A lot of the complaints I’ve heard about QUILTBAG+ representation in fiction are about the portrayal. People are happy to see these characters, yes, but the way the author shows them isn’t always the best. Stereotypes (which I’ve covered in a previous Midweek Mingle) run rampant and, though not quite as bad in my opinion, another plague runs rampant through the QUILTBAG+ community in fiction. A lot of times, the only indication you have that a trans* character is trans*, that a lesbian character is a lesbian, that an agender character is agender, is an outright statement of this fact. That’s not good and, not only is it a sign of weak writing, it’s a sign of tokenism, which is what we are (hopefully) trying to steer away from.
They say one of the easiest ways to make a character ‘real’ for the reader is to include big moments. Things that are important. Birthdays and Christmases and first times and all that jazz. Dead grandma or great aunt or surgery. It works, too. Big life moments like that are things that we understand, even if we’ve never experienced that exact thing. I’ve never celebrated Hanukah, but I’ve read about it, and I understand those emotions, and the way emotions tie into an event like that.
For anyone who isn’t cisgender/heterosexual, there are moments that are unique to that life experience, and they’re almost universal for anyone who identifies as QUILTBAG+: coming out.
No, it’s not a typo. I said moments with an ‘S.’ Coming out isn’t just about that big announcement. You don’t just wake up and have everything crash down into clarity around you. It’s a process that someone goes through. You, as the author, need to know what coming out is or was like for your characters, even if that never happens in the book. It’s such a huge moment in personal development, and the reaction(s) you get from it can carry with you for your entire life. Knowing it will help you craft more believable QUILTBAG+ characters, not only because of the impact of the coming out process, but also because it is something unique to that community.
Now, I’m going to get a little personal here, so don’t mind me. This wasn’t the same for everyone, but I want to show y’all what I mean by a process. I’m going to show you the best way I know how: by coming clean about how I came out.
I was pretty young. Prepubescent. My initial attractions to the boys I went to school with manifested as ‘I bet a girl would like [BLANK].’ It was unenlightened, but it was the filter everything went through. As I grew up into middle school, I took more notice of the guys, and more notice, and more notice. Finally, when I was thirteen, it was almost like someone hitting a button. It clicked for me. I liked guys. I didn’t know if I liked girls, too, but I knew I liked guys. That was the first time I came out to myself. I admitted something to myself that I didn’t tell anyone else for over a year.
When I finally did come out to somebody, I was lucky in that the response was positive. We actually went out for almost a year. That was the next step: one person I was close with. And another handful of months before I ever breathed another word of it to anyone.
At this point, I was a freshman in high school, in a fairly large town with a fairly small-minded population. So of course I knew the risks involved in coming out. I knew I could get thrown around and bullied and beaten. It took me a long time to get up the nerve to even come out to my mother, who was also rather supportive. But once she knew, I felt almost unstoppable. The knowledge was spreading through my high school, but I still wasn’t decided on the female side of things. It took me another year before I worked through that. I came out to myself again, that time as gay. Fully gay. And I had to come out to the school again, too, and to my mother. I’m not going to say I was fully supported at school because I wasn’t. I will say that I had it easier than a lot of people. I had a relatively uneventful time of coming out.
That’s my story, and it’s colored me a particular way. It’s made me incredibly comfortable with myself, since nobody freaked out on me for my sexuality. It’s helped keep me happier with myself, since I never had to deal with much hatred aimed at me for being gay. It’s also made me want to help others, so that they can have a good coming out experience.
Other people I know weren’t so lucky. We’ve all seen videos and heard horror stories about the things that happen when somebody comes out. Kicked out of the house, disowned, beaten into submission. And it can get much worse. But all of it, the good and the bad of coming out, makes a QUILTBAG+ person, and hence a QUILTBAG+ character, who they are. So if you’re feeling like your characters aren’t quite genuine, then think back to what it was like for them, struggling against societal expectations. I promise, it’ll help you write better characters, and those better characters will help everybody mingle.