I am a queer writer, which means two things: 1. I look for queer representation in everything I read, and 2. If it’s not on the page, you better believe I can argue that anything is gay.
Perception is reality, and I cannot tell you how many times in my adult life I have had to argue the possibilities of queer themes simply because it’s not blatantly stated on the page. Psychological and emotional tension between two men boil down to nothing more than complicated rivals and drinking buddies. Two women live in a cottage together for the rest of their days without a man and they’re a couple of silly spinsters. What good friends!
We have not always had the language to say that these stories or these characters were queer. But there is a need for us to be alive in the stories that feel so real to us. Queer people have the ability to find queerness anywhere because our lives have always depended on the suspension of disbelief. We have calluses on our backs from the rubber erasers that have tried to scrub us from these books, but with the very existence of text – astonishingly and like magic – there is subtext. Beautiful, rich, and delicious subtext.
As a speculative fiction writer, I’m taught to focus on an element called world building. Starting from nothing, looking at what you have and creating the rules as you go along. When it comes to worlds, queer people are master builders. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Super gay. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Historically gay. Harry Potter. Anointed gay by the author. That’s right, Albus Dumbledore is gay. The biggest coming out in history, shadowed only by Janelle Monáe.
However, this little gift comes with a catch: never once in all seven books is the Headmaster’s sexuality mentioned. Though now, thanks to Rowling, I can’t stop wishing for the scene where Harry climbs those spinning stairs to Dumbledore’s office to find the old wizard twirling around, getting his whole life to “I Need a Hero” by Bonnie Tyler. Fawkes bobbing along, until he notices Harry, freezes, and turns the music off with his wand.
We will always continue to dream up scenes like this because we never see his gayness written out for us. Queer readers in our community can easily make the jump from one’s hiding to shame. That is the new narrative for the wizened wizard we all know and trust, enveloped in his own cloak of invisibility: heteronormativity.
To anyone who believes that nothing would have changed either way if Dumbledore had come out in the pages of the books, then you do not fully understand the power it takes to come out of a closet.
In the world of George Orwell’s 1984, the hero, Winston, fantasizes about having sex with a woman named Julia, despite being dissuaded by the government’s radical (and quite literal) Anti-Sex League. This is not only an escape from the Party’s oppression, but because he’s simply attracted to her. Attraction: a basic impulse Orwell leans on to captivate his audience against a society so oppressive and so far out of our norm that the heroic protagonist can’t even feel comfortable having his heterosexual sex. Can you believe?
Yes, George, we can. Up until 2003, homosexuality was still a criminal act in the United States. To us, it felt like all straight people were part of an Anti-Sex League. The subtext is written in bold.
The majority of the LGBTQIA+ community reading about an “Anti-Sex League” are going to remember this from their history books. Alongside the actual events of our very own 1984, this was the exact same “dystopia” so many humans of the world lived in. And still so many more continue to live in.
In the history of popular speculative fiction, a standard choice for fantasy readers is The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin, a coming-of-age book about a young wizard maneuvering the rules and ramifications that come along with doing magic. To be a wizard in Earthsea, to know someone’s true name gives them power over you. Though there are no obvious queer themes featured here, for those of us looking beyond a cis-gendered scope, the relatability of knowing one’s true name jumps out at us. Le Guin writes:
“Who knows a man's name, holds that man's life in his keeping. Thus to Ged, who had lost faith in himself, Vetch had given him that gift that only a friend can give, the proof of unshaken, unshakeable trust.”
There is something beautiful here on a human level that unites all readers. But there is subtext here, nuanced notes to be deciphered by queer readers. Our experiences equip us with a special decoder for information. I read that and see a coming out moment, trust in a friend, and the mortal need for keeping a secret.
I’m not saying queer people have a monopoly on secrets. Straight people have plenty of room for skeletons when they themselves haven’t taken up the good real estate in their own closets. But names, secret and powerful names is something so innately tied to the trans and non-binary community that it is nearly impossible not to feel their sigh of relief when those identities are shared and validated between friends.
Straight people like to say, “I didn’t read it like that,” and “it doesn’t say that anywhere”. Just because it’s not stated does not mean it isn’t there or any less worth discussing. When the trials of queer people are expressed so boldly on a page and get washed out on a technicality, queer representation fades, the stories become weaker. And queer people deserve better. Teaching and understanding the text and subtext of queerness can only ameliorate these stories and we do a disservice to future readers by disregarding them and teaching only what we know.
Our history is a story of hiding, acclimating for our safety. We live within very real dystopian societies where the most important rule is: assume everyone on the street is straight. And breaking that rule could mean death. So, why do queer people have a habit of frantically, and quite literally, reading between the lines? When you are an invisible minority, you learn other means to communicate. We search for clues on a page the way we evaluate every detail of a person’s clothes, hair and voice, the weight and cadence of the conversations, searching for that one familiar element, that kinship.
The freedom to imagine societies from real life structure makes speculative fiction an effective tool in examining one’s biases. I would implore you to ask yourself what we have asked of our fiction: If queer people aren’t here, where are they? You could say that with the ever-increasing frequency of queer characters we see in all forms of entertainment, we have been building a world that we envision for ourselves for some time now.
We are done living in the subtext alone. We’ve created sub-category awards just to feature LGBTQIA+, such as Lambda Awards and the Over the Rainbow Book List. Even Amazon launched TOPPLE, a new imprint dedicated to publishing queer authors. None of this would have been possible if not for the queer readers who saw between the lines, supported as a collective audience, and demanded more.
We are a community that has created our own world for ourselves. If that isn’t successful world building, I don’t know what is.
Andrew Esposito is a New York City based writer and queer activist who strictly adheres to the three R's: Reading, Writing, and Recommending you read this book. Working toward their MFA in Speculative Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College, Andrew’s work focuses on queer YA, urban mysticism, and epic fantasies. Andrew is also a full-time event programmer working on internationally known conventions like BookExpo, BookCon and New York Comic Con. Their motto in life is the same writing motto: good characters take priority over a complicated plot. Follow them on Twitter or Instagram.