Today, we have a guest piece by Heart of Fire author, Raina Nightingale, who discusses what it's like to be an LGBTQ+ author who does not intentionally factor concepts of gender or sexuality into her fantasy stories while celebrating the diversity this brings.
All of Raina's books are discounted at 20% through June on Smashwords, and Kindred of the Sea is also just 99c in most territories today! We're also giving away two ebook prizes on Instagram later today so be sure to enter to be in with a chance of winning!
Hello, everyone. I'm going to tell this in a bit of a story, since that seems to be the only way to get my thoughts in order or start them flowing these days. Hopefully, it's not too much of a ramble. I've been struggling to write non-fiction these days. So here goes.
I was about eight or nine when I wrote the first draft of Heart of Fire, and invented the were-dragons: a new species that could be different genders, or at least sexes, in their dragon and humanoid forms. Back then, I didn't realize this sort of thing might be controversial. What I thought might be an issue about my creatures was that the first ones of this new species were made with all the memories of dragon-riders pairs who had died, which isn't really relevant to this topic, but ….
I didn't know there was such a thing as gay, or non-binary, or … anything. I was just writing a fantasy story, and to this day when I talk about Heart of Fire, I'm kind of … nothing in it was intended to be queer or LGBTQ+, it's just … just … well, just not built on the traditional model of gender. It's not built on any model of gender or sexuality, because those things mean nothing to me. Well, I can understand how having babies works, but not much more than that. The were-dragons are the same people, with the same personalities, whether dragon or humanoid, male or female. A reviewer said that I posed some very interesting questions about gender and sexuality with these creatures, but I wasn't trying to say anything about gender or sexuality, or even aware that I was.
At the same time, I'm not sure I didn't say something. I was, whether I knew it or not, asking people to see others as simply persons, and not expressions of gender, or bound or defined by gender. The way I would like to be seen.
And the fact I came up with that idea when and how I did also shows that some people – at least, I – see the male-female binary so little that often enough I don't even notice when I break it … though I was taught it and have been affected by it in my own ways, even parroting pieces of it at times. I don't have a gender identity. I don't identify with my gender – or my sex. And I have a hard time really thinking about it explicitly, which probably led to me taking so long to realize I definitively didn't think certain things, either. It's hard to realize you don't think something, when you don't know what the something is.
And this impacts my writing in other ways, too. Very, very few of my characters (since forever) have, I think, ascribed to gender models or identified with them. Some of them are explicitly in rebellion against gender models and roles, though this is actually the exception. The strongest example of this is Alis in Children of the Dryads – one of my favorite things about that friendship is that she's explicitly in rebellion against what's expected of a woman in her culture, and she meets Tara-lin, the main character, who has no idea of gender roles at all and just encourages her to be herself as if it's the most natural thing in the world, which it is. I wish everyone could have that.
If some of these characters were taught such language as children, they'd probably use gender-neutral pronouns, like they/them. Some of them, in the languages they speak, probably do use gender-neutral pronouns! Those are probably even the norm in one or two of their languages. But I usually write them with the pronouns of their sex, since I myself have never rebelled against the pronouns of mine or gone out of my way to avoid them, or asked people to call me something else … but I also don't care whether I'm called by the pronouns of the opposite sex, and have never taken any effort to avoid or correct them (except for other people's embarrassment, since for some reason some people got really embarrassed about the idea they might have been calling me the wrong gender … as if it even mattered – and why should it matter to them if it doesn't matter to me?). But many times, I don't even know for sure whether my characters are non-binary or agender.
That can make certain things hard (like when people ask for stories with certain representations), more so with some of my stories than others. Even stating that I – or a character – don't have a gender identity places an emphasis on gender that is in complete contradiction to what I actually feel and perceive, and even what's present in the writing, so it's very hard to promote it well. Stating they don't experience romantic or sexual attraction puts that far more prominently in the background than it is. Sometimes, I feel like it paints the idea of a gap where there could be gender identity or sexuality, but isn't, but it's not like that at all. There's no gap, nothing missing. Sometimes, stating true things, even important true things, can put them in the wrong light and almost diminish or hide the real importance. So that struggle, that question to figure out – how much do I say, how much do I even know, how do I say it when I don't even know it half the time, and that's sort of the point – is something I have to deal with, and try to figure out bit by bit, piece by piece.
None of that means I'm any less happy to be this way. There are ways in which I don't understand people for whom gender identity is a big part of who they are (and this can make understanding people, and what some words mean in different contexts, difficult; it can make it easy to make some mistakes without intending to). At the same time, I'm sure most of them can't understand what it's like to not even have a concept of gender. It's easy to feel like people who don't understand sex or gender miss something truly wonderful. And, to be perfectly honest – we probably do and, not to be harsh, so do they. As human beings we're limited, and all of us see some things and miss others. It seems to me that friendship and companionship are less complicated, that it's easier to see people without the lens of stereotypes – and I think, however hard we fight against them or try to correct them, it's very hard for people not to be at all affected by one stereotype or another. I don't know, but the world just feels fresh to me this way, and I am convinced that really deep, intimate relationships are possible without gender identity or sexuality. Different, almost certainly. But not lesser. Love doesn't require sex or romance to be close or devoted; those are probably aids sometimes and hindrances others, though I really can't speak to that. I just know that we can all love others and enjoy life, and the love between friends isn't any lesser, and we can probably all learn from each other, and certainly make the world more beautiful together.
And so I write stories about deep, compelling, intimate relationships that don't have anything to do with gender or sexuality. I don't understand those things, but I do know they aren't necessary to having a close and incredible relationship, and I want other people to know that, too. I want other people to see that. People who might be like me, and those who might not be. I think it's really important for all of us to know the way we are isn't wrong or evil, and acknowledge that other people are different, and their differences aren't lesser. It's okay for us to acknowledge when we simply can't understand something about another person, even if it's very important, and at the same time acknowledge there's a difference there and to be respectful of that. I actually think acknowledging when we can't understand is part of being aware and respectful of the glorious differences between us.
Let's be free to be ourselves.
I (Raina Nightingale) have been writing fantasy since I could write stories with the words I could read (the same time that I started devouring books, too). Now I write “slice of life” and epic dawndark fantasy, for fiction lovers interested in rich world-building, characters who feel like real people, and deep, intimate relationships that often aren't romantic. I think giant balls floating in space can have the same magic that fairytales teach us to look for in oak trees and stars. I have a lot of universes and while not all of them have giant balls floating in space, most of them have dragons of one sort or another!