Why It Matters

Well, hello there, I’ve been invited to add my drabbles to Ars Marginal. I will try not to break their most excellent space, but I make no promises, with me and technology and all.

So before I start rambling about all and sundry I’m going to indulge in a little preaching to the choir, if I may, and answer a question people have asked me over and over before they ask me again (not that they won’t ask, but I live in hope).

Why do I do this?

And why do I care?

In a world where people lose jobs, homes, families and even their lives due to anti-GBLTQ prejudice, why oh why oh why does Sparky care about books of all things? And why is he so gleeful about being invited to add to a site that is dedicated to analysing the various fuckeries arts and entertainment pulls?

Well, here’s the thing.

I’m a gay man. I’m also currently sat in what I call my study. I like that word, it makes it sound serious and studious where Important Work Happens rather than the big room where I keep my books and junk.

Because of the wall to wall shelving, I am surrounded by most of my immense book collection. I’m not going to count them (gods preserve me from ever being that bored!) but I would guesstimate on there being… oooh… 400 books? Maybe, discounting the actual worky type ones (also discounting my White Wolf books for that matter). Yes, I love being in my paper fortress (or deathly fire trap as my husband likes to call it).

By my right hand is my Kindle which I am now utterly incapable of living without (and it is never more than a foot from my body – ever – or I wither and die from lack of books. Yes yes I do). I don’t have to count the books on there, it does it for me and tells me it has 655 books in its memory.

So, that’s over 1,000 books, works of fiction all (rather cheesy fiction at that, I must admit). Wow, maybe they’re right, maybe I do read too much. Still, I sit here and wonder, of those 1,000 books, how many of the protagonists in these stories are gay men like me? In all this fantasy and sci-fi and superheroes and urban fantasy and murder mysteries – how many gay male protagonists are there?

And totting up in my head I think I come to less than 60. And that requires a rather generous definition of “protagonist” in some cases.

Ok, how many of them contain any gay men at all? Hmmm maybe 200. Maybe. And, again, this is probably counting victims, bit parts and slight references rather highly. Both of these numbers are highly generous.

And are all of them decent portrayals? Well, some of them are written by Ann “you can become gay by being anally raped by a tent peg” McCaffrey so no, most definitely not. In fact, I have to say that most of the books with gay men in them are the least read – because they’re so utterly and irredeemably dire.

There’s something wrong with this picture, methinks. This isn’t just some random collection of books. This is the collection of books belonging to a gay man who is an avid and voracious reader and who talks (somewhat interminably) repeatedly about GBLTQ rights and the importance of representation in all forms of media.

Yet there’s almost no gay protagonists in my library?

Yet there’s almost no gay portrayals at all in my library?

Yet of those portrayals I do have, I avoid reading because they’re so flawed?

That is not just wrong, but it’s also frightening. I expect to be treated as fully human by a society that’s more eager to write fascinating stories about aliens than it is to write about people like me? I expect to be treated as fully human by a society that can commonly write in-depth, nuanced and fully fleshed characterisations of vampires, werewolves, orcs and elves but can’t write me except as a gross caricature? I expect to be treated as fully human by a society that can envisage a world with demons and angels, faeries and spirits, aliens and interstellar spacecraft, time machines and light-sabers, magic and mayhem – but cannot imagine that same world with GBLTQ people in it?

Because, y’know what? I don’t think any of that stuff at the top of the post – the end of bullying and violence and discrimination and all the other fucktons of shit – is going to happen in a world that is happier to accept a sparkly vampire than a non-sparkling gay man. Society both shapes and is shaped by it’s popular culture – our prejudice creates these gods-awful portrayals (or erasures) and said prejudice is then encouraged, reinforced, justified and perpetuated by these portrayals (and erasures). Or, to put it another way – so long as our culture is so fucked up that most gay portrayals will send me screaming than bring me running, then the various fuckeries in our society are unlikely to be diminished.

I’d also kind of like to read a book that has me in it that doesn’t make me want to break my kindle. I want my cheesy escapism without sporks please – extra me, hold the sporks. Thanks.

18 thoughts on “Why It Matters

  1. You know the scary thing, thinking about it the only sf/f books that feature bi/gay men I can think of–by bi/gay men–are… all from the same author! (Geoff Ryman, if you haven’t read him.) Whups. SF/F books about lesbians by bi/gay women? Not many more–just a handful. Ridiculous.

    (Welcome aboard!)

    • I was actually sat for an age trying to dredge up characters in my own collection – and I’ll be frank, I’ve been VERY generous with my definitions here. Oh-so-very generous

      Thank you :)

    • Of those I’ve read and can remember, and not including short-stories, I have a tiny, tiny list of books with fantasy/SF elements, written by gay/bisexual men, with gay/bisexual protagonists. Clive Barker, Gregory Maguire, Ricardo Pinto, Douglas Clegg, Perry Moore, Barry McCrea, Steve Berman, Toby Johnson, Samuel Delany, N. A. Diaman, Jim Grimsley, Dean James and Mark Merlis.

      As for SF/F books about lesbians/bisexual women, by bi/gay women, I’ve got Elizabeth Lynn, Tanya Huff, Ellen Kushner, Joanna Russ, and Marion Zimmer Bradley (allegedly). I could add in Fiona Patton, since she has lots of bisexual women as secondary characters, but I can’t remember if she has any as protagonists.

      That’s just what I’ve read though, and can remember. My memory’s not working great today. I know there’s a whole lot of other authors out there.

      I haven’t read Geoff Ryman. How is he?

      • Ryman is very fine, though I thought Lust was very strange–but otherwise, yes, oh so fine. He’s excellent, heartbreakingly good and one of the vanishingly few western writers who are able to write about Southeast Asia with great sensitivity, love and respect.

        Oh! I didn’t realize Barker and Maguire were not straight. I’m reading Joanna Russ and quite liking her. Not much fondness for Kushner and Huff though, and haven’t read any of Bradley’s stuff that features a bi/gay woman. I guess there’s Elizabeth Bear, but I hate most of her books, and Catherynne M. Valente, whom I really like.

        • I’ll look into reading Ryman then.

          Clive Barker does write mostly straight protagonists, but he’s not straight. I picked up Sacrament, on account of it having a gay protagonist and some magic stuff going on. I liked it enough to finish it but not enough to buy anything else of his.

          I wouldn’t recommend Gregory Maguire. I’m just halfway through Wicked and I’m not enjoying all the rape. I’m having mixed feelings about the book, there’s little sparks of bits that are interesting and a whole lot of bad. And while there’s a lot of subtext for the same-sex relationships, they’re not mentioned in the same depth that the heterosexual ones. I’m told Son of the Witch does at least right the last bit but I can’t see myself reading it.

          I have The Female Man lying around somewhere. I’ve never managed to get through it though. I might give it another shot since it’s short enough.

          I find Tanya Huff hit or miss. When she’s good I really enjoy her writing and when she’s bad she’s really downright awful. The Quartered Sea is atrocious. I do like her Smoke series and her short stories with Terizan.

          Of the three Ellen Kushner books I’ve read, The Privilege of the Sword is the best of the three. It still had problems but Katherine’s a far better protagonist than any of the men.

          Marion ZImmer Bradley has Lythande. Lythande’s bisexual, from what I remember. I did like the Lythande short stories in my teens, since the first short-story was unusual in not assigning a gender to Lythande. I’m sure if I went back and reread them I would have problems. I think I read she had some lesbian amazons or something in one of her other books. I can’t remember rightly and I’ve no intention of reading them. The only one of her longer books I’ve read was The Firebrand and it was one of the first books I never finished. MZB seemed to really, really, really hate men.

          The one and a half Elizabeth Bear books I’ve read, the only lesbians I recall were villains. That was Carnival, the one with the planet ruled by women and the gay men come from outerspace to save them! Actually I can’t remember the plot. I just remember the female protagonist wanting her son to be gay but one of the male protagonists can tell he’s not by the power of his gaydar. And gay men aren’t as violent and don’t fight unless they’re from space or some crap. Bisexuals probably don’t exist. It wasn’t as bad as A Companion to Wolves, but any book would be hard-pressed to be as bad as A Companion to Wolves.

          Where would you suggest starting with Catherynne M. Valente? I’ve been thinking of trying her.

          • I read one Maguire book, Mirror, Mirror and didn’t find much to like.

            I just remember the female protagonist wanting her son to be gay but one of the male protagonists can tell he’s not by the power of his gaydar. And gay men aren’t as violent and don’t fight unless they’re from space or some crap.

            ಠ_ಠ

            I’ve read Bear’s somethingsomething age stuff. It features bisexual Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. The latter was tortured and raped. It’s very much of the “pretty gay boys get raped a lot teehee” school. For Valente I’d suggest starting with her Orphan’s Tales books, which are very good (and feature a few bi/gay female characters). In Palimpsest pretty much everyone is bi, but… they seem to be bi out of the need to find this magic city (whose map can be pieced together by having sex with other map-pieces), so yeah.

  2. First and foremost: WELCOME ABOARD SPARKY!!!!! We’re so happy to have you.

    You mentioned your library of gay protagonists (few as they are).

    Recommendations would be most appreciated.

    • Thank you :)

      And I second the desire for recommednations. Because of those books I have? I wouldn’t recommend them. How’s that for a depressing addendum to the whole thing. Either the portrayal is poor or the story is

  3. I wonder how many of those books have lesbian characters and how they’re portrayed.

    • Precious few and not very well, in a nutshell. Most of them are either lesbian sharks (as in, they have to mention they’re a lesbian every other word or they will drown)or sexuall aggressive to women who aren’t interested or their lesbianism exists to show they are bigger/stronger/tougher than straight women. Or it’s played for laughs for side characters as to why Big Hot Straight guy can’t get any from them

  4. I’d still like to see this list of 60 books of yours. I’m curious if it’s the same ones I’ve read. Some of them are really rather bad. My list’s at about 150, but it’s severely padded by short story collections, and there’s some absolutely awful books on it.

    I have Anne McCaffrey. :( But hell, back in my teens, when she was the first author I ever read to have even a glimmer of gay characters, it seemed like at least it was an improvement in every other book where there was no one but the straights. Deeply flawed, hugely problematic, Anne McCaffrey, and at the time I figured it was better than nothing. I’m halfway through something on Anne McCaffrey if I ever get my brain glued back together and what my research has been pulling up is worse than I remember.

    It’s weird, I don’t reread my GLBT books. I buy them. Sometimes I finish them, then they sit on the shelves and that’s that. If I’m rereading I’ll dig out something else.

    I’m really hesitant to reccomend anything. It’s far easier to write about books that are awful than those which are great, or even good with some problematic elements but they still meant something. It’s much easier to suggest short story collections, there’s usually at least something decent in them.

    Welcome to Ars Marginal.

    • This list of 60 books includes Mercedes Lacky and Ann McCathry (and yeah that’s severely stretching “protagonist” i know). It also includes, several M/m books people pushed at me with a great deal of recommending before I declared I wanted to kill them with fire. It also includes Kim Harrison’s Hollows series that is a) awesome and b) again… sorta stretching the definition of protagonist (aka, it’s a lie! A dirty rotten lie.) It also includes Tanya Huff’s Blood series – that has a bisexual male ALMOST protagonist who has Twu Luv with women and undying contempt for his male partners. It even includes Ann Rice which is a) a stretch and B) a whole lot of fetishisation. And Laurell K Hamilton – again, stretch to say protagonist and the fetishism abounds.

      I think patricia Briggs actually has a decent gay couple in her books, but they take up maybe, oooh, 5% of the entire series? if that.

      Honestly, I may recommend some of these as good book (Tanya Huff and Kim Harrison I luuuuurve) but never for their portrayals

      Ann Mc was the first first first book with a gay male character in it I ever read. And daaaaamn is that depressing or what?

      And thank you

  5. This list of 60 books includes Mercedes Lacky and Ann McCathry (and yeah that’s severely stretching “protagonist” i know). It also includes, several M/m books people pushed at me with a great deal of recommending before I declared I wanted to kill them with fire. It also includes Kim Harrison’s Hollows series that is a) awesome and b) again… sorta stretching the definition of protagonist (aka, it’s a lie! A dirty rotten lie.) It also includes Tanya Huff’s Blood series – that has a bisexual male ALMOST protagonist who has Twu Luv with women and undying contempt for his male partners. It even includes Ann Rice which is a) a stretch and B) a whole lot of fetishisation. And Laurell K Hamilton – again, stretch to say protagonist and the fetishism abounds.

    I think patricia Briggs actually has a decent gay couple in her books, but they take up maybe, oooh, 5% of the entire series? if that.

    Honestly, I may recommend some of these as good book (Tanya Huff and Kim Harrison I luuuuurve) but never for their portrayals

    Ann Mc was the first first first book with a gay male character in it I ever read. And daaaaamn is that depressing or what?

    And thank you

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