In real life, sexual orientations are doled out randomly*, with LGBTQIA folks being sprinkled across all races, religions, nationalities,(dis)abilities, income levels, professions, and personalities. In Fictionland, when a character isn’t straight, odds are high that either the story is about their orientation (bonus points for a cut-and-paste coming out story), or their orientation has some thinly veiled symbolic meaning (this probability spikes further if the character is bisexual, in spite of the fact approximately 1 in 6 people don’t believe we exist). This is particularly jarring if the character inhabits either a fantasy world where the underpinnings of western homophobia should not exist, or a real-life culture (past or present) that is traditionally accepting of LGBT people.
First of all, a surprising number of people seem to think homophobia in its current form is some universal human institution and insert it into utterly inappropriate historical settings. Many cultures, even if they did not throw pride parades, shrugged and accepted non-heterosexual relationships without much fuss, while others actively celebrated LGBT people and their relationships. Even in post-Christian European countries, ‘sodomy’ laws were rarely enforced except against rapists or, occasionally, someone’s political enemies. The Kim Davis flavor of homophobia and anti-gay legislation harks back to early 1700s, when the Society for the Reformation of Manners whipped up a wave of homophobic hysteria in England; even that was largely focused on the upper classes, with the working class being more tolerant of the visibly queer.
By this token, I am completely boggled by the people who dump Fred Phelps disciples into fantasy worlds with no explanation whatsoever, as though this were a natural human state. If you absolutely must have frothing homophobes in your fantasy story, there needs to be an explanation. Perhaps your world went through some natural disaster, after which all non-procreative sex was banned in an attempt to rebuild the population. Or there is some religion with strict ideas about ritual purity, a la Leviticus. But it needs to be integrated into the universe, otherwise it seems like a Focus on the Family convention got sucked through a wormhole into your fictional universe**, and it is dangerous to suspension of disbelief.
Second, approach the Mandatory Angsty Coming Out Story with a great deal of caution. Sadly, many LGBT people do have great difficulty coming out to their family and community, and these stories are important to tell. At the same time, it’s become a well of cheap angst for lazy writers who want to heap emotional suffering on their character or give them a Dark and Troubled Past without actually inventing a story that’s organic to the plot. On a more insidious level, this trope tends to imply that an awful coming-out experience is an intrinsic and inevitable part of being queer, possibly in defiance of cultural norms, which is in and of itself a homophobic message.
Third, the Orientation as Metaphor business needs to stop. Now, this is not to suggest that a character’s orientation won’t influence the plot or their character development. On the contrary, it will likely have an effect on their self-identity, love interests, and platonic interactions with other characters. But I am not a fan of the character who is built entirely around a sexual orientation stereotype. This comes in two flavors. The first is the character who is utterly obsessed with sex (the Hay’s Code era gay male pervert, or the lesbian vampires) and the second is the character whose personality is a pile of stereotypical accessories (the lesbian with a tool belt and several dozen cats, the gay man who loves musicals and glitter).
I’m going to make special mention of bisexuals here, since there is a particularly vicious stereotype of bisexuals as depraved, deceptive, and predatory that maintains traction even in the face of increased visibility for gay characters in fiction. The fact that you wrote a duplicitous sex pest who ‘just happens’ to be bisexual is not a suitable defense here; unlike real life, the author is in control of the details; if you are feeling squirmy about one or more of your characters at this point, consider making the character in question heterosexual (or gay). If this logically forces them to stop being villainous, you have a major problem. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t write a bisexual villain– if you’ve written a weather-controlling mad scientist or a ruthlessly competitive entrepreneur or the like who would be just as evil if written as a straight person, you probably have a winner.
I encourage people to write characters of many sexual orientations. After all, the world is a diverse place, and it is part of our job as writers to present realism (or at least lull our readers into an enjoyable suspension of disbelief). At the same time, we the writers are able to choose the details of our stories, and thus we choose to develop our characters fully and not use ‘exotic’ non-heterosexual orientation as a crutch.
*There are a whole suite of genetic and environmental factors at play, so it’s not totally random, but that’s a bit beyond the scope of this blog post. A summary of current research can be found here.
**If that is in fact the story you are writing, please do carry on!