Monday, June 4, 2018

Writing Gay Characters

A gay character is, in western fiction, inevitably the “other”, the minority, and often the “outcast”.

Including this kind of character in mysteries is good because “the other” sees what the mainstream does not. Even in general fiction, “the other” provides insights and perspective that majority culture characters cannot because they are trained to see what they are expected to see. It requires “the other” to see the discrepancies.

Creating the gay character requires understanding the dominant culture in any era because the majority always defines society’s rules, expectations and practices.

As the outcast or minority, the gay character must learn to hide within those rules and practices to both survive and flourish. When they do not, they are viewed as criminals, either morally or legally. When they do, they become invisible or at least deceptively “untainted”.

When my character, Brother Thomas, told me he was a gay man in the 13th century, I knew I had a lot of research to do if I was not going to make him into the usual limp-wristed modern stereotype. In some respects, I had it easy.

Medieval England was a male-dominant, warrior culture. As such, male bonding was a useful practice, as the ancient Spartans (just one example) found out in battle. Medieval men hugged, kissed, and wept with abandon. They had rituals where unrelated men formed bonds of brotherhood. All this allowed men to show affection, emotion, and build long-term, committed relationships. In battle, a man fought harder with his “brother” by his side, and, if the pair was well-liked and good warriors, any sexual relationship was simply ignored. As has always been true, we see what we want to see in the way we find it most useful to see.

The danger was that these practical habits could lead to homosexual sex. Aelred of Rievaulx, a 12th century prior, dealt with this by allowing open affection amongst his monks with clear rules. One example was that elderly monks, impotent though they might be, could not sleep in the same bed. But until the 14th century, when sodomy became equated with heresy, the Church often viewed same gender sex as a forgivable sin. The greater sin was being the “passive” male because he was behaving like a woman and in opposition to his god-given gender. The lesser male sinner was the “active” partner. Same logic, and Ruth Karras has written some excellent books on the subject.

With this environment in mind, I have developed Brother Thomas as a man who can fit within his culture as long as he hides within common and acceptable practices. He suffers due to the tragedy of his past, but, as he grows, he learns how to survive positively and eventually I think he may well find some solace.

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