Avoiding Queer Erasure
Welcome back to Queering the Narrative! This week, I wanted to talk specifically about a topic that is something of a running theme in my posts: Queer Erasure.
The erasure of various queer identities is something that I’ve talked about at various times on this blog. In every post I’ve touched on it I’ve stressed that queer erasure is bad, but I haven’t had the space to talk about what it is specifically, why it’s harmful, or how to avoid it. So, this week, I wanted to dedicate a post to the very important topic of avoiding queer erasure.
What is Queer Erasure?
In a broad sense, Queer Erasure refers to the removal of queerness from the historical record. Stemming from heteronormativity — the belief that cis binary genders and straight relationships are the human default — queer erasure is the result of people looking back at history or historical literature and either ignoring or actively erasing queer identity.
So, under the umbrella of queer theory, queer erasure can mean anything from insisting that Achilles and Patroclus were just good friends to honest bafflement at why there could possibly be two brides in a wedding photo. This blog, however, isn’t about history or even, really, literary analysis — it’s about writing better queer characters.
Queer Erasure in Writing
Perhaps the most common form of queer erasure in modern media is bi erasure — handwaving away a character’s attraction to multiple genders by either never addressing their orientation or claiming they’re “just gay now.” However, other less obvious things like queer coding and queerbaiting are also forms of queer erasure
These things actively play into queer stereotypes/subtext, but ultimately ignore them in favor of either not showing the character in any sort of relationship or forcing them into a heterosexual relationship.
Another, less common form of queer erasure is just hand wavey general queerness — characters who are considered queer within the text, but who do not actually have their queer identities named or explored. This, again, is most often a form of bi erasure, but I’ve also seen it done with characters that exist outside the gender binary (like Janet in the The Good Place, a… fraught example of “representation,” to say the least).
These sorts of queer erasure often come with a content creator giving a knowing smile and saying “It’s incredible that so many different people can see themselves in this character.” Usually, this means they accidentally stumbled into queer “rep” either through unintentional coding or the use of stereotypes to make a stock “funny” or “tragic” character, or that they’re actively queerbaiting.
Queer erasure in writing applies a heteronormative lens to something that you’re actively creating, whether intentionally (to avoid the ire of conservative members of the viewing public) or unintentionally (by trying to do a “subtle” queer arc or playing into coding/tropes).
Avoiding Queer Erasure
Now that we know what queer erasure is, here are some tips on how to avoid it:
Avoiding queer erasure mean being intentional with how you are portraying your characters. You have to bear in mind the tropes, stereotypes, and cliches that you’re drawing on, and the coding associated with these tropes.
You should, frankly, ALWAYS be aware of and examining these when you’re writing. In the context of queerness, though, this means taking a good hard look at your characters and making sure your internalized heteronormativity isn’t causing you to overlook queer-coded character traits or obvious chemistry. This is important for all writers — even those of us in the queer community — because we all internalize stuff without realizing it!
- Naming Identities
Naming your characters’ specific identities is a great way of avoiding queer erasure, as it keeps them from existing in a ~nebulous queer space~ and gives them agency over their identities. This is particularly easy in more modern settings, when you can just use the LGBTQIA+ language we already have to talk about these identities.
However, it’s also possible to do this in historical/fantastical settings where our language might not work well! I’ve discussed this in more depth before, but your characters can simply explain their own identities in settings when they don’t have specific language. It can be pretty succinct, too — “I like both men and women,” “I don’t really identify with a specific gender,” “relationships have never actually interested me,” etc.
- Demonstrating Queerness
The final method I want to touch on for avoiding queer erasure is through what I’d like to call demonstrating queerness. This, to me, means making it unequivocally obvious just what sort of identity your character has, even if they don’t outright say it.
This can be a delicate line to walk, and often trips into erasure-like spaces — especially when a character is bi — but it can also be an effective way to demonstrate identities your characters might not have language for.
In real life, of course, no one has to “prove” that they’re queer — that’s gatekeepery and gross. In fiction, though, it’s all too easy to slap a label on a character and claim they’re queer without taking any time at all in the narrative to actually show that. For truly authentic and enjoyable queer representation, your reader should somehow be shown your character’s identity, in order to incorporate that identity into their overall character. It shouldn’t be their ONLY character trait, of course, but it should be a visible one.
That being said, there are definitely things to be careful of when demonstrating a character’s queerness. There are a myriad of harmful tropes which exist about queer folx, and it’s important that you keep yourself abreast of them when you’re writing. As a general rule, avoid “predatory” behavior or making your character’s identity (especially a gender expansive identity) a “twist.” Both of these have been done to death and are almost always done in a way that vilify or humiliate the queer character.
Avoiding queer erasure requires a mindful examination of your characters, their motivations, and any tropes or stereotypes you may be playing into. There’s already plenty of queer erasure and heteronormativity in, well… every aspect of modern life. We really don’t need more of it!
That’s it for this week! I’ll be back with another post next week but until then stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!