Updated: Mar 3, 2020
The past few years have shown an increasing demand for more diverse media, especially when it comes to LGBT+ characters. Audiences crave stories that put LGBT+ themes in the spotlight instead of reducing them to a series of tropes. It’s a positive movement: the media climate should evolve and change and become more diverse as time goes on.
However, for writers outside of the LGBT+ community, throwing a hat into the ring can be daunting. There is the risk of creating characters that are little more than walking tropes, which only adds to the problematic representation already out there. As an LGBT+ advocate, my mission here is to break down the most common tropes and offer potential workarounds. Writing diverse narratives doesn’t have to be big and scary.
Here’s a breakdown of some of the most common LGBT tropes:
Trope: The Gay Best Friend Why It’s Harmful: this trope reduces a character down to the comic relief. The GBF is often there to make the main character laugh, to lift (usually her) spirits when she’s down about a boy, to say “yas queen slay” while on a retail therapy binge. It shows that gay men and boys are primarily there to make people laugh and have little agency of their own. Their entire story, character arc, and personality revolves around being gay and helping the main character. Not to mention the concept of there only being one gay character, and he only hangs out with straight girls is unrealistic at best.
How to Fix It: if you want your character’s best friend to be gay, give him more to do than just spout wisdom and throw out Drag Race catchphrases. Give him interests outside of stereotypical “gay” interests, and make sure he can stand on his own as a character. Even better, show him interacting with other LGBT+ peers and having a life outside of the main character. Or, the best yet: give him a stronger focus in the narrative itself. Let him have agency and be as interesting as your other characters would be.
Trope: Predatory Lesbian
Why It’s Harmful: this trope sends the message that a woman who is attracted to other women is dangerous. It tells audiences that being attracted to women will make a woman resort to stalking, violence, and sexual misconduct in order to show her affection, which translates into an isolation of lesbians. This trope leads to the perception “this woman is into women, therefore she will hit on me” when that is rarely the case. It also adds to the stereotype of women loving women equating sexual deviancy since they have a predatory approach, when realistically lesbians tend to be more cautious about their affections.
How to Fix It: the easiest workaround is to have lesbians develop feelings for other characters on the LGBT+ spectrum, especially other types of lesbians (there is a severe lack of butch representation that’s a whole other issue). Not only does that give you a story richer in diversity, it skirts this trope almost entirely. If you want to explore a lesbian/straight woman crush dynamic, the best possible way to approach it is through a lens of anxiety. A queer woman developing feelings for a straight woman is often a fearful experience because of existing perceptions, so her behaviors would be far less assertive and more hesitant.
Trope: Rampant Biphobia/Sexually Promiscuous Bisexual Woman
Why It’s Harmful: the further we get from gay and lesbian, the much harder it is to find representation. There is a strong perception of bisexuality being “too gay for the straights and too straight for the gays,” which tends to leak into media. Every facet of the LGBT+ community is oppressed to a varying degree, and sometimes the easiest way to pinpoint a character’s sexuality is to point to their oppression or isolation. Defining a bisexual character in this way shows that bisexuals are solely defined by their lack of acceptance on either side. What little bisexual representation we do have is often shown through an attractive woman who talks about sexual escapades with men and women the same way someone reads a grocery list. This feeds into the idea that bisexual individuals, particularly women, are solely in it for sex.
How to Fix It: this works as a blanket statement for diversity across the board - if you have to show a character’s diversity through their oppression/struggles alone, it’s not productive. Characters can have healthy discussions about sexuality without it turning into horror stories. Circling back to previous points, make sure your character has a personality beyond their sexuality. It should not be the only takeaway readers have. Instead of inner conflict about “picking a side”, have bisexual characters deal with issues outside of their sexuality. Another helpful workaround would be to write more masculine bisexual characters: the bisexual stereotypes tend to skew more feminine and a lot of bisexual representation is shown through women. Having more diversity within bisexual character representation is an overall net positive.
Trope: Transgender Misgendering/Trauma
Why It’s Harmful: pointing out that a character is transgender by having other characters constantly misgender them or having them experience trauma based on their gender identity tells the audience that these behaviors are expected. Even if they’re framed in a negative light, these actions perpetuate the idea that trauma is part of being transgender. It tells transgender audiences that even in escapist fiction, there is no escaping from their struggles, and it tells cisgender audiences that these behaviors/actions are just an inescapable part of life. While there aren’t direct correlations, these kinds of representations don’t help the current social climate.
How to Fix It: never have any character, regardless of moral alignment, refer to a transgender character as a “trap”. Remove that word completely from your vocabulary: all it does is perpetuate harmful ideas. You don’t need to have characters refer to their friend by their dead name, even by mistake. If you want to make a casual signal to readers that a character is transgender, talk about hormone therapy or possibly gender reassignment surgeries. Have the characters around them be supportive and understanding. Try not to focus on the hardships of being transgender: treat it like the other sexualities and make sure their character has more than just their identity. If you’re absolutely set on exploring the difficulties of being transgender, get opinions and details from someone who knows first hand.
Of course, there are other tropes to avoid (bury your gays, sexual deviancy, and so on), but these are some of the most rampant that we don’t immediately see as an issue. Most often, the easiest work around for any of these issues is to make sure LGBT+ characters stand out as individuals first. And if you’re ever unsure, the best thing to do is listen to LGBT+ creators. Engage in their media. Listen to their interviews. We all want to enrich every genre, down to children’s books, with complex and interesting LGBT+ narratives, and we don’t want anyone to be afraid of trying.
About the Author: EJ’s writing passion is a mix, though most of it is focused on the young adult genre. She seeks to put her own spin on genres like urban fantasy, slice of life, and classic teen mystery. She’s also always eager and ready to talk about writing craft and style, particularly when it comes to point of view.
When she’s not writing, EJ formulates story ideas while crocheting or taking a walk. Even away from her keyboard, she’s always writing. Words and language are her passion: her studies of Writing, Communication Studies, and Applied Linguistics would be enough to show for that. You can find EJ on Twitter at @andromeda_falls