If you read my work, you probably know representation is a pretty major part of my aesthetic. I write characters from a rainbow of cultures and identities.
One question I’ve seen periodically is about what makes a book an “LGBT book,” and, more specifically to me, “do you write LGBT books?”
And the answer is, well, kinda?
What does it all mean?
I mean, cis-hetero apex-privilege me isn’t going to claim that sort of label. I don’t write about “what it’s really like” to be gay or trans, and I wouldn’t, because that’s not my story to tell. Nor do I think that’s the only story that can or should be told about LGBTQ+ characters, and thus I make it a point to include LOTS of characters of various identities and orientations. They have what I have occasionally described as queer* content–that is, people of non-straight orientations and non-cis genders having feelings, engaging in romances, expressing themselves sexually, and generally doing everything my straight cis-characters do, including, y’know, existing.
(*Note: Some people don’t like the term “queer,” typically due to a long history of negative association. When I grew up, that word was hurled like an expletive and otherwise used as part of abuse. By contrast, I have always used it and am using it here in the best possible way, to describe the overall LGBTQIA+ community and applicable themes. I absolutely do not mean it in any insulting way.)
Does that make my books “LGBT books”? Maybe?
Let’s see. Throughout the course of my World of Ruin books, what have we dealt with in terms of LGBT representation?
The Gender Spectrum
First, before we even get into the characters, there’s something we should talk about in terms of gender representation.
Gender is a spectrum, both in our world and in the World of Ruin.
In most of the World of Ruin, especially in the city of Tar Vangr, children are not “assigned” a gender–as children, they are simply referred to as “Child” and “they/them” as a singular pronoun. It is customary for children to choose their own gender representation, which may or may not have any relationship to how their bodies look. Most choose “man” or “woman” and some choose “neither,” at which point they are commonly referred to by “they/them” as a gender neutral pronoun. The term “nonbinary” doesn’t exist in the World of Ruin, at least not so far, but the concept of nonbinary people is baked into the culture.
Also: intersex people (which is to say, in simplified terms, people with ambiguous or various genitalia and/or other physical features that do not clearly correspond to any particular sex/gender) are more common in the World of Ruin than our own world, which is part of why this has evolved as the cultural expectation.
This sort of fluid attitude is not always the case in the southern city of Luether, especially among the Blood Ravalis, who are intentionally set up as a patriarchal “hardened gender roles” sort of folk. This is thematically important, as the Ravalis show us what happens when you cling too tightly to patriarchy, and it blows up in your face. They are, by and large, the *bad guys* or–since it’s a gray, gritty world–it should be understood that obsessive masculine posturing (or toxic masculinity, if you will) is a bad thing.
I mean, even the ostensibly crazed Children of Ruin (the raving barbarians of my setting) don’t ascribe to a gender binary or gender roles, outside of their matriarchal religion: specifically, the Circle of Druids, who have only female members (whether cis or not, it doesn’t matter). And even that institution is crumbling. (No further spoilers for Mask of the Blood Queen.) Many barbarians can’t be neatly labeled male or female, and don’t think of themselves that way. And no one among their ranks has a problem with that–it’s just how it goes.
And the Deathless Fae, featuring mostly in book 3… well, they aren’t even really human. Some consider themselves “men,” some “women,” some only “fae.” A good number of them do not associate with the gender they performed during their mortal lives, particularly the Deathless Rose and a couple others I won’t name, so as not to spoil it.
So that right there is an example of the queer content baked right into the worldbuilding. But what about the characters?
So Many Queer Characters
Of the four core characters–Regel, Ovelia, Mask, and Davargorn–only Regel is “mostly” straight (bi/pansexual* but mostly into women). We only ever really see him in romances with women in the books, though a couple of people he has romantic moments with are of somewhat more ambiguous gender. (That gets into the Deathless, who are essentially all trans by definition, but I wouldn’t want to give too many spoilers for book 3.)
(*Note: I am using these terms to be roughly equivalent. There are people out there who prefer the term “bisexual,” and there are people who prefer the term “pansexual,” and there are people out there who absolutely LOVE one term and absolutely LOATHE the other. I am not taking sides on the issue. If the community comes to a consensus on terms to use, fine, I’ll happily adjust my usage, but until then, I will honor those people I know who embrace the term “bisexual” and those who embrace the term “pansexual” and I will not erase anyone.)
Ovelia is definitely into both men and women, but seems to form much stronger relationships with women. She had a couple things with men in books 1 and 2 (a couple of those relationships, um, kinda messed up), then she goes through a torrid relationship with a woman in book 2 and then ends up in a strong committed romance with a woman in books 3 and 4. By that time, her attraction for men is mostly on a low simmer, and she doesn’t have another thing with a dude for the rest of the series.
Mask… Mask is asexual, though not necessarily aromantic. I made it a point to write out any potential sexual relationships. The sorcerer just isn’t interested, though that doesn’t mean they won’t exploit others’ desires (see the sad case of Tithian Davargorn).
Tithian is only shown in relationships with women thus far, but he talks about occasionally having sex with other men. (Though without a romantic element. Maybe the term for him would be bisexual/heteroromantic.)
So that’s 3 out of 4 main characters who are explicitly LGBTQIA+ (we’ll give Regel the benefit of the doubt), but what about other supporting characters?
Garin Ravalis, well, he’s gay and very conflicted about his homophobic’s family’s expectations of him. He can occasionally switch hit and have sex with a woman, but only with a LOT of effort and in a pretty singular situation. (A little bit the way gay men in a heteronormative culture like our own might have sex with women to “prove” their masculinity or ape straightness. And obviously it’s awful that anyone should feel pressured to do this.)
Lady Shard, who shows up in book 2, has a cameo in book 3, and then is an important supporting character in book 4, is essentially a committed lesbian, despite some relationships with men in the past.
Paeter Ravalis, who only appears in flashbacks, was definitely pansexual, though he put out the impression of being straight. Also a raging misogynist, which did not work out well for him.
Lan Ravalis… I think arguments could be made about Lan, who has a certain amount of not entirely healthy fixation with his older brother’s life and sexual exploits. He exploits women whenever possible and holds not a shred of respect for them, but maybe he’s trying too hard? Anyway.
And then there’s Dar-Karsk, the barbarian rotpriest who appears in book 3 and has a major role throughout that book and book 4, who is *absolutely* bi/pan. In many ways, he’s the opposite of Mask, using his voracious sexual appetites to his advantage.
So, what’s that? 80%-90% non-straight characters?
Jeez, maybe these *are* LGBT books…
And yeah, maybe it’s a function of what fantasy is to me. I cut my teeth on the Forgotten Realms, where sexuality and gender are significantly more fluid and malleable. I often describe sexuality in the Realms to my players this way: Pansexuality is as common in the Realms as heterosexuality is here. It is kind of a basic assumption that everyone is bi/pan, and it’s rare to find someone who is committed to only one or a limited range of gender expressions. Rare, but not stigmatized.
Why is this the case? Well, in a fantasy world like the Realms, with so many different sorts of folk (elves, dwarves, dragons, etc) and magic to modify one’s body with very little effort, it would just be profoundly limiting to restrict one’s sexual tastes to one particular thing or one’s conception of gender to some sort of binary.
Fantasy worlds are a mirror to our own, and worlds like the Realms–and like the World of Ruin–tell us something about how we view gender and sexuality, and they give us space to ask some questions and ponder some more expansive views.
As a G in LGBT, I’ve appreciated your inclusion of the community in the World of Ruin novels and especially your handling of it. Too many authors are either heavy-handed or use LGBT folks as tokens. I remember seeing you at Seattle Pride a few years ago (at least I think it was you). I’m glad the community has allies like you.