Writing a Gay Character
How do we approach portrayal in art with identity, issues, misconceptions, stereotypes, and realities?
“…More people should know that, Gabriel. Especially because you’re gay.”
Using a cloth, I carefully put the Audubon book in the Mylar bag. Then I fold my arms. “What the fuck does that have to do with anything?”
“How many true crime stories have a gay hero?” (From The Book of Joel).
I want to tell you a story before launching into the lesson. A few years ago, I was teaching at a community college. I participated in a “teach-in” on diversity. My topic was the status of LGBTQ persons globally. This was important to me to speak about, but I did not go in expecting any particular reaction. I noted some students seemed to be interested, and some were uncomfortable (I would see that again with another presentation on the issues of LGBTQ students, a couple years later).
After my presentation, a young student approached me and thanked me for speaking. She said she was from a traditional conservative Asian family, and being who she was–bisexual and genderqueer, caused her difficulties with her family. I got the impression that having someone speak to her, to reflect who she was in some way, was enormous support for her. That young person had, in turn, profound effect on me. I have never forgotten her, nor the realization she gave me that we never know how, even in a small way, we may affect people.
I thank her for that. And, I keep that in mind both for my stories, and in what I’m writing about here. In turn, I hope you keep that in mind as well, how you may positively affect others. To quote author Tony Magistrale, “…we should demand that art do more–by way of confronting instead of simply mirroring–existing social injustices.”
Your Gay Character
If you writing a character who is gay, it’s up to you how one’s orientation fits in with the other aspects of one’s personality. Take into account how your literature has meaning. What is your story, and your character, reflecting about life you know and life you want to see?
Note: this post doesn’t cover every aspect of being gay. Some other aspects, such as health, sexuality and other issues, will be in future lessons.
- Is there a particular “right” way to write a gay character?
There’s no one right way to write a gay character, just as there’s no one right way to be gay, period. I have no doubt people will tell you otherwise, because people have agendas and want you to accede to their agendas. Consider what someone says, perhaps in an op ed online, about what you should or shouldn’t do as a gay man. You may not agree with this, but you can think about if the ideas would be useful for your character or plot. Save these links, articles, etc., in a document or in your browser favorites to return to.
If there’s no one right way to be gay, by contrast, many, many ways exist to be a bad person, which might or might not involve one’s orientation. As example, being closeted in itself is not bad. It may be a necessity, and for an individual to decide to remain so. However, to be closeted and to be a politician who advocates specifically for anti-LGBT legislation is being a bad person. That person is a hypocrite, and is harming others.
- How does one define being gay?
Simply. A person who is physically, romantically and/or sexually attracted to persons of one’s own gender. For this post, the focus is on the male gender. Lesbians are specifically gay women (Lesbians will be discussed in a future post).
Terminology is important, as words have not only meaning but tone. Gay is standard usage in English. Homosexual is a more clinical term. Some people who want to connect negativity to being gay will say ‘homosexual’ instead because it sounds colder (but someone speaking in a medical context would not necessarily be negative, so be aware of the context. Others may prefer to use terms like MSM/WSM (men having sex with men, women having sex with women) replacing a label or category with a description. How your character describes himself, how he uses words and uses those words to understand himself will be very good for symbolism in your story.
The term “gays” is often thrown around. I don’t care for it because I like to emphasize individuality–a man who is gay, not “a gay.” However, gays is what we might call standard usage (satirized ironically by the term teh gheys). I choose to use my terminology to reflect my personal soapbox of individuals over categories. Think about your approach, and your characters’ approaches.
- How does someone know he’s gay?
You talk to yourself about who you are. You may know, or you may have to do some soul searching. You are your own best arbiter, not what other people want for you or read into you. Orientation is whom you are attracted to sexually, or just attracted to (asexual persons can be gay as well). That can include emotional connections, but does not have to. Sometimes you have to separate emotions from sex. It is not who you are ‘able’ to have sex with, it’s who you want to have sex with and/or be involved with romantically. Who turns your head.
Keep in mind you can be emotionally involved with a person of any gender. Some emotional friendships are so strong, that they interfere with romantic relationships, regardless of orientation.
And while what other people read into you can be wrong, sometimes certain people who are very intuitive know you are gay before you do. Gaydar is a real thing, and in my belief, tends to demonstrate that being gay is a born trait.
For your character, write down in his bio how and when he knew (if he does know). The circumstances helped shaped his personality today.
- Can someone not know he/she is gay?
Yes. First off, depending upon age, a person can be uncertain and confused. Young persons may feel all kinds of attraction, conflate love and friendship, and go through periods of being one way and being another. No one should insist that you must know by age “X” who you are. We find out about ourselves through reflection and experience. Sometimes we don’t know because we are inculcated with the idea that same-sex attraction is wrong, and the truth cannot come to us right away.
It’s true that one may identify as a bisexual man when young, because being gay seems more unacceptable, but realize he is gay later on. It’s also true that one may identify as gay when young because being bi seems unacceptable but realize later in life that he is bisexual. Gay and bi sometimes are conflated and that can be confusing but understandable. It might make an interesting plot point or character arc to use.
Another reason to not know is denial. Denial can exist for many reasons—societal pressure, self-doubt and shame. If you work hard enough to convince yourself of something, you’ll believe it. This is why some homophobic persons are likely reacting against their own orientation. Even a recent study suggested this.
But not all homophobes are closeted gay men. Don’t fall into that trap–it denies the existence of real hate. And real hate towards gay persons exist. The homophobe who’s a closeted gay man is often used as a go-to explanation, maybe too often. I recommend being cautious in using this trope. Don’t always go for the familiar–consider how to turn tropes inside out for new perspectives.
- Can someone come out late in life?
Yes. A person can come out at any time in life, when he feels ready. And, due to the way society just is, he will likely (as Dan Savage said) be coming out for the rest of his life in one way or another. Some excellent movies and stories have been created on a person finally coming out about who he is. To explore those feelings and reflection can make for some powerful writing, as a character thinks on his life and what his true self is.
- Do gay persons willingly have sex with persons of the opposite sex?
Yes and no. By willing, I mean by preference. A gay person may feel he/she must have sex with the opposite gender in order to demonstrate he or she is not gay. That is not a preference.
On the other hand, a gay person may also choose to have sex with someone of the opposite sex for experimentation, for fun. Yes, it happens, and that is preference (and is separate from bisexuality). There is very little that can be excluded from the human sexual spectrum, regardless of how some would like everyone to be in neat categories of expected behavior. What I mean by that is what I call the “one” factor. As example, to some people, a straight man having sex with even one man means he’s gay. And conversely, a gay man having sex with even one woman means he’s bisexual. Neither of those are necessarily true, but are based upon others’ ideas about what is “right,” a rather close-minded idea of what is right.
Again, you don’t have to follow someone’s imposed rules, because human sexuality in its diversity will defy those rules every time. Sex workers know this very well, that actual behavior goes beyond an artificial construct.
- Is being gay something that can be controlled/erased/cured?
Some people try. They try to control others, and some try to control themselves. People can pretend, deny, marry a person of another gender, give in to family/societal pressure. However, one’s basic sexual orientation does not change. A person who denies his/her true orientation will likely carry an ongoing conflict inside–and how that conflict is expressed or repressed can make for an interesting character.
A classic case is the gay person who is married to someone of the opposite gender, but has anonymous sexual hook-ups with partners of the same gender.
Erased and/or cured doesn’t happen. If someone claims they can ‘cure’ being gay, they are lying or fools, much like anyone who claims there are no gay persons in a particular country/city/organization.
There is no reason whatsoever to ‘cure’ being gay. Attempting to cure someone of their sexual orientation is harmful, and attempting to cure a child of being gay, bisexual, and/or trans is child abuse.
- How do you create a good portrayal of a gay character?
Now we get into the semiotics of your character. Once you have written his bio and are ready to put him on the page to start his story, you now think about what are his symbols and signs.
Refine his personality traits: Your character is a character first. As a male character, nothing special needs to be done to make him gay other than he’s attracted to men. You start out with writing a person–we are more than the sum of our parts and categories. Find out who he is, then approach showing his orientation.
Make a list of positive characteristics, and decide how to integrate them into your character’s personality and actions (showing is better than telling) and balance with the character’s humanity–what makes him human and imperfect as we all are. Just to get you started, here is a site with some basic positive and negative human traits you can think about applying to your character. Many of these I’ll discuss in the future.
Where is he located? The majority of gay men are not in New York, LA, San Francisco, or Chicago, with lots of money, designated “gay” neighborhoods, and constant attendance in gay bars and hip parties. The majority of gay men live like anyone else (as do most of the gay men in big cities, really). They may or may not be out. So consider where your story is set, in order to help determine your character. Small town, rural, big city, moderate city, and what state. Your character will still have the traits of the state he’s in, especially if he’s a hometown boy. He is the sum of all his traits.
If he has moved from his hometown to another place, like a big city, was that where your character first came out (if your character has come out)? Coming out is still a milestone. It has huge significance. The place you are has a lot to do with whether you come out, and how you do so–and to whom.
Is he a gay character or a character who happens to be gay? Because they are two different people. The gay character is one whose being gay has something to do significantly with the plot. The character who happens to be gay is one whose being gay has little to do with the plot, but is part of his make-up. Gabriel Ross is an example of the latter. The Gabriel’s World books are suspense thrillers, and most of the main plots have little to do with being gay. However, Gabriel’s being a strong man who happens to be gay is important in the theme of the books overall.
Regardless of which, his being gay can’t be ignored. Society makes it an issue. Even if an LGBTQIA person doesn’t want to think about being LGBTQIA every minute of the day, and shouldn’t have to, eventually it comes up. As example, your character is dating. Would he hold hands with his boyfriend on the street? The answer depends in part on personality, but also on consideration of what kind of reaction he may face from others.
When I was young, I did not want history to weigh on me. However, I take to heart the aphorism from philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That is why one’s history becomes important. Your character may not be aware of history, and you need never mention any specifics, but your knowing will benefit you, because you have a context to use in creating your characters.
Remember that as late as 1973 the American Psychiatric Association considered homosexuality a mental disorder. Remember that US had a history of men being arrested for having sex with other men (or trying to do so), and that such arrests could destroy lives. This article has a brief but chilling summation of the history of persecution of homosexuality. Remember too, that some men were institutionalized for being gay or bisexual. And certainly not just in the US. The brilliant British hero Alan Turing is just now getting his due for his work during and after World War II in code breaking and computer science. He was also prosecuted for being gay, and subjected to chemical castration.
What is his behavior/appearance? When you think of your gay semiotics, here is the major element–an important element to approach with critical thinking. We have a history of gay culture in the US (and stories set elsewhere will have their own history too, naturally). Before being publicly gay became more of a cultural norm (and less of a crime), appearance and behavior helped gay men identify each other. If your book is set in the past, that is particularly important.
A basic behavior characterization spectrum with gay men runs from hard core macho to everyday guy to outrageously flamboyant (the latter is what my go-to TV Tropes calls “Camp Gay”). All of these can be and are true; but sometimes they are stereotypes or cop-outs. Much like most gay men do not live the high income city lifestyle, most gay men do not ‘act’ one particular way or the other.
Camp gay is more often seen as a stereotype. Because it’s a stereotype, but one that happens, you’ll need to consider how you write it, if that is who your character is. If you make him flamboyant, let it be because it fits the character, not because that’s the only way to show his orientation. Writing Camp is harder than not, because too many straight writers have used ‘flamboyant’ as the default denotation/symbol for “gay.”
Whether you are or are not a gay man, you might fall into a stereotyped portrayal because we have been inundated with those kinds of characterization for so long. A good article on how TV needs to move past outdated stereotypes is here. I recommend a practice of reading critique like these as part of critical thinking–seeking out other perspectives to shake you up so you don’t fall into cliches.
Being Camp gay is not wrong to be. Although as a writer you should be aware, if you aren’t already, that some other gay men actively dislike Camp gay men (and those Camp men know it very well). Camp gay is the trope used for comedy (from The Birdcage to Modern Family). Done right and balanced, you can make the character more than the sum of his traits. Done poorly, and you have what TV Tropes calls the Pet Homosexual.
This is where you put thinking in as part of control of your art. Use metacognition and ask yourself–what are you saying with your characterization? The Camp gay man has a dichotomy to consider. Some dislike him, usually because of the perceived femininity (to call a man womanly in any way has always been an insult). Some love the Camp gay man, because they think he’s safer. They usually prefer the sassy type, especially desexualized (meaning he may have the “Oh, snap!” factor, but you’ll never see him with a sexual partner).
A richer portrayal has an underlying seriousness to the Camp. Camp is a form of humor. Humor almost always has an anger, and the humor/sarcasm/wit of the Camp gay man, like the drag queen, comes from anger/tragedy/repression. Look for videos of Charles Nelson Reilly, who was Camp gay, but also had a certain core of anger at being the Gay Joke on Match Game in the 1970s. Camp can be a means of reclaiming dignity that society refuses to give you–a form of empowerment…if done right.
To really appreciate what you can do with that characterization, I suggest watching Scott Thompson on Kids in the Hall, playing his Buddy Cole character. And look for some of Scott’s interviews over the years. Here’s an actor who knows how to be funny as hell by tapping into anger, and he knows how dangerous the sexualized Camp gay man is. Scott has pointed out his character makes people uncomfortable–and that’s why he’s interesting. Buddy Cole may be a trope, but he’s also a force. Be aware of that in your characterization. Discrimination comes from outside, and within. The reasons for that generally result from complicated feelings about acceptance of one’s self and others.
- What are other problematic portrayals specific to gay male characters?
Stereotypes, as noted, can be true. However, in taking responsibility in writing, in demanding that art do more, develop your reasons and craft in any trope or stereotype you use. Generally, other problematic stereotypes in representations of gay men include:
Self-Hating. This is seen in older movies such as The Boys in the Band. Gay men of this type are cuttingly miserable due to their being gay. However, The Boys in the Band is actually a very good movie. After Stonewall brought fire to LGBT rights, self-hating gay characters were seen as anachronistic and harmful–understandably so. Too often in movies and television we saw gay men apologizing for being gay. That shouldn’t happen anymore.
But time has allowed a more even perspective upon The Boys in the Band, and it’s worth watching to see what was a norm at that time (circa 1970; the movie was based upon a play written by Mart Crowley, a gay man). Leonard Frey and Cliff Gorman are excellent in their emotional depth of acting. They are incredible. Frey calls out another character for being self-hating and hits hard in his truth-telling. Gorman starts out as the Camp gay but as the movie goes on, shows much more depth hiding behind his persona.
Keep in mind that being miserable, depressed, and angsty are genuine personality traits, and often good ones in stories. The trait doesn’t have to be due to being gay. You just ensure your angsty character is positive about being gay. If you have reasons or a story to specifically develop a self-hating gay man, then absolutely understand this psychology and what the person must feel inside–why he hates himself. How does he show it? Can he, does he, overcome this? The further away your character is from the Seventies, and in a place where being gay is not criminalized nor hidden, the more this question needs to be addressed. It can be a great storyline as the character has conflicts with others who are angry at his self-hating.
Over-Sexualized. Another old example, Cruising. This movie was the subject of stringent protest by LGBT advocates, for the representation that gay men are focused on nothing but kinky, violent sex. This review by Michael D. Klemm, a gay man who remembers the protests and fallout during the release of the movie, is excellent in summing the problems of portrayal in Cruising. Director William Friedkin is a film artist (he also directed The Boys in the Band, The Exorcist, and To Live and Die in LA) but sometimes artists think they “know better” and are annoyed at having to consider the responsibility in their portrayals (Friedkin expresses that annoyance quite often).
Now, put aside that movie and the conflation it had of culture and subculture (BDSM). What about sexuality in general? Sexuality and what being over-sexed means depends upon the person. There is no one definition of what is too much, too many, or too often. Sexuality is deep enough of a topic that it deserves its own post. But be aware of it now as you create your character, and don’t judge. A person may be celibate, monogamous, mongamish, polyamorous, or libertine (I don’t like the term ‘promiscuous’). Don’t punish a person for who he is. Consider too what sexual norms and politics may apply, depending upon your setting. Know that serious contention exists over sexual norms, as described in such books as Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played on, Larry Kramer’s Faggots, Gabriel Rotello’s Sexual Ecology: AIDS and the Destiny of Gay Men, and Alan Downs’ The Velvet Rage. That’s just a few. Reading some books from different perspectives helps in giving you the context of understanding how important sexuality is and how to approach it. Like in the approach to the Camp gay man, some thought into the topic can give layers of meaning beyond a one-note portrayal.
Violent. How many cop shows of the 1970s had the killer homo trope? Many. I saw most of them growing up. The representations in these shows offered to the public consciousness an idea that gay men tend to be violent with one another (as well as the utterly reprehensible idea that gay men and women are sexual predators). This didn’t happen all the time. Sometimes an episode would make a point of empathy–a Police Story here, a Rockford Files there. It wasn’t all bad, but often very awkward.
Why does this violent trope exist? According to Vito Russo, author of the seminal work The Celluloid Closet, the negative portrayal was in response to the increased advocacy of LGBT persons to be visible and integrated into society, no longer them, but part of us.
History continues to repeat itself, and as more LGBT rights are achieved, backlash will continue with various tropes and urban legends regarding LGBT people. If someone wants a group to be the “other,” the “stranger,” then the person will impute to that group the worst characteristics he/she/they can think of. Violence, sex, and criminality usually make up those characteristics.
As Klemm points out in his Cruising review, the problem isn’t that gay men never kill or are never violent, the problem is in the number of representations of gay men seen onscreen, on TV, and in literature (which has far more variation of characters). In 1980, few gay characters existed in mainstream movies and TV. Audiences, who are culturally persuaded to accept what’s in movies and TV as the societal norm, take what they see as the norm–and particularly if that portrayal, that symbolism, goes along with already-existing negative beliefs. This is why organizations like GLAAD were created, to call out overuse of negative representations.
Let me borrow the talented Mr. Klemm again and the points raised in his invaluable CinemaQueer review of The Talented Mr. Ripley. Why does someone kill? Does he kill because he is gay, or because he is a killer? The first is a wrong characterization, the second is worth exploring as Ripley did. To quote Klemm in his review, “The theme that homosexual repression during the 1950s could lead a gay man to commit murder is handled without moralizing or resorting to cheap sensation. Any self-loathing that Ripley feels comes from his lack of status and not from his sexual desires.”
Unlike Camp gay and the gay man with numerous sexual partners, the “killer gay” (a gay man who kills because he is gay, because gay men are genetically predisposed or ethically predisposed to kill) does not have a truism in real life. Here’s what is true: Sometimes people kill gay men. Sometimes a person kills who happens to be gay. Those men may even be serial killers, life Jeffrey Dahmer (Gay and bisexual men have often been targets of serial killers due to societal secrecy/criminality. They have had a vulnerability similar to sex workers in being targeted as victims).
People kill, or are violent, because they have something psychologically, and perhaps societal, that allows them too. People who are LGBTQ are not psychologically inclined to violence simply because they are LGBTQ. If someone kills, there is always a deeper reason.
Noble. Noble is bad when it’s not realistic. People do noble things at times, and that can be a powerful story. But if a story has a character who is noble just because he is gay, it’s doing a disservice to the character, making the character a device. Diversity is great. The point of increasing representation is to change the dynamic of what we see through diversity. But a character has to be human, not just an one-note magic symbol of diversity.
Noble can also be mishandled through the dying man character, the victim. In the Eighties, this was a common one-shot story on TV medical shows. Now the AIDS patient character meant for pathos would more likely be the hate crime victim meant for pathos. Both are legitimate characters and can be powerful, but it’s all in how it’s done. The person has to ring true, without being manipulative.
Other aspects may hamper a story with a dying character that might otherwise have been powerful. Klemm has a good distinction between the characters in Philadelphia as compared to the characters in Longtime Companion. The former was a major studio Oscar-bait movie aimed at mainstream audiences, the Important Story that wanted to bring the Important Message, and ended up neutering the character (and focusing on the homophobic attorney more than the dying gay man). The latter was an independent movie that brought a realistic portrayal to gay men’s relationships, friendships, and dying.
- Any other aspects to consider?
Gay men are in all ethnicities, religions, countries, sizes, shapes, temperaments. This is what you think about, what you use to bring the detail and depth to the characters. If your character is black and gay, his race plays as much of a part of his personality (and how society sees him) as does his being gay. It may be more significant to him, as racism can come from anywhere.
In Gabriel’s World, my recurring characters are: five gay, four bisexual, one lesbian, five straight, two transgender, eleven cisgender, two genderqueer, two black, two Hispanic, six white, one Southeast Asian, two Asian, one Arabic, one Persian, one Jewish, one Buddhist, one pagan, two agnostic, one atheist, one Hindu, one spiritualist, three Christian. But I consider…how would they describe themselves? Which aspect of their personality, their character, their self would they place primary?
Go back to the previous lesson on your character bio. Each choice in what your character is means something. Your character can be part of an LGBTQ community, or completely removed. He may see parts of himself as reflected by others–his religion, his body image, his economic status, his education (in and out of the LGBTQ community). He may not care at all what others think.
My final thought for you is on strong characterization, and how writing your gay character can empower you. I am not a gay man, but I was able to become more assured and proud of my own identity through writing my gay character, and making him a real person. You may not be a gay man either, but writing your gay man can help you understand what you share with your character. Stepping into someone’s persona, imagining what that person lives from day to day, lets you feel what we all share. We all have an individuality that dignity requires be respected. We all have a commonality that humanity demands we acknowledge.
Strong characters who are gay are strong because of what they’ve been given by the portrayal. They are also balanced. One of the best gay male characters on network TV now is Andre Braugher’s Captain Ray Holt on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. He’s smart, good at his job, but also grouchy, stoic, and holds grudges. His orientation is not a big deal, but at the same time Holt remembers discrimination that happened in the past, and is firm about maintaining LGBTQ presence in the NYPD–he keeps a pride flag in his office. The people under his command (as far as is known all straight) admire him and fight to be in his good graces.
Andre Braugher gets the credit for his superb acting (I’m a fan of his since Homicide) but the writing is pretty balanced too. More so than some other network comedies. Braugher isn’t overly noble. His deeply ingrained rivalry with Kyra Sedgewick’s character is hilarious because of his years-long thirst for revenge. He has a husband on the show (an interracial relationship no less) who has the same trait as Holt–they don’t try to please anyone. They don’t have anything to prove. They don’t have to be any stereotype as to what an audience expects them to be (again, unlike some other network comedies).
A reader of Gabriel’s World told me that Gabriel seemed very real. That is one of the best things I can hear as a writer. Gabriel is a man who as a lot of angst, but never about being gay. He smokes, he has a temper, and has no problem being in a fight or a conflict, but he’s also courteous, protective, and very invested in being the best professional he can be. He knows too much arcane information, but he can laugh at himself as well. He can be a hero without being a martyr or a saint. That is what you aim for.
And in doing so, you can also have some introspection as to what is heroic in yourself, what you can be proud of in yourself, what you can laugh at in yourself–and grow along with your character.
This post updated on 5/11/2015