Writing Excuses 14.04: Writing the Other – Bisexual Characters
Key points: Writing the Other is aimed at encouraging writers to write characters who aren’t like you, and giving you the tools and examples to do it right. Starting with bisexual representation. First, bisexual is someone who has an attraction to two or more genders. Beware bisexual erasure! Bisexuality is not a phase, nor is it a transition on the way to gay. Bisexual, pansexual, queer… the language is evolving. The power of the default often reinforces bi invisibility. Think about how to resist the default. Watch for treating one kind of relationship as a joke, while the other is serious. Remember that people are not just one thing, make them intersectional and real. Make sure you emphasize the positive! Remember that bisexual people are normal people. Be wary of making one kind of relationship real and meaningful, while the other kind are just sad pale smears on a bagel. Use sensitivity readers, too.
[Mary] Season 14, Episode Four.
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Writing the Other – Bisexual Characters.
[Dan] 15 minutes long.
[Tempest] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dongwon] And we’re not that smart.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Tempest] I’m Tempest.
[Dongwon] I’m Dongwon.
[T. J.] And I’m T. J.
[Dan] Yeah. We have our wonderful guest with us today, T. J. Berry. What are we going to talk about today, T. J.? Actually, before we do that, why don’t you introduce yourself?
[T. J.] Hi. I’m T. J. Berry. I’m an author of science fiction/fantasy mash ups. I… This is my second time joining Writing Excuses on the Writing Excuses Cruise, and I’m a long time listener.
[Dan] Well, that’s awesome. We are excited to have you here with us. This is the first of a series that we are going to be doing. In previous years, you’ve heard a lot of the what writers get wrong podcasts. Those are awesome and informative. We wanted to do another series that was a little more constructive, where we give you great advice about how you can write these other things. This is the brainchild of Tempest Bradford. What can you tell us about the Writing the Other series, Tempest?
[Tempest] Well, basically, it’s all about getting writers to understand that it is okay to write characters who aren’t like you, and, yes, there are many ways to get it wrong, and to fall into the fail hole, but there are also a lot of ways to get it right. It’s actually much better if you learn how to get it right from constructive examples. So that’s what were going to be talking about in this series. We’re going to be giving you tools to learn how to write these characters well, so that everyone is happy.
[Dan] Awesome. Cool. So what are we talking about today?
[Tempest] We’re going to talk about bisexual representation. I wanted T. J. to come on because I know that T. J. is a bisexual person, and T. J. writes fiction that has bisexual people in it. And especially since T. J. is in a relationship with a person who is not her gender. So, from the outside, it may look a lot like T. J.’s in a heterosexual relationship. That’s one of the many sort of nuances of writing bisexual characters that I thought you would be a great person to talk about that.
[T. J.] Awesome. So, yeah, backing up just a little bit, and making sure that people understand what the definition of bisexual is. A person who is bisexual is someone who has an attraction to two or more genders. You can also use the language that it is yours and another gender. Outdated language uses binaries like attracted to the two genders. We don’t really use that much anymore, because we’ve recognized that gender is a spectrum, so we don’t use that. We don’t use that binary language much anymore. Tempest, as you said, I am married to a cisgender man, and I have been for 21 years. But that doesn’t make me any less bi. So one of… That segues really neatly into, one of the things that if you are writing a bisexual character you need to keep in mind is that there is a phenomenon called bi-erasure, by which, if specifically a person is in a relationship with somebody who is not of their gender, it can read as a straight relationship. Just because you’re in a relationship with somebody who is not of your gender, does not make you necessarily straight. I am no less bi, because I am married to a man. So, as a writer, when you are creating bi characters, you should be aware of bi-erasure as a concept, and how to avoid it. Some of the things… Like the tropes that have been used in the past that contribute to bi-erasure that you should avoid. Treating bisexuality like a phase. Like, oh, this is just something you’re exploring and then you’re actually a straight person. Also, the reverse of that is… I’ve heard the phrase, and this was on Sex In The City, which I quite enjoy. They call bisexuality a layover to Gay Town.
[Dongwon] That show has not aged well.
[T. J.] No, it has not. Bisexuality is not a layover to Gay Town. Nor is it a stop on the cruise to Gay Town.
[T. J.] Bisexual people are queer people. So, for an example of the layover to Gay Town in television and film, think of Buffy’s Willow. Buffy’s Willow, for four seasons, dated guys. Then, all of a sudden, in season four, she declares, “I’m gay now.” Which can be a thing that happens. But it also can lead to bisexual erasure. She dated men, and was clearly happy dating men, and then all of a sudden was like, “Click. I’m gay.” So, yes, those things can happen, but because bisexual people are so infrequently represented, when that changeover occurs, it erases her bisexuality. So be aware of that when you’re writing, and have bisexual characters who are visible and who are seen and who are treated as bisexual and queer people. Now, I kind of use those terms a little interchangeably. A lot of that is personal preference. Somebody may use the term bisexual, someone may use the term pansexual, which is similar, but not exactly the same. Pansexual, generally, is someone who’s attracted to all genders. But some bisexual people are also attracted to all genders. The language on this is evolving constantly.
[Tempest] It’s very just layered and nuanced, right? Like there’s…
[T. J.] Absolutely.
[Tempest] There are a lot of people who like adamantly, are like, “I’m pansexual because bi means this.” Bi doesn’t actually mean that, but like, for them, bi meant that, and they’re like very much like “No! I want to be sure that I am inclusive of everything.”
[T. J.] Exactly. A lot of this is what word feels right to you. Some people will just simply use the word queer as an umbrella term. That’s fine too. Yeah. Some people have started reclaiming bi even though it has that bi in it. People get really thrown by the two prefix, by it. People are really reclaiming it to mean two or more genders.
[Dongwon] If I can jump in for a second.
[T. J.] Sure.
[Dongwon] One thing I want to talk about a little bit is sort of the mechanics of how bi invisibility gets reinforced in fiction. It’s a thing that we see happening a lot when dealing with any kind of marginalization is there is the power of the default, right? Whenever you’re not explicitly stating somebody’s sexual orientation, their gender identity, their racial identity, there’s going to be a lot of pressure for your reader to automatically assume that they are whatever the default is for the culture that they come from. Here in the US and in the West generally, it’s often cisgendered white heterosexuality. So when you have a bi character dating someone of the… A different gender or of the opposite gender of them, then there’s going to be that default assumption that they’re hetero. So, what are some of the ways that we can flag that in an explicit way to sort of resist the default being assigned to those characters?
[T. J.] Absolutely. An example of something that happens… I know we all love The Good Place…
[T. J.] But along your line of tagging, Eleanor often makes jokes about how attractive she finds Tahini in The Good Place, and that is great, but the creators have explicitly said that she is not bisexual. So it is treated as a joke, and she’s not tagged as bisexual. So that’s a way that bi-erasure can be enacted in our popular culture. Because it’s played… Sometimes relationships between two people of the same gender are played as a joke, whereas the opposite gender relationship or the different gender relationship is played as serious. That’s a way to erase it. So if you are having a bisexual character in a work that you’re creating, make sure that you’re treating with the same seriousness the relationships of all genders.
[Dan] Right. This is actually a whole that is very easy to fall into. The third Pitch Perfect movie did exactly the same thing. Or, no, it was the second Pitch Perfect movie. Where there was, similar to Tahini, a female character who was very tall, very attractive, and very dominant in personality, and the main character was constantly making these kind of joking references to attraction, that were never actually taken seriously. So it does show up a lot, that people do that thing.
[T. J.] Sure.
[Dongwon] We see it between male characters as well. I was thinking of anytime we see The Rock and Kevin Hart on-screen together…
[Oh, my goodness.]
[Dongwon] There’s always that sort of like little bit of attraction tension. That’s part of what makes their comedy duo work. But it always is played for sort of this queer panic laughs. That’s very frustrating.
[T. J.] The laugh is, exactly as you say, it’s just a nervous laugh. Like, “Oh, we wouldn’t really want that to happen.” But yes, we kind of do.
[Dan] All right. Let’s pause for our book of the week which is Space Unicorn Blues by T. J. Berry.
[T. J.] Yeah. So, Space Unicorn Blues came out July from Angry Robot Books. The pitch is a disaster gay in space cooperates with a talking unicorn in order to deliver a time-sensitive magical cargo to save humanity from a coming apocalypse.
[Tempest] I love it.
[Dongwon] Every single piece of that sounds amazing.
[T. J.] I’m not sure when we’ll actually air this, but if by then the sequel is coming out in May of 2019. It is called Five Unicorn Flush. Our disaster gay is back with all of her friends. Now she has to protect a planet full of magical fairytale beings from humans who want to colonize and exploit them.
[Tempest] [inaudible] go wow!
[Dan] That is Space Unicorn Blues by T. J. Berry. Where can people find that?
[T. J.] People can find it online, Amazon, bookstores. It’s really delightful to go into bookstores and find your own book.
[Tempest] Isn’t it, though?
[Dan] It’s a great experience.
[T. J.] As a new author, that is my greatest joy.
[Dan] It’s wonderful.
[Dan] All right. Well, let’s get back into this. One of the things we really want to focus on is that what we’re here to do is to give you, as an author, you can use to port… If you choose to use bisexual characters, here’s some great ways that you can do it well. So what are some things that they can keep in mind or include in their fiction or in their descriptions so that they can do this right, and do it well?
[T. J.] Sure. So one of the things that I highly recommend is that you make your characters intersectional so that… People are never just one thing. So you may have a bisexual character, but keep in mind this character may also be disabled. They also may be Latino. They may come from a marginalized… A background that hasn’t been explored fully. Make sure your characters are intersectional and real. One of the things I’d like to talk about is there’s a book by C. B. Lee called Not Your Sidekick, which is a YA book. Really fantastic. The heroine is Asian, she is Vietnamese Chinese-American, and she’s a bisexual teenage girl. So you’ve got a lot of different things going on. That is what happens in people’s lives. People are never just one thing. She is the daughter of superheroes, but she has no superpowers. So she gets an internship with a local super-villain. So we’re basically looking at sky high but queer, which is amazing. One of the things that’s done really well in this book is not just the inclusivity, but the intersectionality. So you have someone who is Vietnamese Chinese-American and is dealing with be… The cultural implications of being second-generation and her bisexuality. So intersectionality is something that writers should definitely take a look at. Another thing is positivity. Make sure that if you have bisexual characters, that they are not just… This goes for marginalized characters in general. Make sure they’re not just receiving the brunt of homophobia, racism. Make sure you are showing the positive sides of their lives. A book that really does this quite well is Passing Strange by Ellen Klages. It’s a novella from Tor.com. It is of 1940s San Francisco and it has magic in it. So it’s really delightful. The LGBTQIA representation is fantastic. The characters are very well-rounded, and they… She is able to touch on the realities of queer life without making it a tragic gay story. This is a positive, uplifting love story where we see some of the discrimination and hardships that come with this life, but also things go well in the end. So, make sure that you’re not doing the usual trope of burying your gays, which means that your gay characters are disproportionately killed off in your narrative. Make sure that queer people have happy endings, and that they also find love. Those are some things that you can definitely look at to make sure you’re doing the right thing. Also, make sure your bisexual people are just normal people. There is a stereotype that bisexual people… This was more in the past, but still it kind of pops its ugly head up now and then is that bisexual people are promiscuous. This is… Just because bisexual people have a larger dating pool doesn’t necessarily mean that is true. Bisexual people are soccer moms, you know?
[T. J.] Just write that into your narrative as daily life. People are married, they have domestic lives. Not everything is necessarily clubs all the time.
[Tempest] Right. It isn’t always about like their sexuality.
[T. J.] Right. Exactly.
[Tempest] Another thing I want to mention is if you are going to have a bisexual character that is going to have relationships with people from multiple genders, it’s really important to not privilege some relationships over others. This is a mistake that I found in Torchwood, which was supposed to be a very bisexual program. I wrote a whole essay about this, so I won’t go into like all the things about Torchwood that made me mad. But, like, one of the core things was how even though Capt. Jack Harkness was bisexual, omnisexual, or whatever they were calling it at the time, it was very clear that the relationships that he had with men were like real impactful relationships on him as a character, and the relationships he had with women were like sad pale like smears on a bagel in comparison.
[T. J.] Exactly.
[Tempest] It was… That’s like a problem that Russell T Davies has in general when he’s writing bisexual characters. That may be in part because he, as a gay man, is like pulling more from his… Like his relationships that are deep and whatever are with men, because he is gay. So like he sort of transferred that to his character that was supposed to be omnisexual. So, I would say, like… You don’t have to have your bisexual character having relationships with multiple people to prove that they’re bisexual in your work. But, if you do decide to have that, if you do decide to have multiple relationships, make sure that like it’s clear that all those relationships are meaningful. Not just some of them.
[T. J.] Absolutely. Absolutely. One of the last things… I cannot enough stress the importance of sensitivity readers. On this last book, Space Unicorn Blues, I had the services of five sensitivity readers because it is a fairly diverse book with a lot of intersecting marginalizations that are not mine. I’m going to quote [me sea schall?] here, who I love very much, who says, “There is a difference between writing a diverse set of characters and telling someone else’s story.” So what is helpful is if you can get a sensitivity reader who can come in and say, “No, you are telling someone else’s story that maybe you should not be telling.” I know Mary Robinette has told the story many times about she had a book where she was telling someone else’s story and decided to pull back on it. I cannot stress enough how important it is, because even certain turns of phrase that you will not recognize as problematic, someone who is own voices will look at this and say, “No, you should not use this particular word.” It may not be a very problematic word, but the phrase itself may be something that indicates something that you would not know as a member… As not a member of that community. So hire sensitivity readers, and pay them.
[Dan] Absolutely. We want to stress the whole purpose of this series of episodes is to tell you that you can write these kinds of characters. We want you to write these kinds of characters. It benefits the entire industry, the more of this that we have. But there are those lines that are easy to cross and hard to notice if you’re not part of that community.
[Dan] That’s why sensitivity readers are so valuable.
[Dan] I wish that we had more time. We really need to end, though. T. J., you’ve got some homework to give us.
[T. J.] Yeah, this is an easy homework. You don’t have to write, but what I would love for people to do is find the 100th episode of Brooklyn 99. They have a canonically bisexual character, Rosa Diaz. On the 100th episode… Which, by the way, a 100th episode of a show is a big deal. So to dedicate the hundredth episode to the coming out of your bisexual character is a really fantastic thing. This is her coming out episode, and she talks to her family members. Not only is it difficult, and she has a really tough time getting through it, it has to happen multiple times. This is something that people who are not queer may not understand is that coming out is not a one time thing. It’s multiple conversations in multiple spaces, and sometimes with the same people over time. So Brooklyn 99 handles this beautifully, and I would love for people to take a look at how they did it.
[Dan] Well, that’s awesome. Thank you very much. This is been a fantastic episode. Thank you very much to T. J. for being here.
[T. J.] Thank you.
[Dan] And, of course, Dongwon and Tempest for joining me here. This is Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.