When I was working on my undergrad degree in Sociology, I read a book by Ritch Savin-Williams called The New Gay Teenager, which argued that LGBTQ teens were no longer identifying themselves as LGBTQ. Savin-Williams suggested they were instead adopting the belief that labels were no longer needed and that by labeling themselves, they were limiting themselves. No offense to Mr. Savin-Williams, but I did not find that to be true when I was an undergraduate, and I still don’t find it to be true as an author or professor of Sociology.
Whether we like it or not, we are constantly being labeled and categorized by people with whom we come into contact. The same can be said for many of us, who put ourselves in boxes, or tack on labels about who we are, in order to help figure out how to relate to the world around us. But often, the label for sexual orientation only exists if you are not heterosexual. When interacting with new people, there are some assumptions that are made, and for the most part, heterosexuality is one of those assumptions. Consider the last time a co-worker or friend “came out” as straight to you, or talked about going to a “straight bar” or having dinner in the “straight part of town.” When it comes to being LGBTQ, we have painted rainbows around ourselves and created little tiny pockets of gayness, that we then use when living our lives in a non-gay world.
The interesting thing about these labels in fiction however, is that they are not really necessary. As authors, we control the worlds in which our characters live. We control (to some degree) their interactions with others, how they respond and react, and how much they get to know about each other. For this reason, it is possible that we could leave behind these labels which we have to adopt as social actors in our own lives, and let our characters be who they are, free of definition. I have never read a book where the main character had to explain to someone that they were straight. They never “come out” or struggle with their heterosexuality, which means they are never explicitly labeled by the author as “straight.” LGBTQ characters on the other hand are constantly being labeled, even when it isn’t important, as a way of showing why they fit or don’t fit into a scenario. The example that pops immediately into my mind is Damien from the House of Night series. He is the only permanent guy in an otherwise female group, and it seems to only be his sexual orientation that allows his presence to be accepted. Contrast this with Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series, who never discusses his orientation, but was in love with another wizard. Neither character required a label to exist or be useful in their respective books, but Damien was still sidled with one. Don’t get me wrong, I love that he was included in the series, it just would have been nice to have him be included because he was smart or had an affinity for an element.
Dumbledore never discussed his attraction to, or love of the other wizard in the series and it was only during the movie production that the world even found out he was gay. This is maybe going a little too far in the opposite direction, and LGBTQ characters may best be served with a happy medium. When I was writing Awakened, I had the main character acknowledge his sexual orientation, but it wasn’t the major identity he assumed in the book. He was a teenager, facing some life altering changes, who happened to be gay.
I have noticed this same trend with some other YA books with LGBTQ characters, who are included as primary or secondary characters because LGBTQ people exist in the world, not because it served some function in the story. I think this is a great sign of progress. Hopefully there will come a time when the characters we create can be themselves, completely free of labels. Those would be stories worth reading!