey Kari! Thanks for dropping a comment, and I totally agree. Good stories need tension and conflict, particularly in the SFF genre. If it’s easy for the hero to succeed, well, what’s the point of sharing the story? There is a category of tragic stories in which the hero struggles and loses, and that was the main thing I was pondering about with this topic. Wilson’s book is one example. The story takes the hero Demane down a darker and darker path, and to the extent the one thing he cares about (the man he loves) gets taken away from him (probably at least), it’s a tragedy without the sense of inspiration that you mention. There can be a pathos for the reader in that type of story that makes it worth reading for some. I know some readers who like their fiction dark, tragic and angsty. I think it’s a matter of preference and not necessarily cliché. Like you, I prefer tough, realistic stories where there might not be a triumphant ending, everything happily ever after, but I do like the story to show that there’s hope somewhere in the end.

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