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Queer sf

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I recently read Gordon van Gelder's latest editorial in F&SF. It says various interesting things; for example, he notes that the percentage of female readers is down to 33%, from 39% in 1994. And he says "Maybe . . . readers no longer differentiate as much between fantasy and sf," which doesn't match my observations; I see a surprising (and, to my mind, unfortunate) number of people making a very strong and vocal distinction between the two.

But here's the part I found most interesting:

There were more complaints than I expected from readers who object to homosexual subject matter in the fiction.

I keep going back and re-reading that sentence and being surprised by it all over again. Which no doubt just makes even clearer than was already obvious that I'm kinda naive and sheltered in some ways. I like to think of sf readers as a bit more accepting than the general public, but of course not all sf readers think alike.

When I think of sf stories featuring queer characters, the first one I remember reading is a bittersweet piece by Bridget McKenna called "Evenings, Mornings, Afternoons," which appeared in the 12/90 issue of Asimov's. Somehow it stuck in my head, though I didn't remember anything more about it than the fact that it featured a gay male protagonist; the fact that his orientation wasn't a big deal, just part of who he was; and the closing image. My memory of it was so weak that I even misremembered the author as Maureen McHugh and the date as two or three years earlier. But I just dug through my old copies of Asimov's and found it and re-skimmed it. It's still a nice story, but it's not as groundbreaking as I remembered; for example, the protagonist is elderly, and doesn't appear to have much in the way of sexual interests at all, and is dying of what might or might not be AIDS. (Of course, the lack-of-interest-in-sex thing is a tough line to walk; if you go too far in one direction, you're adhering to the stereotype that all gay men are interested in is sex, while if you go too far in the other direction, you're adhering to the safe asexual portrayal too common in fiction.)

And as it turns out, that wasn't even the first sf story I read featuring queer characters; two of McHugh's Zhang stories had appeared in Asimov's over the previous few years, and though I'm not certain at this point, I assume that Zhang's orientation was made clear in those.

But for whatever reason, the McKenna story stuck in my head (come to think of it, December '90 was not long before I began questioning my own orientation, so perhaps that had something to do with the story being memorable for me), and left me with the impression that the sf world in general and Asimov's in particular were nicely accepting of gays.

Just this past weekend, I read what I believe to be the first sf story ever to sympathetically portray a gay character: Sturgeon's "The World Well Lost." I'd certainly read the story before, most likely when I was a kid and first encountered Sturgeon on my father's cornucopia of bookshelves. But somehow I hadn't remembered much about it, and certainly hadn't remembered that it's all about homosexuality. It's even possible that I missed that aspect entirely, reading the story at age 10, though if so then I can't imagine what I thought was going on in it. It's a very good story, well worth reading, even though (unsurprisingly) a bit dated in some ways.

"The World Well Lost" was published in the June, 1953 issue of a short-lived magazine called Universe Science Fiction. It's been almost fifty years. Portrayals of sexuality in sf have come a long way since then.

And yet we're still getting things like these survey responses that Gordon mentioned. And we're still at a point where even an actively queer-friendly magazine like SH just doesn't see all that many stories featuring gay characters. We've published only about ten stories that could be seen as featuring more-or-less queer characters, out of the 125 or so stories we've published total, and one of those is a reprint, and several of them are pretty subtle about the queer parts, and in several of them one of the main queer characters is dead by the time the story begins, and a couple of them feature characters who aren't entirely human. We don't have much in the way of queer-related fiction coming up in the next few months, either.

So what's up with that? It's not that we're getting a lot of queer stories that we're not publishing; a few, certainly, but not all that many. (Some have been quite good but didn't quite make the cut for one reason or another.) Are people not writing them? Are people writing them but not sending them to us?

I suspect most people reading this know me well enough by know that I don't need to issue the disclaimer, but in case of people arriving via search engine or something: of course there's no quota, of course I'm not saying all stories should have gay or bi characters in them, of course I'm not saying that we'll automatically publish any gay-protagonist story we get. After all, if only 8% of our stories so far have focused on queer characters, then at least 90% focus on straight ones. (Hard to say exactly, though, since some stories have multiple main characters, or don't have any characters at all, or have only alien characters whose orientation is difficult to categorize on a straight/gay axis.)

But I will say that I would be very happy to see more stories that contain gay, lesbian, and/or bi characters in prominent roles, especially if at least some of those characters are portrayed sympathetically and remain alive throughout the story.

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