I grew up as a nerdy gay kid in a time and place where being one came with a healthy dose of invisibility. I felt unseen in the media I loved, including Star Wars, Star Trek, and Lord of the Rings, and always felt something was missing: people like me weren’t present in these rich fantasy worlds. Fantasy and science fiction provided an escape, but never a mirror, never a way to see myself as a hero.
Some LGBTQ people read speculative fiction partly to imagine themselves as the heroes, as people who can save the day. We can try on alternate lives— versions of ourselves who can explore everything from the depths of space to the horrors of a war where soldiers mount winged dragons— but what happens when, in these vast worlds of imagination, the creators cannot picture anyone like you in those stories?
Genre fiction, and adult fantasy especially, has long been the territory of straight, white cisgender men. There are cracks in that wall now. It no longer seems an unassailable tower, but growing up how and when I did, I could not find myself there, in a genre I loved.
In the rare cases when I found a gay character, they were a villain. Later, when we began to creep onto the page or screen, it was often to meet a tragic death in order to move the hero’s (it was almost always a hero’s, never a heroine’s) story forward. As we appeared in genre fiction so did our struggles. We arrived in these worlds of the imagination only to face the same prejudices and problems as we do on earth. The creators could then imagine us, but they couldn’t imagine that we’d be free of the same isms and phobias that haunt us here, like racism and homophobia, to name a couple.
Lately, thankfully, new spaces are opening for us. Large franchises, like Star Trek and Star Wars, have provided on-screen evidence that queer people exist in the future or a galaxy far, far away. In fantasy literature, books for young adults have seen an explosive growth of diverse characters and representation, while the adult market, especially in the traditionally published space, continues to lag light years behind. There are notable and important exceptions: Barbara Ann Wright has written over a dozen speculative books, ranging from space opera to high fantasy, all of which feature lesbian protagonists. K.A. Doore, Becky Chambers, and Samantha Shannon have contributed works to round out the list, but high-profile epic fantasy, especially in traditional publication, largely remains the province of straight, white male writers with leading characters who resemble their creators.
I, too, am a writer of fantasy, which I didn’t start writing with the intention of being a gay fantasy author; I simply wanted to be a fantasy author who happened to be gay, but the more I wrote the more I wanted to see heroes like me, and it felt natural for my characters to reflect my world. People sometimes ask me why my main characters are gay and the answer is easy: because I am.
My first novel, White Trash Warlock, an urban fantasy, was released in October 2020, just as the world was coming out of lockdown. It met with success, but without in-person events it was hard to know how the book was received. Was it finding the audience I most wanted it to, namely LGBTQ+ people who grew up like I did, who craved fantasy like I did?
Every few weeks I receive an email from someone who grew up in the Midwest, grew up rural, and most importantly, was gay. Every one of those emails is like a lifeline and so often express the reader’s thanks—for seeing themselves reflected in the hero. They’re grateful to have what I always wanted, and I’m beyond grateful that I’ve been able to give it to them.
I’m on the eve of my seeing my first high fantasy, Dark Moon, Shallow Sea, in print, and am having the same anticipation as I did with White Trash Warlock: I’m waiting to see if this book finds the readers I most want it to.
Representation matters because in it we see ourselves reflected. We can ask ourselves questions through a character’s perspective, piggyback on their experiences and ponder how we would handle the situation. Maybe we’d be the hero. Maybe we’d be the villain. Representation provides a model, a path to reflection and self-empowerment. It gives us the idea that we could rise to the occasion and win the day.
The opposite is also true. A lack of representation creates a form of invisibility, the kind I felt so keenly. Broken or limited representation can create other issues. If the portrait of you held up to the world that people are told reflects your true self is inaccurate or limiting it can send the message that this is who you’re supposed to be, how you’re supposed to behave, that this is the kind of person we’ll accept and make space for. Broken representation can create an echo chamber of what is acceptable in a gay person and what is not. The message beneath the surface is that you’d better fit the mold or we’ll cut off the parts that don’t match.
The answer to limited or broken representation is simple in theory and challenging in execution: provide more representation. The more diverse and authentic of a portrait we can draw, the wider the reflection, and the more room for nuance. More representation means more people have a chance to see themselves.
David R. Slayton (He/Him) grew up in Guthrie, Oklahoma, where finding fantasy novels was pretty challenging and finding fantasy novels with diverse characters was downright impossible. Now he lives in Denver, Colorado with his partner Brian and writes the books he always wanted to read. His debut, White Trash Warlock, was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award. In 2015, David founded Trick or Read, an initiative to give out books along with candy to children on Halloween as well as uplift lesser-known authors or those from marginalized backgrounds. David is a regular speaker and panelist at comic cons and writing conferences. You can learn more about David and his work on his website.