Queering The Genre: How Sci-Fi And Fantasy Fiction Came Out Of The Closet
Outsiders, misfits, and a diverse array of people who have often been considered ‘other’ have always found a home in genre fiction. And yet, genre fiction has simultaneously been the domain of straight, white, male authors. The history of genre fiction is littered with boring heterosexual romances. But in recent years, that trend has begun to shift significantly due to the publication of more women and LGBTQ authors. But how did we get here? And how do we continue to queer up the genre in the years to come? Let’s take a look at how sci-fi and fantasy fiction came out of the closet.
Science Fiction Has Always Been Pretty Queer
When it comes to genre, science fiction has typically been more progressive than fantasy. Part of this is due to the forward-looking nature of science fiction. The nature of sci-fi is to imagine new worlds, new cultures, and new ways of living. Notable authors in the genre were writing queer sci-fi decades ago. We have to give credit to authors like Samuel Delany and Ursula K. Le Guin for addressing topics of gender and sexuality in their science fiction novels back in the 1960’s, when it was still taboo. It is important to note that both of these authors live at intersections when it comes to sexuality. Delany addressed sexuality and race, as a gay black man.
Image via Penguin/Random House
As a woman writing in the genre, Ursula K. Le Guin addressed sexuality along with feminism and gender norms in books like The Left Hand of Darkness and The Telling. Another woman writing science fiction with queer characters was Lois McMaster Bujold, whose Vorkosigan Saga has been ongoing since the 1980’s and features transgender characters and gay protagonists. Of course there is also the grand Dame of science-fiction: Octavia Butler. She was writing bisexual women as protagonists back in the 1970’s with her Patternmaster series.
Image via Octaviabutler.org
Science Fiction Still Has A Long Way To Go For Queer Representation
That is not to say that the science-fiction genre is a paragon of queer representation. The genre still has a lot of work to do when it comes to proper representation. But the outsider nature of science fiction means that it is easier to slip in a queer character without too much drama. However, there is still an issue where queer characters are shown as villains, or morally corrupt. The sci-fi genre has paralleled fantasy with the growing normalization of LGBTQIA characters. Today we have authors like Charlie Jane Anders, who is writing queer space operas for younger audiences in books like Victories Greater Than Death. Other authors tackling queer representation in contemporary science fiction include Ann Leckie, Annalee Newitz, Linden Lewis, Tamsyn Muir, Sarah Gailey, and many more.
Victories Greater Than Death | Image via Tor Teen
Heterosexual Formulas Kept Fantasy In The Past
The fantasy genre is a little more complicated when it comes to addressing sexuality, and including queer characters. There are plenty of early queer fantasies that can be found, if you search hard enough. But one tricky element is that many of these texts are now classified under ‘literature’ as opposed to fantasy. Virginia Woolf wrote a time-traveling fantasy novel called Orlando all the way back in 1928. That novel involves a transgender character and same-sex relationship. But you won’t find this novel classified under sci-fi or fantasy, due to Woolf’s status as a classic author. (I could also go on a tangent here about the snobbery of genre distinctions but I’ll save that for another article).
For many years the standard formula for a fantasy novel followed the layout of the hero’s journey. A young male protagonist discovers some hidden magical powers and/or artifact. He goes on a journey, typically training under an older male mentor. He fights against some nebulous evil forces, and emerges triumphant at the end. This is also typically when he wins the heart of a beautiful maiden (who rarely has any agency of her own), and lives happily ever after.
It All Goes Back To Tolkien
Nothing gay about this at all… | Image via New Line Cinema
This type of epic fantasy can trace its roots not only back to Joseph Campbell’s popular mythmaking book The Hero’s Journey, but also back to the most popular fantasy trilogy of all time: The Lord of the Rings. Now, we could go on at length about the queer-coding in Tolkien’s epic fantasy. Particularly when it comes to the hobbits, and Frodo and Sam specifically. However, all of the established relationships in Middle-Earth are heterosexual (Aragorn & Arwen, Sam & Rosie, etc.) But there is something essential about these texts that is fundamentally queer, and that is their reliance on mythology.
When writing Lord of the Rings, author J.R.R. Tolkien set out to write a mythology of England. He was inspired by ancient Norse epics and ancient mythologies of other countries. And at the heart of the fantasy genre, you will often find references to mythology from around the world. And there is nothing more queer than ancient mythology.
Surprise: Ancient Mythology Was Super Gay
Image via Marvel Studios
Just look at the various heroes of Greek mythology, whose sexuality (and gender) is often fluid. There are some mythological figures that are depicted as extremely gay, like Achilles. But the inherent queerness of these characters is often ignored in popular adaptations. Or we can look at the Norse gods, like Loki who is definitely gender-fluid and pansexual. These queer stories were always there, waiting to be picked up and retold.
However, the formula of epic fantasy was set with the widespread success of Lord of the Rings. Generations of fantasy writers tried to follow in Tolkien’s footsteps, leading to decades of fantasy fiction that were essentially knock-offs of Lord of the Rings. And overwhelmingly, these writers were straight white men. As such, their protagonists were typically straight white men as well, and their readers were the same. This shut out many young fantasy writers who were women, or who were queer.
A Gradual Shift In The Fantasy Genre
So how did this sea change happen? How did we end up with this new wave of queer fantasy that is prevailing in today’s genre? How did sci-fi and fantasy finally come out of the closet? There was a definite shift towards including queer relationships and characters in the genre after the New Wave movement of the 1960’s. The rise of counterculture attitudes went hand in hand with the gay liberation movement, feminism, and civil rights. These attitudes were reflected in the literature of the time. And genre followed suit, although the prevailing texts still tended to follow the pre-existing heterosexual formulas for fiction.
In 1979, author Elizabeth Lynn won the World Fantasy Award for her fantasy novels The Chronicles of Tornor. This fantasy series openly featured queer characters and relationships, and Lynn herself is a lesbian. This was a huge moment for representation in the genre. But it would still be decades before queer characters and relationships became normalized in the fantasy genre.
The Rise of Fantasy In Culture
In the 1980’s, Mercedes Lackey rose to prominence with her Valdemar fantasy world. She notably included queer characters in her world, and won awards for gay representation in her trilogy The Last Herald Mage. Whether intentionally or not, this set up a trend of women writing queer characters in their fantasy trilogies. Authors like Ellen Kushner followed suit in the 1990’s with gay characters in their fantasy worlds. Kushner’s Swordspoint series is still acclaimed as a seminal work of queer fantasy.
The early 2000’s were overwhelmed by one fantasy series in particular, that has informed a generation of new writers. The success of Harry Potter opened the minds of young readers to magic and all of its possibilities. Of course Harry Potter is also depressingly heterosexual, with author J.K. Rowling only informing readers that Dumbledore was gay long after he was dead. And let’s not get into Rowling’s extremely problematic comments about trans people. Rowling herself is hardly a great ally, but it is undeniable that her fantasy novels shaped a generation of readers. Thankfully, the majority of her fans are far more progressive when it comes to gay rights and trans rights than Rowling herself has been.
Queer Fantasy Has Taken Off In Recent Years
Image via Orbit Books
However, it is is within the past decade that queer fantasy has really taken off. It is difficult to pinpoint a specific moment when this shift occurred. And as we can see from history it has been a gradual change that has been a long time coming. But it is clear that the growing acceptance of LGBTQ people in society has been reflected in genre fiction in recent years.
Another important inclusion comes with the growing number of fantasy authors who are not white. BIPOC authors are finally getting published in larger numbers. And with them come unique stories from diverse perspectives. Many of these authors of genre fiction are including queer characters and relationships in their worlds, and normalizing them. We have authors like NK Jemisin; Nisi Shawl, Nalo Hopkinson, Rebecca Roanhorse, P. Djèlí Clark, Rivers Solomon, Kacen Callender, and so many more who are paving the way for non-white queer characters.
The Importance of Representation in Genre Fiction
Photo by Jiroe via Unsplash
As with any form of media, it always vitally important for fans to see themselves reflected in the stories they consume. And for so many years, queer fans of the genre were left searching for scraps. But with this shift away from the familiar formulas, and into exciting new territories comes more representation and diversity. Genre fiction has always had queer roots, and now that it has finally come out of the closet and embraced queer storytelling there is no going back.
What is your favorite work of queer genre fiction? Join the conversation today with Comic Years on Facebook and Twitter to share your recommendations. And for more queer genre fiction, check out our list of LGBTQ novels to read for Pride.
Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.