[Worldcon] LGBTQ in SF&F

Friday (August 31) at 1930: LGBTQ in SF&F
Panelists listed in program: Mary Anne Mohanraj, Thomas Olde Heuvelt, Kevin Riggle, Catherine Lundoff, Barbara G. Tarn

Disclaimer: These are my notes from the panel and my own, later thoughts. I often was unable to attend the entire panel, and also chronically missed panelist introductions. When possible I try to note who said something, but often was unable to. Also, unless something is in double quotes it should be considered a summary and not a direct quotation. 

Lundoff: While there are definitely more LGBTQ characters, there are fewer large publishing houses putting out books by LGBTQ authors.

Riggle: Is it a change in identification? Let’s talk about bisexual erasure later.

Mohanraj: Lesbian is claimed as a political identity by bisexual women. Which may be less in play now than it was in the mid-90s. So maybe the demographic hasn’t changed, just the labors.

Heuvelt: Netherlands was the first country to legalize gay marriage and no one cares what you hard. He’s “heard that might be different overseas.” Yet oddly in Holland the representations in fiction seem more conservative, fewer LGBTQI characters than you see in English literature. It was a symbol in his fiction for being “other.”

Mohanraj: had her agent basically tell her that gay is okay as a coming out story if that’s the point of the story, but otherwise it risks alienating a large chunk of potential audience if it’s not for the main point. Thinks it’s present throughout publishing, but is much worse in YA.

Where have you seen awesome queer representations in sf/f and where do they fall short?

Mohanraj: Talks about Captain Jack, notes nowadays in Doctor Who/Torchwood it’s all cute flirty girl on girl action. Two formative people: Mercedes Lackey (Magic’s Price series) – don’t know how she managed to get that published when she did. And Samuel R Delaney. Ellen Kushner’s Sword’s Point, Lynn Flewellyn’s series.

Riggle: It’s easy to find incidental characters who are LGBTQ but not main characters. Recommends Elizabeth Bear.

Lundoff: Small presses that specialize in queer sf/f: Lethe, Blind Eye, Circlet (erotica, but branching out). In larger presses, Galactic Spectrum Awards look at award list; shows nominees, finalists, and winners. Tiptree Awards given for sf/f that expands gender roles/representations. Authors: Jay Lake, JA Pitts, Melissa Scott (now republished), Jo(e?) Graham, Jeff Ryman, Hal Duncan, Lee Thomas (horror)

Heuvelt: Are gay characters there for a reason, or are they “accidentally” gay? Is there something about sf/f that makes the queer characters more attractive to write about? For him it was more purposeful because it was a symbol.

Mohanraj: I don’t like it way gay is used as a symbol. Should straight be used as a symbol? Gay is just my life, so I would never use it as a symbol.

Riggle: Fiction parallels reality. So queer people exist in real life and should in fiction too.

Mohanraj: Parallels to the awful racial literary past of white as a symbol of freedom. (Asian lady escapes arranged marriage and marries white guy instead.)

Riggle: Nightrunner and Swordspoint are an interesting counterpoint. Swordspoint, the main character being queer is no problem, just who his lover is. In Nightrunner he feels like it didn’t matter enough either way for him to enjoy the story. It was so backgrounded that it didn’t matter enough to the story. (clarified: the relationship didn’t matter enough, not the queerness.)

Audience: Are LGBTQ authors taken seriously, or are they in the sort of “ghetto” that scifi/f authors were generally in within the 50s, where they weren’t taken seriously.

Mohanraj: They are taken seriously, but like women and POC authors you still have to struggle to get out of the ghetto to BE taken seriously. Once you are there though you are serious. Example from south asian literature. Women’s books there’s always a red sari, with a female body posed, and just parts of the body, very static, with flowers or fruit. When a woman writer managed to win an award, her covers start looking like those on books written like men – full bodies, blue serious covers, a sense of motion. Assumption that women writers are writing for a certain small audience and then in order to be considered by the wider “pot” you have to struggle. Salman Rushdie has had this struggle; people still try to stick him in the ghetto, is referred to as a Commonwealth writer rather than British writer. Patterns are still holding across the board. If you are a LGBTQ author people assume you should kind of have to write about LGBTQ characters and you get pushed that way by the establishment.

Heuvelt: Doesn’t recognize these problems from a Dutch perspective. No one cares that he’s gay/has a boyfriend.

Riggle: Why do you think the popular authors are from decades ago and not now?

Lundoff: There was a social movement to support it, like with the well-known feminist authors of the past. Comprehensive social movement making a lot of noise, gives you access to a wider audience. We don’t have a movement in the same way; less urgency. Most novels with LGBTQ characters right now are romances. Not a whole lot of sf/f. Small presses/bookstores in the past proved to the big publishers that there was a market. But now there’s been a shift where the support has gone toward romance rather than sf/f. Delaney is still in print for example, but with small presses and university presses. The authors are still around but they’re producing in different publishing structures than where they would have been 20 years ago.

Former editor from Strange Horizons: They have been getting more and more LGBTQ characters to the point they don’t notice any more. 10 years ago he wrote an editorial asking for more stories like that, and got complaints that LGBTQ character would overwhelm the story and make it ABOUT that. Not the case.

Mohanraj: As a teacher her students are very hesitant about branching out. Even if they are a POC/LGBTQ/woman their default stories tend to be about straight white men. If they had no hesitation what would the market look like?

Audience member notes military sf author who wrote a good story and included a gay character (?) and got shut down by his audience. This happened very recently

Mohanraj: Notes that John Scalzi is v. liberal. And people read his military SF and assume he will be conservative, then find out his real views and get very offended and throw a lot of pushback his way.

Audience: Gay filmmaker; one motivation of his and contemporaries to push back against the terrible representations of gay life by straight people. Has been shocked by the number of straight people writing gay characters; it’s not them representing their personal experiences.

Tarn: They are people who have emotions and are in love; the gender of the other person is not important. It’s love. She has done research. Not a big fan of write what you know because she’s a fiction author and is bound to make things up.

Mohanraj: Difference between really problematic writing – straight men writing “lesbian” porn – and those trying to be respectful and checking. Real concern about LGBTQ authors being crowded out. Falls on the side of write about whatever you want, just be ready to take the flack if you mess it up.
Carl Brandon Society. We didn’t just want to do exploration of race/ethnicity, but wanted to encourage POC authors. That is not the same thing.

Riggle: There needs to be an openness to the lived experiences of queer people, because if you are straight and writing about LGBTQ people, your audience is likely to be queer.

Mohanraj: Question of responsibility. If you are going to borrow material that is not your own life, you need to be ten times as respectful.

Heuvelt: Isn’t this inherent in sf/f?

Audience: Historically sf/f has been about people who don’t fit. Talking about a Martian versus talking about someone from the gay community is still going to strike the same misfit chord.

Heuvelt: I’m a mountain climbing and all mountain climbing movies suck. But the audience doesn’t know that. How is that all that different? If it’s not a perfect representation does it hurt?

Mohanraj: There are systems of oppression that don’t include mountain climbers though.

Audience: Oppressed communities complain we are erased, but now we’re simultaneously complaining that we’re represented because it’s not perfect. I would rather we get shown more as long as it’s not really horrible! The point is about exploring. To hell with write what you know, it precludes exploring.

Audience: All fiction writers are liars. We need to be able to write what we don’t know.

Mohanraj: Writing the Other – find this book, good exercises for writing people who aren’t like us in an intelligent way.

Riggle: Writing the other versus writing FOR the other. Straight depictions are unsatisfying because they are written for a straight audience.

Bisexual erasure book rec: Shauna Macguire starting with Rosemary and Rue

Riggle: Slash doesn’t work for him because it’s written for straight women. Hasn’t yet encountered any slash he found compelling.

Audience: Most of the women I know who write slash are queer. Same thing as saying there’s no good science fiction.There are some queer guys that write slash. The best stuff doesn’t feel like it’s appropriating gay culture.

Audience: (woman) There’s a huge following for this slash fix for Sherlock that was written by an actual gay guy. Google either abundantly queer or absolutely queer to find it.

Mohanraj: Read slash as a teenage and didn’t see it as erotic, more liked it because it was about letting men be emotional.


This panel was very interesting, but to be honest I also felt like it was kind of a mess that never quite gelled and couldn’t quite stay on task. I also tend not to be a fan of panels where the audience jumps in to participate beyond questions, unless the member of the audience is someone that can be pointed to as an expert. I think with the panel already wandering a bit, the audience jumping in just made everything more scattered.

Also, please note that my use of “queer” within the notes is as it was used in the panel. Toward the beginning Mohanraj established that was her preferred term and no one had any objections.

I found the question about characters being “purposefully” versus “accidentally” gay an interesting one. I’ve written characters that have organically decided their sexualities on their own, and others where the choice was purposeful because of how it fit into the plot. I don’t think choosing that factor in character necessarily transforms it into a symbol. There are experiences (particularly in modern or historical fiction) that an LGBTQ character is simply going to have that a straight character won’t, and that might be integral to the story you’re trying to tell.

I also found the point about “writing the other” versus “writing for the other” very interesting. Of the stories I’ve had published, none of them have really been about “the other,” come to think of it. While I’ve written stories with male main characters, all my published ones have had female protagonists, some of whom are straight, some bisexual, and one lesbian. (All of which are identities that I, as a bisexual woman can identify with a fair amount of ease.)

I kind of wonder if this is a sign that I need to work more on bettering my male characters… (Though the majority of my stories have had female protagonists, and I don’t really feel that bad about it because male protagonists are in no danger of becoming extinct as a species.) Next challenge to set myself as a writer, maybe, once I finally nail down this short story thing to my satisfaction. (HAH.)

Also, I would like to note, in a stroke of delicious irony, after mentioning bisexual erasure (and then me asking about it, selfish little bi-girl that I am) the panel adjourned without ever getting around to talking about it.


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