We have, as a nation, made great strides toward equality for the queer community, yet explicit and latent homophobia is still a problem in our society. That our media reflects both of these trends is therefore not at all surprising. Well written queer characters and thoughtful storylines exploring non-heterosexual orientations exist alongside narratives that seek to recognize the ongoing oppression of the queer community.
And yet we know that deeply troubling tendencies when writing queer characters still exist in our media. The recent firestorm surrounding the over-use of the Bury Your Gays trope during the Spring Slaughter of 2016 is a case in point. There’s no denying the real, active harm killing off queer female characters does to the community.
Yet I want to discuss a less commonly recognized, but still troubling, tendency: homophobia in worldbuilding a fictional universe.
Now, a storytelling might choose to include homophobia in their story for many different reasons. At times, homophobia functions much like sexual violence as a shorthand for Crapsack World or more particularly (and especially) to characterize religion as Evuhl™. In such situations, the suffering of non-straight characters often exists as merely set dressing or cheap drama to be voyeuristically consumed by a straight audience. It may also create a sense of self-righteousness in straight viewers who subconsciously measure their behavior against what they’re seeing and come out looking much the better for it.
That’s not to say all creators use homophobia this way. A creator may wish to actively explore our society’s harmful repressive and oppressive structures, either to shed a light on society as a whole or the audience specifically.
Such a goal is not as inherently problematic as homophobic set dressing, but it’s also not always straightforwardly positive either. You see, an honest wish to explore homophobia may coincide with an assumption that the oppression of non-straight persons is the ‘normal’ or ‘default’ setting for any and all societies. This is especially a problem in speculative fiction settings like science fiction or fantasy (if they bother including queer characters at all) because such genres exist outside of ‘our’ reality.
We often forget that when dealing with speculative fiction, utilizing homophobia in a narrative is a choice. The author or screenwriter has created an entirely different world and cultures from our own. Homophobia isn’t ‘normal’ on Mars or in Middle Earth unless the creator makes it so. However, even a creator who honestly wishes to explore homophobia sensitively in such a setting has, at some level, recreated a system of oppression where none needed to have existed. This may be done for with good intentions, for sure. But it’s worth asking, is this strictly necessary? Such a choice assumes the omnipresence of heteronomativity even when creating worlds and societies that are completely unlike our own.
Such an assumption carries with it the corollary assumption that suffering and struggle are inherent to queer experience. That queer relationships are somehow less ‘honest’ or ‘real’ if the characters do not at some point face systemic opposition for choosing to love who they love. I do not mean to downplay the suffering that women loving women (wlw) or men loving men (mlm) couples face in real life. I am specifically concerned with the assumption that this is somehow necessary in order to tell the stories of queer characters.
All too often homophobia functions as cheap drama or lazy storytelling shorthand in the lives of queer couples on TV with the rationality that ‘real couples face this in real life’. And even those who honestly seek to portray lived oppression unknowingly assume oppression as default. But does the reality of that experience require its inclusion in every queer protagonists’ story? Or even in most?
Let’s think about it in terms of other marginalized communities. Is all media with women about systemic sexism? Is all media with black characters about systemic racism and slavery? Clearly not. Racism and sexism may be addressed at one point or other within a narrative, but they’re not built into the worldbuilding every single time a person from one of these marginalized communities appears in the story. Why? Because storytellers seem to understand that women and black people are more than the sum of their oppressions.
The same ought to apply to queer characters. Systemic societal homophobia is not an inherent part of writing queer characters any more than systemic societal sexism is for female characters or systemic societal racism is for black characters. There will always be assholes, of course, so there are ways to address these issues—such as via an individual bigoted character—that do not assume an overarching system of oppression as default.
Tucker from Wynonna Earp is a great example of being able to include a scene confronting homophobia without assuming systemic oppression while at the same time calling out behavior and dialogue that exists within the system. Nicole and Waverly thus get a chance to shut down homophobic behavior without their story revolving around their experience of marginalization because of their orientation. The result: the WayHaught relationship is more than a thinly veiled cipher for the oppression of the queer community. It’s a multidimensional and honest depiction of a relationship between two women that includes but is not boiled down to confronting other people’s prejudice.
So what’s the big deal if their relationship revolves around their oppression? Isn’t it an honest story to tell since that has been the real, lived experience of many queer persons in our society? Stories matter after all. Does that not apply to stories of oppression?
Yes, telling the stories of oppressed persons matter. At the same time, our brains have what I have elsewhere referred to as longstanding ‘meaning pathways’. These are the conceptual frameworks given to us by our upbringing and reinforced by our society’s messaging that help determine how we view the world. We live in a homophobic society, so homophobia is a well-worn meaning pathway in our brains. And the assumption of its necessity in storytelling normalizes its existence in reality.
Genre fiction has the freedom of not being grounded in ‘our’ reality, which opens up avenues for exploring alternative societies and realities. A reality, for example, in which homophobia is not ‘default’. Default homophobic worldbuilding reinforces and normalizes the omnipresence of systemic homophobia. Just like only telling stories of female characters shaped by sexism or black characters shaped by racism would those oppressive systems. The more storytellers assume homophobia in settings where it doesn’t have to belong—like a new planet or a cultural system completely independent of our own—the more the idea that homophobia is ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ will seep into our consciousness.
Which isn’t to say that stories about systemic homophobia don’t have value. It is a part of many queer people’s experience just as racism and sexism are to women and people of color. But at some point, content creators need to ask themselves why they’re including systemic homophobia as the driving dramatic tension of stories about queer persons and queer relationships. If it’s because they believe it’s inherently part of their story, I’m here to say it’s not. There are other ways to tell stories about queer characters that do not normalize oppression. If it’s merely laziness or cheap drama, I’m here to say stop it. That only hurts our community more by exploiting our experience for the consumption of others.
We can acknowledge the oppression of queer persons without perpetuating that oppression or normalizing it’s experience in our stories. Because oppression is already the norm, telling that story again and again reinforces it as somehow normal and expected. Not just to queer persons, but to straight people who believe their disgust or hatred is acceptable. Telling stories that normalize lack of oppression isn’t somehow ‘less honest’. Nor does it erase the experience of marginalization, if not including it is done in order to normalize acceptance.
But what if content creators truly believe they have a unique insight into this experience or that depicting it adds something inextricably necessary to the story their telling? If this is the case, I have three questions for them: 1) what specifically does it add that other stories have not already done and possibly more effectively? 2) are there other ways within the narrative to address homophobia via an analogue or cipher that does not specifically reinforce lived oppression? 3) why do you want to tell this story of queer experience?
The latter is the most important to my mind, because there can be all sorts of reasons why an author might think this is ‘necessary’ to the story they’re telling, and not all of them are helpful or desirable. Non-queer authors and audiences may have an unconscious desire to see queer characters suffer, or believe that suffering and oppression are just ‘part of’ their story, for which I point back to the truth that this isn’t actually inherent to our experience. There are societies in which non-straight orientations were not treated the way our society treats them. Assuming homophobia as default can actually be a form of homophobia in and of itself when it carries with it the idea that queer persons are ‘born to suffer’ or ‘must suffer’.
I admit there may be a your mileage may vary component to many people. It’s a fine line between reflecting reality and reinforcing it. But I, for one, think its high time that media creators (especially those who are not queer themselves) start following the 5-year-old-in-a-corner principle and ask themselves why at every turn. Why am I putting homophobia into my worldbuilding? Why does my story have to include this element? Why do I believe this is an essential feature of queer stories? And if they can’t come up with an answer other than ‘well, this is just how it is’ or ‘there is no other way to tell a queer story’, then maybe they should take a step back.
If a content creator truly wishes to highlight what real life queer people face, I go back to question 1) what does this add? Is there some new facet of this experience being highlighted to address that hasn’t been done this way before? Not that everything has to be somehow new to justify itself. But at some point, content creators need to recognize that the reality of homophobia is pretty well apparent. Without sensitivity toward the subject matter and a deep desire to honor those who are being hurt and give them a voice, copying and pasting a system of oppression from our society into space or an alternate universe begins to feel like we can’t win anywhere after a while.
This is especially true for non-queer creators, as this isn’t their story to tell in the first place. Including homophobia as a means of relating personal experience is different. Those of us within the community have every right to tell our own stories of experiencing oppression, and I will continue to advocate for our right to tackle oppression in our own voices and in our own stories.
At the same time, I’m growing more and more convinced that it will be more beneficial to queer communities if content creators began shifting toward depicting alternate realities to default homophobia in mainstream media. We’ve spent a good deal of the last few decades making our voices heard about what we experience to broader society. While there’s always room for reminding people that homophobia is still real and painful, just as there is room for reminding people that sexism and racism are still very much lived realities, there’s even more room for undermining the idea that systemic homophobia is both ‘normal’ and endemic to queer experience.
If we want society to change, we have to normalize equality and lack of oppression. Let’s show society that homophobia is neither necessary nor inherent to our experience. It is possible to be queer and have people accept you. I’ll say it again, it is possible to be queer and have people accept you and your relationships without fear, prejudice, or bigotry. Continuing to tell the same story of rejection and fear over and over again without counterpoint reinforces that reaction in those who already believe that their reactions are ‘normal’.
Why not tell stories where homophobes are the fringe bigots and assholes so that people will start treating them that way in real life? Rather than reinforce and normalize a system of oppression and fear, let’s reinforce the notion that love is love and accepting people for who they love is just what makes a decent human being instead of it being some extraordinary act that borders on sainthood.
The more stories include homophobia in their setting alongside introducing or exploring queer characters, the more it reinforces the idea that homophobia is a ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ reaction. That isn’t to say systemic homophobia doesn’t exist in our society and can’t be explored in stories. But when our society is already rife with it, we see enough examples every day. Wouldn’t the more powerful choice be to envision a world where being queer and people accepting it without any fuss is normal?
Now, I don’t want to downplay the stories of oppression of queer persons who have not been acknowledged by wider society. The suffering of transgendered and aromantic/asexual persons as well as non-binary, gender-queer, and other gender non-conforming individuals have been sidelined or silenced in most media, if its even acknowledged. It is very much worth highlighting how they have suffered oppression like the more visible members of our community.
At the same time, I do believe a strong push toward normalizing acceptance will benefit those whose oppression has not always been acknowledged as well. Content creators can acknowledge their suffering without making it inherent to their identity the way systemic homophobia has been used as default for gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters. Basically, I’m in favor of normalizing non-oppressive experiences instead of making oppression central and essential to telling the story of any queer person no matter what their identity.
Art imitates life can only take us so far. We need to start creating art that shapes life and the future. If we want society to change, we must show them that homophobia isn’t ‘natural’. It’s a product of specific social fears not some ingrained response that ‘anyone’ would have to meeting someone who isn’t straight. Narratives of systemic homophobia, especially those in sci-fi or fantasy settings, actually reinforce heteronormativity by proclaiming it to be the ‘default’ setting even for queer persons that exist outside of our world, society, or universe. Normalizing homophobia, in turn, undermines the momentum to change; it implies people in general and our society in particular can’t be any different than they are.
But they can.
Let’s make homophobia the fringe assholes not the default worldbuilding setting in our stories, and maybe we can make our world that way as well.