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Why aren’t queer characters simply allowed to be queer?

Why aren’t queer characters simply allowed to be queer?

Two gay characters in Star Trek Discovery.

When Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling revealed Albus Dumbledore was gay after the publication of Deathly Hallows, there was an uproar.

She broke the cardinal rule — often attributed to Russian playwright Anton Chekhov — show, don’t tell.

The theory is simple. In storytelling, don’t tell the audience what a character is like, or how a setting feels, show them through senses, actions, and feelings.

By telling fans Dumbledore was gay, rather than showing us (even implications of his relationship with Grindelwald in the seventh book are a stretch at best), there’s a robbery of representation. What good does it do queer audiences, regardless of age, simply to tell them, rather than let them see and experience it for themselves?

What good does it do to queerbait?

This problem extends far beyond Rowling and it’s time to address it.

 ‘I imagine there are probably gay characters’

When asked about gay characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn replied: ‘I imagine there are probably gay characters in the Marvel universe, we just don’t know who they are yet.

He said there are so many characters in the MCU, and directors and writers simply haven’t dived into their sexualities.

But that’s not good enough.

In a time when representation is one of the biggest conversation points in Hollywood, there has to be more accountability. The question here isn’t why there’s a lack of queer characters — after all, homophobia, discrimination, appealing to the masses and not stepping on any toes in media world has been discussed in abundance.

Rather, it’s how to change this. How to challenge the system and get studios to put their money where their mouths are when it comes to diversity talking points.

A big step is hiring more diverse creators.

Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok.
Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok. | Photo: IMDB/Marvel Studios

After all, we nearly got our first explicitly queer character in the MCU in the recent Thor: Ragnarok, which, conveniently, also boasted the first director of color for Marvel (Taika Waititi). Those things definitely aren’t a coincidence.

Is it shame? Fear?

Why are some creators okay with saying a character is queer, but not showing it? Are they afraid they’ll get it wrong and don’t want to offend anyone so this is the safest option? Are they ashamed because of how far there still is to go?

There’s no one clear answer, except this: audiences deserve better.

My thrill at seeing the character of Sara Lance on The CW’s Legends of Tomorrow getting to be openly and unashamedly bisexual is a wonderful feeling. I feel represented. Everyone should be able to feel that and not just in one place.

Sarah Hyland recently responded to a fan’s question about her Modern Family character Hayley being bisexual. She said she confirmed it, but with the caveat that she doesn’t know what the writers would say.

Hayley in Modern Family.
Hayley in Modern Family. | Photo: IMDB/ABC

I applaud Hyland’s openness and conviction, but it’s frustrating when it remains just talk.

Given Hyland isn’t a writer on the show, it’s difficult to call this situation queerbaiting (when characters are hinted at being queer, but not actually shown). However, it’s another sign that calling for representation sometimes feels like Sisyphos rolling the boulder up the hill — only to not have Hayley go on a date with that girl, after all.

It’s not just about their sexuality 

On the flip side, one of the fears about not hiding a character’s sexuality is that they will be reduced to that.

But, boy oh boy, do I have a solution for that conundrum: don’t do it. It’s as simple as that. Straight characters get to be straight and multi-faceted all the time! So why not queer characters?

While the exploration of identity is a fascinating story to tell, it’s not one that every show or movie or book needs to address.

Take Star Trek, for example.

In last year’s movie, Star Trek Beyond, Sulu (John Cho) is revealed to be gay. It isn’t done as a major plot point or scene, we simply see him with his partner and their daughter. Unfortunately, a kiss was taken out, but it shows how easy it can be to include more diverse characters.

The CBS series Star Trek: Discovery is doing an even better job with this.

Lieutenant Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) are shown to be in a relationship and there are several sweet moments between them throughout the first half of the first season. We see them kiss, we learn how they met, and we see them interact as a real couple — without ever making it about their sexuality.

Quality and quantity

GLAAD’s annual Where We Are on TV Report came out earlier this month.

Its analysis revealed there are 6.4% gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, or queer characters on TV right now. That’s the highest number ever, which is great. But it’s only part of the story.

‘Simply being present onscreen is not enough,’ said Megan Townsend, Director of Entertainment Research & Analysis at GLAAD.

‘While we’re pleased to see numbers on the rise, consideration of how LGBTQ characters are woven into storylines and whose stories are making it to screen is crucial for judging progress of the industry. There is still work to be done.’

More characters are good, they’re certainly a clear sign of progress.

However, it’s time to do more and demand more. Stories are crucial to our society — they are how we communicate, how we learn, how we navigate through life. But if stories are incomplete and dishonest, what are they really achieving?