Straightwashing over GBLT characters

Well, there are certain genres of media that automatically assume that GBLT people couldn’t possibly have existed, especially if it’s set in the future (especially in dystopians. I tell you guys, us GBLT folks are super freaking tasty – the zombies and aliens go right for us!) and especially if it’s set in the past. Because we all arrived in 1960, don’tchaknow.

This erasure annoys me, it truly does. But do you know what annoys me even more?

When they remove already existing gay characters to sanitise a work for television. To have those few tiny crumbs we’ve actually managed to achieve removed lest it hurt the delicate fee-fees of the poor straight world.

So when Tanya Huff’s Blood Ties series of books became a TV show, bisexual Henry became straight and gay man Tony was replaced by a straight woman. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t a big fan for the portrayal in the books – but that doesn’t excuse cutting them out entirely.

Or did you know that in the Walking Dead comics, there were actually gay characters in the prison? Again, I actually hated how they were portrayed because they were a mess of homophobic tropes – but they were there. TV show? 3 series now and not one damn GBLT character.

Even Troy crosses the line with a very straight retelling of the Illiad.

To rub some more salt in the wound, we get an extra straight washing when it comes to historical portrayals

Some are “subtle”, like Enigma which is pretty-damn-obviously-based on Alan Turing, only without all that icky gay.

Or Shakespeare in Love with a very straight Shakespeare. Yes, he was one of ours, deal with it – no it’s not controversial, he wrote love sonnets to men for crying out loud.

Now we’re getting Da Vinci’s Demons, that would be Leonardo Da Vinci, he was repeatedly accused of sodomy, never married, was never connected to a female lover, but repeatedly with men, drew erotic pictures of them and left his most valuable painting in his will to one of his live-in “apprentices” Da Vinci. It’s an act of wilful ignorance to not realise Da Vinci played for our team. In fact, if you don’t want to include us icky gay people then you probably need to stay away from Renaissance painters – especially Florentine Renaissance painters! But Da Vinci’s Demons? Well his love interest has been cast (a woman) and the trailer shows lots of naked sexy times between them. But, fear not, the writer has assured us that there may, sorta, kinda be some male flirting. FLIRTING!

I’m not nearly drunk enough for this.

Then let’s throw in some historical settings. Ancient Greece? Straightest of straightopias that ever declared the overwhelming joy of vaginas and penises being united! Really. Or so 300 tells me and Troy and so many more – I’ve actually read over 5 series using the Ancient Greek gods that are entirely straight. One actually has a homophobic Apollo. Apollo, homophobic. It makes me want to beat someone round the head and shoulders with a mythology text.

It’s not like these examples are one offs, straightening history has been a major habit of the media’s for a very long time. In fact, straightening us in general seems to be a massive requirement and reason #866 why I don’t watch these dancing reality shows is I’m sick of seeing gay celebrities shoved automatically into opposite sex pairs for dancing.

For that matter, straightening history has been a major part of society and academia for a long time. References to GBLT people throughout history have long been buried by academia and that’s on top of the forces of homophobia and transphobia that forced our predecessors to hide and closet themselves when they were alive.

Our past is often hidden from us. Those who come before have been removed from history or been forced into a closet that has lasted decades or centuries after death – perhaps even forever. Our heroes, our past, our foreparents have been lost, taken from us, and that is a terrible loss. It becomes hard to almost impossible to find those who came before us as not only has the closet forced individuals to hide their sexuality, but for much of history denied the existence of the identity itself and denied us a coherent language with which to define that identity and personhood (which is why I really really have no patience with anyone saying “but they wouldn’t have called themselves gay” excuse people love to trot out. For so much of history the only mainstream words for people like us were insults or euphemisms).

And once we’ve found those of us who were rendered invisible it becomes extra impossible to reclaim them from under the tide of heterosexism, cissexism, homophobia and transphobia. So much of the world resists any indication that GBLT people existed in the past (or exists today for that matter). Society also continues to consider being GBLT to be some kind of terrible, shameful thing meaning any attempt to try and find our forbearers is regarded as an attack or attempt to corrupt previous figures. Just look at the Greek lawyers threatening lawsuits on anyone who dared to suggest that Alexander the Great may have loved men.

Most tellingly, they will often say “this person is dead, they can’t defend themselves” because, y’know, being GBLT is an accusation you need to defend yourself against. Or it’s considered “demeaning” because whatever the figure did is suddenly rendered moot by us spilling the icky gay on them! Whatever achievements or brilliant reputation they managed to maintain can only possibly be preserved if they are straight.

It’s hard enough to try and dig up historical GBLT people in the first place with our prejudiced society, harder still to hold them out of the closet and present them as they were with the constant forces deciding to bury us or hold that we’re too obscene and need to be hidden from, well, everyone.

I am British. I went to a British school. I went to a British school during section 28. I didn’t know who Alan Turing was, imagine that for a second. Never mind Shakespeare, Marlowe and Da Vinci, I thought Oscar Wilde was straight. I was taught Oscar Wilde was straight. I didn’t know GBLT people were holocaust victims. There has been a movement for GBLT equality in the UK since even before the Mollies of the Victorian period. I still don’t know enough about it, I can’t find enough about it or the brave heroes involved, I certainly was never taught their names. I never knew Polari existed. I never heard of Edward Carpenter, John Symonds, Labi Siffre, Magnus Hirschfeld, Mother Clap, Roberta Cowell, Jeremy Bentham, the Lily Pond and so many others whose names and places are lost to history.

So this is my context. Our history is not only lost but actively removed and vehemently silenced. And then I turn on the television and find not only erasure, not only straightwashed characters who dared to be gay in books but was a step too far on the screen, but actual historical figures, one of the precious few we’ve managed to reclaim, being straightened for public consumption.

Advertisements

When is Erasure Acceptable?

Whenever we criticise portrayal – or, more often, erasure in some media or other, there is always a backlash. Always some excuse why the depiction was totally ok or why the erasure is completely and utterly justified. Always. We could be arguing against a portrayal of an all white Tokyo or an all-straight San Francisco and there’d STILL be someone rushing forwards to defend the erasure. So I’m going to shoot down one of the defences – not that it’ll stop them but at least I can copy and paste a link rather than typing out the smack down all the time. Hey, I’m getting repetitive strain injury from this, I need some time saving methods!

So let’s hit a biggie: Is it Ever Appropriate to have a Completely Erased Programme/Book/Game?

This comes in many forms: my book is set in the outer Hebrides and no minorities live there (because we have better sense)/I’m writing my lived experience and I have no X friends/I don’t want to tokenise etc etc etc. So let’s tackle this and wrestle it to the ground and start with the core problem.

You do not write in a vacuum.

Maybe you had the bestest of best reasons why your cast is so white in bright lights we get snow blind and straighter than a damn laser, no, really, maybe you really really do have a good reason. But whatever that reason is is lost among a sea of media that is erased simply because of good ol’ prejudice. There is nothing differentiating your oh-so-reasonable erasure with the constant prejudiced erasure we have to endure every time we pick up a book, open a magazine, turn on the television or see a billboard.

And even if your honestly-totally-not-prejudiced erasure is still meant with the bestest of best intentions doesn’t mean that yet ANOTHER erased portrayal isn’t harmful – it still adds to the weave of erasure, it adds to the unrelenting message that our stories aren’t worth telling and the overwhelming feeling that we don’t belong, aren’t a part of this world and are the dreaded Other, to be hidden and avoided? Your magical intentions don’t change that your work is part of the unrelenting erasure out there – and yes, that sucks. Yes it sucks that you can’t create your appropriately erased and well intentioned piece of media without it slapping all us marginalised folk in the face, again.

Guess what? It doesn’t suck nearly as much as being those marginalised folk being slapped. You’ll survive and you’ll forgive us if we’re not exactly lining up to help dry your tears.

So let’s look at that location excuse. Yes you’ve tracked down demographic statistics and managed to find Whitesville in Straighttopia, go you.  And that’s exactly what many of us oh-so-cynical marginalised folks believe you’ve done – hey, kudos for effort, most the erasers just take an all White, straight New York or Atlanta or London or Paris or Toronto or Vegas or LA or some other massive, diverse city and erase it, so at least you’ve gone to some effort in your erasure.

What? You’d never ever do such a thing? We don’t know that. We don’t know that you didn’t choose Arse-End-of-Nowhere Maine rather than Arse-End-of-Nowhere Missisi… Missiiisi… Louisiana because you thought you’d get away with your all erased cast. Why should we give you the benefit of the doubt – rule number… well some number, when interacting with marginalised people – we have zero reason to assume good things about you. We have every reason to expect the worst and regard you with our mean cynical eye.

Besides which, we’re there. Yes, in Arse-End-Of-Nowhere Maine, in the Outer Hebrides, we’re everywhere – there isn’t actually a guaranteed minority free zone anywhere on this planet. Unless you want to cast your fun, zany story in Antarctica or the bottom of the sea.

But, in the end, whenever you produce media that is all erased (or includes only tokens) you harm us, you demean us, you add to the culture of prejudice that rejects us – and yes, you’re going to get us saying mean mean mean things about you, Precious. And I don’t think there’s any way your erased media is going to avoid that.

So what’s the solution? How can you produce your “realistic” erasure without us being such big meanies? Cultural and societal shift. Sorry, that’s about it. If you want your erased work not to be a slap to marginalised people, if you don’t want your precious magic intentions questioned and if you don’t want to harm us – then we need to change the culture. Because erasure (and tokenism – which is mini-erasure and erasure by another name) will only be non-harmful when it is no longer the norm. When we can turn to your media type and assure that we will be consistently well represented then your all white/straight/whatever piece will be free from this damaging context and be free to be as erased as your little privileged dreams wish. Because it won’t matter – because it won’t be part of a grand context of excluding us.

Until that happens? Well until then, when you produce your super-erased media we will criticise it and your excuses won’t cut it. Deal with it – because we have to.

Holes in the Map

Recently, the ever-enlightening Sociological Images has had a couple great posts on the erasure of Native Americans from both history and cartography. Now, I’m a map geek, and when people start talking about the social effects of cartography I tend to sit up and pay attention. And it turns out that Google Maps and Google Earth do not display Indian reservations—despite the fact that these locations are at least as socially, geographically, and legally significant as, say, national parks and forests, which are depicted as happy green pixels.

For instance, here is a Google Maps view of northeastern Washington State.

And if you scroll down to the second map, here is that same territory mapped (blurrily, sorry) on the home page for the Colville Indian Reservation. The difference is dramatic—a whole sovereign nation has been made to disappear.

This has happened before.

In 1831 a case was brought to the Supreme Court: Cherokee Nation vs. the State of Georgia. (Link goes to the Wikipedia article, because it’s pretty accurate in this case.) The state had passed laws intended to remove the Cherokee from the lands granted to them in federal treaty; the Cherokee objected to this and sought an injunction on the justification that they were by law a sovereign nation. They had a Constitution modeled explicitly on the American model—and they had a map of their land within the state of Georgia’s borders.

It didn’t help: the Supreme Court declined the case on the basis that the Cherokee were a “denominated domestic dependent nation.” (The alliteration just makes that all the more patronizing, if you ask me.) Judge John Marshall’s ruling stated: “Indian territory is admitted to compose a part of the United States. In all our maps, geographical treatises, histories, and laws, it is so considered.” (Emphrasis mine.) The Cherokee attempt at placing themselves on the “official” maps of the young United States had failed.

And despite the advance and ubiquity of digital maps, we’re still failing at this today.