So I have a few characters now (two possibly three) who identify as LGBT. My problem is I'm worried that I might come across as "trying to be politically correct".
How do I write about characters who are LGBT so as to avoid the "trying to be politically correct" issue?
Make sure that being LGBTQ is not the character's defining trait
Any character who is defined by a single trait is going to be flat and stereotypical. If that single trait is a minority status, then the character will feel inserted for the sake of diversity.
If I were asked to describe Dumbledore, I'd start with "old wise mentor" and "powerful wizard". "Gay" wouldn't come until much later. Similarly, Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer gets "Nerdy best friend" and "witch" before "lesbian" in her list of traits. (Willow is also in danger of being the show's token Jew, but being Jewish is even lower on her defining traits than her sexuality). Generally speaking, if a minority status crops up high on a short list of characteristics, you should be concerned.
Gender, Sexuality, Race, and Culture are not personality traits.
Part of the problem with defining characters by their minority status is that minority status is not a personality trait. However, minority status will shape a character's life experiences, and life experience shapes personalities. A gay character may act flamboyant because they want to signal to the people they interact with that they are gay, or because being gay gives them societal permission to act in ways that would be received more negatively from a straight character, or for many other reasons. But they are not flamboyant because they are gay.
A character with minority status is exactly like any other character, except that they've been shaped by different life experiences. This is true of any character, but the further a character's experiences are from your own, the easier it is to jump straight from the characteristics that shaped those experiences to the effects on their character, while ignoring the experiences in between. Don't do this.
The more you explore what makes a character who they are, the stronger they will be as a character.
Depending on how you ask, between one and ten percent of the population of Europe and about five percent of the US population identify as LGBT. About two thirds of them come out beyond their family. Despite the fact that only a few percent of the American population are opently LGBT, Americans think that about a quarter of the population are lesbian or gay and two thirds of the population find being homosexual morally acceptable. The number of LGBT characters in the media (e.g. 4.8% on tv) roughly equals their actual percentage in the population, that is, their numbers are currently represented fairly.
While nine in ten Americans know someone who is gay or lesbian, one third of the American population still believe that homosexuality is unacceptable. I don't have numbers for how many readers will think this way, but I believe it is fair to assume that for a not unsignificant number any LGBT character will appear to be "inserted" into a book (or other media) for political reasons.
And maybe that assumption is not completely false. Agents are actively seeking books with LGBT and other minority characters (see for example the interviews with agents at Kirkus Reviews Pro Connect). Some will call that "political correctness", others will think of it as a necessary correction in misrepresenting reality. However that may be, it is certainly a conscious effort (on the part of the publishing industry), and you as a writer cannot really avoid being viewed in this historic context.
What you can do, though, is twofold:
If the sexual orientation of a character is irrelevant to the story, don't mention it.
For example, I have no idea whether Hercule Poirot is gay, straight, or asexual, and yet I enjoyed reading of his adventures immensely.
The whole idea behind the fight for equality is that gender or sexual orientation shouldn't be an issue, so don't make one of it, if it isn't.
Write engaging characters.
I have never worked as a fisherman, and yet I can understand Santiago's attempt to break his unlucky streak in Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. I'm not female, and yet I can feel with Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. I'm not gay, and yet I can more than sympathize with E. M. Forster's Maurice Hall.
While the details of the problems that people of different sexual orientations or genders or ethnicities face may not be identical, the basic experience of struggling with difficulties and attempting to live a good life is always the same. If you portray any character in a realistic and meaningful way, most readers will enjoy reading of them, regardless of the color of their skin or the gender of their sexual partners.
But in the end, acceptance of your characters will mostly depend on how you market your book and who you market it to.
How do I write LGBT characters without looking like I'm trying to be politically correct?
Don't Try. Do.
Actually BE "politically correct." "Politically Correct" is originally (and in my view still is) a pejorative and dismissive term for being fair and unbiased in your writing. Anybody that accuses you of "trying to be politically correct" is insulting you for trying to write a fair and unbiased portrayal, so ... screw them! The only way to appeal to them is to never violate their unfair and biased cultural expectations. If that is your market, then go for it, but guess what? They are a minority and niche market in the overall book / writing market.
To be fair and unbiased, avoid using stereotypes, they don't apply. There are both butch and girly lesbians, there are both manly and camp (effeminate) homosexual men.
Avoid positive stereotypes as well: Don't idolize them, don't make them paragons, give them flaws and shortcomings like any other character. Don't make them exclusively villains.
Don't hide their sexuality in public anymore than you would a heterosexual couple, and don't try the cop out that "some heterosexual couples are just not very romantically expressive in public, so I chose that as a trait for my homosexual couple."
Don't assume because they are LGBT they are promiscuous or into group sex, either. They most probably are not.
Make them average.
In real life, LGBT or asexual persons really are minorities; a super-majority of people, by nature or culture, truly believe they are heterosexual.
A minority character (relative to other characters in the work) presents a conundrum for the writer, because there are not enough of them to show any spectrum of traits for that race, religion, sexual orientation, size (say of people with dwarfism), or person with a disability.
Because you cannot show such a spectrum, your character becomes the designated representative of that minority. It is fairly easy on the Internet to find details of what that particular minority finds offensive, what an unbiased portrayal looks like from their perspective.
So just BE fair and unbiased and make your character unoffensive to the group it represents. Make them the average. If they have exceptional traits (as many characters must), try to pick traits that don't have anything to do with whatever that minority objects to as stereotyping or insulting.
You can give yourself leeway on "being average" if you have multiple instances, the more you have, the broader a spectrum of traits you can portray, but I would still try to vary them in their non-sexual traits instead of sexualized traits (like promiscuity or romantic aggressiveness).
The average sexual trait for all humans is ... we like sex with mutual sexual attraction, in private and alone with our partner. We like romance, love and closeness, and we are demonstrative without being over-the-top in public. Remember Al Gore's ridiculous passionate kiss of his wife on TV? That's heterosexual but was widely ridiculed, as if he was trying to prove something, because it was beyond the norm of public expression. We hold hands in public, we kiss on closed lips (unless we are teenagers), we embrace without grabbing any sexualized body part.
Take a look at Babylon 5. Two female characters had a love affair. Nobody said anything; it was entirely their business. The love affair was significant to the plot, but from a plot point of view it could just as easily have been heterosexual. Later on two male characters traveling under cover pretend to be a newly married couple. This was shown as a perfectly normal thing and hence a reasonable cover story.
The point is that sexuality is just one aspect of a character, but it affects their life in many ways that depend on the culture they are part of. In Babylon 5 Straczynski wanted to show a future in which LGBT was accepted as just another aspect of humanity, but without doing a "gay episode" (I read a commentary by him on this, but I can't find it now).
Just treat them like any other character. Gay people are normal enough in modern western society that you will probably do a reasonable job if you want to.
Best avoided unless you know whereof you speak. Most representations are cringeworthy, as trans people appear to be the latest, hottest trend in our culture. You’re likely to do a bad job unless you do a ton of research.
These two groups are so disparate that you cannot possibly address them in the same breath. It would be like properly representing both sex workers and Canadians.
If it doesn't propel the story, there is no need to even mention it.
For example, I've heard an interpretation of Sam and Frodo (from J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings) as being a bit of a gay love affair. And this was the perspective from a family member of mine who IS gay. Now, the beauty of that perspective, is that, there is nothing to disprove that Sam and Frodo didn't have more than just friendly feelings towards each other. Maybe they spooned a bit when they took a rest? I mean, who's to say? The point is, it really doesn't matter. But it's great that someone can imagine more to the story. And that is the beauty of great writing. Actually the beauty of great art, where people can interpret all the facets of the work from their own perspective.
A very famous example of where mention of this DOES propel the story is Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain (short story turned into movie). This is more of an in-closet form of sexual expression, but it does address the complexities of emotional attachment regardless of sex. I did read this story (long time ago), and there was quite a bit of detail that get's into the psychological aspects that these two men faced in their lives. That's part of the story. But the great part about it, is that it wasn't trying to be an exclusively "gay" story. It's a love story that is specific to these two characters.
Aside from the story, examine what you mean by LGBT
There's a too much generality in the term LGBT. I don't know anyone who would call themselves that. They are either one or the other... not lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and also transgendered at the same time. And if you want to get a bit more specific with all 4 groups... there are even "sub-groups" (for lack of a better way to put it). So when you say your characters are identifying as LGBT, that's not really saying anything other than they are not straight. And on the flip side if a character is not lumped into the LGBT category, why would it be interesting to even let it be known that they are straight? Again, it should all come back to the story.
It's been mentioned in other comments, but what would be best to focus on is the characters as an individual. Whatever group they identify isn't what makes them an individual. As much as I don't want to make this an opinionated answer, I think an injustice you would do to your characters (any of them) is to put too much focus on their group identity. It'll just make your characters bland and stereotypical. It makes them more 2D and cartoonish because in real life, there is much more to an individual than their sexual preference and gender identity.
Well, first, you cannot write about any politically charged issue without being read as taking sides. If you are ideologically aligned with one side, the other will throw rocks through your window. If you are not ideologically aligned with either side, both sides will throw rocks through your window.
Second, the job of the artist is to portray the world as they see it, as honestly and objectively as they can. This is a controversial position. There are many who feel that politics is the most fundamental human activity and that all art should therefore serve a political end and argue for a political cause.
But there is a very obvious flaw in this position. All politics bends towards an interest. It is about people getting what they want. However laudable or sympathetic their aims may feel to us, the greatest political advantage will come from exaggeration, passion, and, in some cases at least, outright lies. This is a universal. It is not about the rightness or wrongness of any one cause. It is just the way human beings get swayed to support one cause or another.
But truth matters. The distortions involved in supporting any cause, however sympathetic, do harm, and, in many cases, eventually undermine the cause they were designed to support. There is a role for art then, in stepping back from the political fray, and trying to tell the truth, to examine and report on what the human experience actually is. In other words, it is art can play a vital role by being purely descriptive and diagnostic, without being prescriptive or engaging in advocacy. (Sometimes it is the most honest and revealing descriptive work that turns out to change things were no amount of advocacy could.)
But doing this in the midst of any heated political topic means that both sides will identify you as an enemy and both will throw rocks through your windows. Such is simply the passion with which people defend and promote their causes.
There are two ways for an artist to deal with this:
Be brave. Accept that you are going to get rocks thrown through your windows and move your valuables to the center of the house.
Be oblique. Find a way to talk about the experience that interests you in a way that avoids direct engagement with the political passions of your time. People in a state of political passion tend to be very literal and you can often examine the experiences behind the issue without their noticing simply by dressing the experience in different clothing. Thus, for example, authors have used encounters with aliens to examine all kinds of issues of encounter with otherness without the specific overtones of current racial or cultural disputes. This technique has been used to create art under the noses of tyrants and despots and the mob through all the centuries of art.
On the other hand, if you are in fact trying to use art as a tool of advocacy, you just have to expect and accept the flac that comes with the territory when you do that. You can build a very lucrative career in advocacy art because it has a built in audience. You don't have to be as good an artist if you can get people to read you because you are supporting their cause. But brickbats will inevitably fly from those on the other side of the issue. There is no way around that.
Why are they gay? Do they have a partner? Does some gay-related thing crop up in the plot? Simply, if it's a gay guy and he's having an argument with his partner, that'll be a guy. If a lesbian kisses her partner, remember to make her a girl.
Things have to flow. Character flows from... character!
Really though you haven't given a lot to go on. You're trying to write a gay character without shoehorning it in, but it seems you're asking for a way to shoehorn it in without anyone noticing.
If there's no reason for any of your characters' sexual preference to affect what happens to them, don't put it in.
This is why Rowling copped such shit. You don't write a character, then 10 years later say "See him? He was secretly gay!". Even fan-fiction doesn't deserve such clumsy, ludicrous post-partum plotting as that. If Dumbledore's gayness made no difference to anything he did in the book, it's fine not to mention it, and bloody stupid, not to mention hugely insulting, to dream it up years later then ring round all the journalists you still have numbers for. That's entirely tokenistic, as well as, worse, bone-headed.
Apart from the actual same-sex-liking, in real life there isn't much to distinguish someone as being particularly gay. So if they don't do any gay things, leave it out. You haven't even suggested why you want a gay character.
Just an observation, but referring to 2 men with a catch-all umbrella term "LGBT" might be pandering to political correctness, as per your post – especially when they do not emerge from this subculture, but seem to arrive at their relationship organically.
Terms are loaded, and the popular names we use for minorities are forever linked to the time they are coined (ie: "negro" "colored" "black" "of color" and "African American" self-refer to the same demographic but by (slightly) different perspectives and from different eras – and that's not including outside codewords like "urban" which signify race when it isn't PC to do so.
Even in the answers to this thread, few here have any problem "converting" the PC umbrella term "LGBT" to "gay" – the very word that had become problematic in the first place, and in a few cases "queer" which is intentionally loaded. It's the equivalent of rappers self-affirming or "reclaiming" their outsider status with the N-word, in contrast to most people who would never refer to themselves as a slur. These words are never un-loaded because they wouldn't exist without prejudice and bigotry.
As with the various terms for African diaspora, a new generation often needs to throw off the baggage that came with the old terms, and many of these terms originate from groups who are actively trying to rebrand to better suit the current political climate.
Reading from comments, I get the feeling these are two mostly hetero men who fall into a relationship. The words they use for themselves will telegraph the author's exposure to the topic (and level of sophistication), and also pin the story to a specific point in time and a specific subculture. In my half-century observation, the young will grab the new trendy terms and try to define a larger important movement that includes themselves in it, but older people will view new terms with some skepticism and realize the slant the term is attempting to create. You can avoid the discussion altogether to make the story feel more timeless, but using PC umbrella terms will only narrow the perspective.
I'm reminded of the Katherine Bigalow film NEAR DARK where people become vampires but they have no pre-defined expectations of what that means. It put an interesting perspective on the film since the audience understands what vampires are (and the conventions mostly follow what is expected: sunlight kills them, etc) but the characters don't have any obligation to to follow the norm or cliches of a vampire film.
I will preface my statements as I am someone who was raised in a very open minded household and has family friends that are gay that I've known my entire life, and married someone who has a large collection of gay friends.
I am not a writer, but I'm answering as an avid reader... In the current world you cannot write a character who makes a big point of being LGBT without being political. The simple fact that the individual sexual orientation becomes a defining trait of the character unfortunately makes it a political statement.
One of my favorite book series introduced a gay character and it negatively affected my perception of that character because of the political nature of the character's orientation. I was aware of this character's orientation prior to reading the book, but as I read the book, I found the sexual orientation of the character was completely irrelevant to the story. It appear to be a character trait simply to be politically correct.
So my advise is - if you want to make your character identify as LGBT and make a big point of it in the story, then make it part of the story and not just a minor character trait. If you do anything else, it is going to make it look like a political statement
It won't seem like political correctness if (but only if) the characters are real and authentic. Before you write this, I would ask a few questions (rhetorically, not expecting you to post answers!) Are you gay yourself? If not, do you have close friends who are gay? If not, have you read a lot of work by gay authors? If not, what makes you think you have the perspective to do a good job with gay characters?
This isn't to say don't do this, but put the research in, or get yourself a beta reader who can give you some perspective. Don't assume that you'll automatically be able to do justice to these characters.
I find it best to show, and not tell, in every aspect of my story. I might not be able to do it so well all the time, but I actively try. It's the same case with your LGBT character. Show, don't tell. No sentence in your story should include saying that he/she is gay, unless it's a dialogue line. People might talk about it. Anyway, don't tell the reader that the character is gay, show it to them. Ways to do this is having the character hook up with someone of the same sex, or show affection.
Also, as other people are saying, don't let their only trait be their sexuality. Write them as any other character, though let them engage in "gay" situations. I don't mean sex by that, I mean anything, from flirting to thoughts popping into their heads.
But remember, is it important? Don't make your character's gay because it adds flavor, make them gay because it adds meaning and because it adds content to the story. Good content. For example, you can use them being gay as to shed some light upon another trait of them. A more important one, as it actually matters. Here's what I mean. In "Modern Family", we learn that Mitchell is not afraid to speak his mind and that he is a passionate man, through him being gay. He is not these things because he is gay, but him being gay shows us this, because he stands up for him and his partner on a plane. Now, this is a very cliche scenario, but I needed an example and Modern Family is about the only thing with gay people I've watched.
To quote yourself; Don't make a big deal out of it. But don't add it for the heck of it, because it also makes you seem as someone trying to be politically correct. Add it with meaning, though show it to us like if it's just another trait of the character.
There are two types of LGB (and to a much lesser extent, T) characters in stories, be it books, movies or otherwise.
One kind where their sexuality is the primary defining character aspect. These characters tend to be one-dimensional, have little depth outside their sexual identity, and are generally perceived as the kind of political insertion that you are trying to avoid.
The second kind is a perfectly normal character with depth, strengths, weaknesses, history and oh, by the way, he's also gay or she's also lesbian or they are also bisexual.
If you want to avoid the political correctness taint, the sexuality of your LGB characters needs to take the same dominance as the sexuality of your heterosexual characters. If sex is a big topic in your story, being homo- or bisexual is a big thing. If sexuality takes a backseat, so it should for all characters.
There are stories where this would be a major revelation or subject. If your story basically revolves around romance and/or sex - like Sex in the City or many coming-of-age stories, for example. Most adventure or crime stories don't include any sex or sexual topics, and would have maybe one "oh btw" moment and then immediately continue without dwelling on it.
So it depends a lot on the story you write, but the general principle is that non-heterosexuality should get the same - not more, not less - attention than heterosexuality.
Unless it is important to the story. If the main character is on his epic revenge quest because she was harassed for being lesbian, then of course things change completely. But your question doesn't point in this direction, so I mention it only for completeness sake.
No matter what you do, there are going to be some people who will assume you're trying to be "politically correct" if you have any LGBT characters at all, let alone two or three. I am a gay guy, and I've seen the reaction to gay characters in all sorts of media (TV, movies, video games, etc.) and some of that is just unavoidable. So if you don't want to face any of that at all, I guess my best answer is don't write LGBT characters.
But that's a terrible answer, because if you're interested in writing these characters, and it seems right for who they are and your story, you should just go for it. I would try to do some self-reflection and ask yourself what you're really worried about. If there are other works that you feel either did or didn't have characters that you felt were "just there to be politically correct", maybe go back and take a look at them and ask yourself what about those characters worked or didn't work for you.
One thing that can make queer characters feel token-y is if they come across as inauthentic. Sometimes this is because they are flat stereotypes, or their only purpose in the story is to be gay, which doesn't sound like an issue you're having. On the other hand, characters whose queerness is announced but doesn't impact their character at all can also seem kind of token-y or pasted on, though if they're only appearing in a professional context it may be fine. If that sounds like a tricky needle to thread, having some queer folks who can provide you feedback might help a lot.
I'm not sure why my experience is so different to the other responders, but I should add a disclaimer that nearly-but-not-quite 100% of everyone whose sexuality I am close enough to know are queer. Except for a tiny smattering of cis-het dudes, whose sexuality sticks out like a sore thumb in the scenes and friendship groups I tend to find myself being a part of.
I once wrote a short sci-fi story which was set so far in the future that no one used terms like LGBT or queer or really any kind of linguistic marker for sexuality. But I wanted it very much to depict a world which is not het-normative, because it's the future, and things change. Alot.
So about half the time a relationship was mentioned in passing, I just made sure to make it non-het. "My grandmother's wife." "My uncle's boyfriend." Etc. And other than that, nothing else was mentioned. I got quite a few queries from editors and reviewers, but I told them it wasn't a mistake, and they seemed to accept that. If I was in your position, that's probably what I'd do again. Make it subtle, make it discrete, treat it exactly as you would a het relationship -- because it's simply not a big deal.
Frankly when I write an LGBTQ character I start with the assumption that they are human beings first and last. I write the character and their relations to others exactly as I would for a straight person, with no gay stereotypes or other tropes and tripe.
Sometimes I have started writing a straight character only to eventually realize there is good dramatic conflict in having them in a non-straight relationship with another character, so I go back and change as little as possible in order to reflect their orientation. In one case all I had to do was change pronouns and physical descriptions.
Unless I plan to use their orientation as a plot point (such as one of my characters being discriminated against being a source of their motivation) I treat such characters no differently than any other. I am not in the business of including social issues that are irrelevant to the core story just because it is the current trend. When I do write on social issues then I absolutely include those facets of the character in substantial detail.
PS: I should note that while I sometimes write about physical attraction between characters I do not write explicit or "steamy" love scenes of any kind, those are just not my type of stories to write, so maybe that makes this easier for me. However, I don't think it would affect my "they're human beings" approach even if I did write such stories.