Writing Queer Characters
Note: While I identify as somewhere between straight and queer, I am still a cisgender person. If anyone who belongs to the LGBT community would like to add onto this list or criticize me, I will take your word to heart and try my best to correct anything insensitive or inaccurate. Thank you for your time.
What is cishet?
"Cishet, used as both an adjective and a noun, describes a person who is both cisgender and heterosexual. A person is cishet if he or she is cisgender, meaning identifying with his or her assigned-at-birth gender, as well as heterosexual, or attracted exclusively to people of the opposite sex."
If you are writing a story about queer characters and you are a heterosexual/straight, white, cisgender person, I strongly suggest doing your research on how the queer community will react to your work.
Because your work wouldn't exist without the queer community.
So if the queer community doesn't like what you're saying about them, well, who are you pitching this story to? Yourself? Is this all just a fantasy concocted for the sake of appealing to your own imagination and capitalizing on marginalized peoples' lives?
Now, naturally, many members of the LGBT-plus community want to see more stories with diverse characters. But they also would like to see you do them justice.
This isn't a huge expectation.
If you ask me to draw a picture of you, you want to make sure that I get it right. I present to you a picture that has none of your main characteristics, I inserted some flashy accessory that you've never worn in your life, I Photoshopped away all your scars and freckles and erase the color of your eyes.
"That's not me," you say. "You drew this without even looking at me, or looking up a picture of me."
"Well, too bad," I say. "This is what I think you look like."
I show it to people who've never met you. They buy it gladly and comment on what a nice accessory you have.
"That's not me, and I've never worn that accessory in my entire life," you repeat. "What the fuck. Fuck you. You are a terrible person."
"Wow, I feel so attacked," I reply defensively. "I did something nice for you, I painted a picture of you!"
"THAT IS NOT A PICTURE OF ME, ANYONE WHO KNOWS ME CAN SEE THAT CLEARLY!"
You walk out. I roll my eyes. "Psht. how sensitive," I mutter to myself.
So yeah. Asking you to portray the queer community accurately isn't a huge favor. It's like, the minimum requirement for a story about the queer community. They've seen plenty of movies with negative queer coding or suffering gays who get buried. Maybe people would like a realistic, but happy story for a change.
And naturally, that requires research.
But more importantly, it also requires you to write a story that queer people feel comfortable reading.
So here are some ideas for how to do that.
1. Don't use homophobic/transphobic slurs that don't belong to you.
You're not a queer person. You're not reclaiming the words. You're just using slurs that a lot of people will feel uncomfortable with.
While preserving the history and obstacles that queer people had to overcome is important, maybe we're getting a little tired of stories where a queer person suffers and is bullied and is buried. Is that all that queer characters are there for? To evoke pity? Maybe try writing a story about a happy, healthy character that readers can root for. Try imagining a world where bullying and discrimination aren't the norm. Are you really trying to be more 'realistic', or are you just inserting words for a shock value and so the audience can sadistically watch queer characters suffer before they get a happy ending?
Therefore, when describing queer characters, make sure the words you are using are appropriate. Queer people have the right to reclaim slurs; you don't. Therefore, tread carefully. For example, when describing a trans chatacter, try to avoid using words like "tranny," "MtF," "transexual," "transgendered," and "transvestite." Some trans people may use them to describe themselves, but as a cisgender person, you do not have that right...even if your trans character is the one saying them.
2. Don't erase bisexuality and don't encourage homophobia.
Look. Discovering your sexuality can be a very complicated process. And sometimes, people have to get rid of their internalized homophobia in order to do that.
But for the love of god, don't you think we've had enough of the "bully has internalized homophobia, so he bullies openly gay kid until they realize they are IN WUV and they have sex" storyline. Especially where the bully decides to hit on and have sex with their victim, who says "no" to their advances. Isn't this called sexual harassment and rape? What does this say about same-sex relationships? Can't gay people just...get together with consent and healthily? Would you enjoy spending time with a guy who's called you homophobic slurs, physically and sexually abused you, and ruined your life for years?
Listen. People can change. But chances are, if there's a guy who keeps on calling you rude names and bullying you, you shouldn't waste your time on him. He's probably going to do the same thing for the next few years, and it is not your responsibility to prove to him that ~gay people are okay after all~ Oh, he has to bully you because he has daddy issues? Fuck you, you think YOUR dad is bad? The openly gay main character got evicted and outed by their dad, and they're not an asshole! Fuck off!
Instead of writing "gay for pay" stories that fetishize the "going gay" trope, maybe try writing stories about a bisexual character who discovers he likes guys...and still likes girls. Or maybe he realizes he is gay after all, but he still cared about his girlfriend, just not romantically.
Also. When you're writing a story about two guys or girls getting together and doing sexual stuff or whatever, don't have them keep on going "no homo." YOU JUST WILLINGLY TOUCHED EACH OTHERS' SEXUAL ORGANS, OKAY, I THINK IT'S PRETTY SAFE TO SAY THIS ISN'T THE STRAIGHTEST STUFF YOU'VE DONE. You, a female-identifying person, kissed another female-identifying person? Okay, then, maybe you're bisexual or pansexual. Don't go "I'm only attracted to this one girl, I'm still straight" or "I'm not gay! It's not gay if we do _."
If you, the author, is truly not a homophobe, you shouldn't be so uncomfortable with having your characters admit they're queer. What's so shameful about it, huh? You said love is love, right? So why are your characters yelling at each other "Okay, we can kiss, but I don't like guys!" "Okay...I'm sinning..."
Which brings me to my next point.
3. Don't aggressively defend your heterosexuality/cisgender identity.
Don't have your token straight characters go "I'm not gay! There's nothing WRONG with it, but...I'm straight, okay?" This reinforces internalized homophobia. If you're genuinely not homophobic or afraid of what other people will think, you shouldn't get so defensive about it.
Don't have your supportive cisgender characters go "I can't wear a dress! I'm...A MAN! I mean, my gay friend Noel likes pink and dresses and traditionally feminine things, but...I'M a MANLY MASCULINE MAN, I CAN'T LOSE MY MANLY MAN MAN MANHOOD!" If you're writing a story about characters who don't adhere to gender roles by wearing dresses or by kissing people of the same sex, then you shouldn't be enforcing the same narrow-minded gender roles that queer characters try to break out of.
Let's just say this. A guy who keeps on saying "I think girls should be seen and not heard, women are inferior to men, women who do _ are sluts" probably isn't a feminist. So why would a character who goes "Guys should be MANLY" be supportive of his friend coming out to him as a trans woman? Why would a mom who goes "Oh I don't have anything against the lesbian neighbors, I just don't think we should support their lifestyle, it's just wrong" be supportive of a daughter coming out to her by bringing her girlfriend home?
4. If you want your straight character to be accepting and an example for other people, then have them be accepting without exceptions.
Don't write straight characters who constantly and casually misgender their trans friends. If they do, have them apologize genuinely, being accountable and not giving stupid excuses ("It's just, I'm used to you being a boy" "Why are you so upset, are you "triggered"?") and understanding why misgendering hurts and taking it seriously.
Don't write straight characters who throw a tantrum because their friends didn't come out to them immediately. Coming out can endanger queer characters, especially if the person they came out to ends up outing them to the wrong people. Instead, let them understand why a friend might not have been able to come out earlier, promise that they will not out them to the wrong people ("It's okay, I'm not mad at you for not coming out earlier. I promise I won't out you to the wrong person. In fact, if anyone gets mad at you for not coming out to them, you tell me and I'll go kick their ass!").
Don't write straight characters who say "I'm cool with you being gay, as long as you're not gay for me" or "Well, it's just...I didn't know because you don't LOOK like a girl" or "If you're supposed to be a guy, shouldn't you have short hair?" "Of course I still love you! I mean, you already look pretty girly, so, you would make a good woman."
Acceptance means NO rejection. "I love you. It doesn't matter to me if you don't have the time to shave or the money to pay for hormonal transition. If you say you are a girl, I believe you." Do not settle for "It's okay, I still like you, you're not TOO feminine to be a boy." Good intentions or not.
Don't write straight characters who unapologetically out their friends without their permission. People's sexualities and identities are not always safe information to circulate.
Don't have your straight characters ask all sort of uncomfortably personal and dehumanizing questions like "So, which one of you is the man" or "You look like a top, am I right?" or "Did you get the surgery?" without having it established that they were given permission. "Okay, can I ask you questions about your sex life?" "No." "Alright, I will refrain. Actually that was a weird and super creepy question to ask in the first place. You're my friend, not a scientific specimen." "Thanks."
Hold your straight characters responsible for using the right pronouns, not being unnecessarily nosy, being understanding when people come out, and defending their friends. However, remember to...
5. Make queer characters the main characters.
Don't just write in a token queer character, or even worse, use queer coding to villainize the sexuality of the antagonist. Instead, maybe you should place queer characters in the central stage and give them the spotlight.
Stories like Stonewall that chronicle how queer people worked to fight prejudice are important, but maybe once in a while, you could try incorporating queer characters into fantasy and sci fi and other mainstream stories.
Additionally, if you are going to have a plot arc about fighting prejudice, don't have straight characters be the main activists. Have queer people in front and center fighting for themselves, while straight and cisgender allies support them, giving them their time to speak for themselves. If you're going to have a straight character with internalized homophobia redeem themselves, then maybe put their character development to the side so it doesn't overpower the progress that LGBT-plus people made with their own power.
Instead of "She's not a boy, she's a real woman! I'll save you from their prejudice, my friend!" plotline, maybe have your trans girl stand up for herself with her friend by her side, supportively agreeing "Yes, you are right! I'm proud of you for standing up for yourself and your rights!"
6. Don't tokenize characters.
Of course you can have your flamboyant drag queens and tough butch lesbians, but don't just write them as one-dimensional people. What else is there to know about them? Their dreams, their passions, their pet peeves, their favorite videogames? Do they belong to any other minorities? What else do they worry about, besides the fact that they are queer? What was their favorite TV show before they discovered they were attracted to men?
Additionally, include more than one of different people to show the range of personalities and identities. Instead of just one gay man as representation, maybe throw in a few. Neil, who loves theater and works as a makeup artist. John, who really likes guys with muscles and has a huge crush on Terry Crews. Silas, who works as a lawyer and fights for marriage rights. Josh, who returned from war and doesn't give a fuck anymore when it comes to homophobic relatives - he just cuts them out of his life and protects his friends too. Etc, etc.
Another way you could increase diversity, however, is if you would...
7. Include queer characters of color, disabled queer characters, and queer characters of different financial situations.
Yes, disabled queer people of color exist. And maybe they're tired of not being included. Not being able to get their wheelchair up the stairs to the feminist meeting, not able to find a bathroom because of their gender, not as easily accepted as white friends.
Maybe you can change that by giving them a place in their own stories. Not by writing about how tragic it is that they're queer and disabled and doomed to a sad sad fate, but instead by writing about how they can live fulfilling lives and deserve to be loved despite others' misconceptions about them.
Write about characters who may not have money to afford hormones, but save up for a binder and are so happy. Muslim characters who are working to increase acceptance within their community and promote love and peace. Queer characters who are not neurotypical, looking for happiness and finding ways to live with their mental disorder.
8. Learn to think outside of gender roles and the gender binary.
Think about nonbinary trans people who are bigender, polygender, agender, genderqueer, or Two Spirits.
Think about people who are attracted to nonbinary people. Tomboyish trans girls. Masculine bi girls. Butch lesbians who experiment with male pronouns. Genderfluid kids.
9. Don't use shock value. It's dehumanizing.
"And then I walked in on Carson undressing...BUT HE HAD BOOBS?!"
"And then...she kissed...ANOTHER GIRL!"
"My best friend just told me...THEY'RE BISEXUAL! WHAT WILL I DOO?"
"My dad is GAY! Oh NOES! Poor me! What will happen to ME?"
Honestly...if queerness doesn't bother you or disgust you, your character shouldn't be so damn shocked and scandalized. They may not have expected it, but they don't have to react as if they were told Martin Luther King Jr. got ran over by Roald Dahl and Jesus in a rickshaw.
10. Gender is not the same thing as sex.
I did not expect to have to say this, but...they're not the same thing?
Trans people are people whose GENDER is not the same as the SEX they were assigned at birth.
You are born with the right GENDER. Your GENDER is not always the same as your SEX. You are the one who chooses to express, identify with, and create your GENDER. It may change over time and manifest itself differently, but your GENDER is not wrong.
You do not choose your SEX, however. That is to say, what sexual organs you have and what body you were born with. Sex is NOT gender and they do not determine each other.
Trans people are born with the RIGHT gender, but GENDER IS NOT EQUAL TO SEX, so please don't mix them!
11. Don't hold your trans characters to cis standards.
Not every trans woman or trans man is cis-passing. And that doesn't mean they should be forced to identify with the sex they were assigned at birth.
Has a beard? Has a flat chest? Hasn't had surgery? If they say they are a girl, then they are a girl.
Doesn't have a binder? Still has long hair? Wears skirts sometimes? If they say they are a boy, they are a boy.
Even if a trans character hasn't undergone SEX reassignment surgery, this doesn't mean that their GENDER is not "valid" yet. Sometimes trans women are forced to act hyperfeminine just to survive - sometimes they are forced to dress according to their sex for similar reasons - do NOT perpetuate the attitude of "If you don't look like a cis woman, you're not a real woman." That does not make them feel safe.
Instead, learn to accept that transitions won't always end up with perfect cis-passing faces and bodies, and that shouldn't be a valid reason to exclude trans people.
12. Ask more than one actual queer person who has the same identity as your character and take their opinions seriously.
You shouldn't have to go beach-combing until you find some random person to approve of your story and say "Hey! My gay friend said it was okay, so I'm not going to change any of it!"
You shouldn't have to speculate about how trans people medically transition. There's plenty of information on the Internet, including information from actual trans people hoping to increase awareness. Use it. Using bandages isn't the safest way to bind, and maybe if you look up more information on it, you'll find what actually is.
Overall, the best way to test how members of the queer community will respond to your story is to actually ask them and value their opinion. And remember, just because one person said "it's okay, I think" and another said "No, I don't like how this was written" doesn't mean the second person is wrong and an outlier. Maybe talk to them and ask them about what they found problematic.
We're all going to make mistakes. I myself have written some problematic stuff about the queer community that didn't hold up and that I've had to modify and call myself out on. But what matters is if you actually care and listen to others' voices and learn how to change for the better.
So, what are you waiting for?