Why I write gay protagonists

I’m in the process of finishing the first draft of my second young adult novel, Vestal. What that means is that I’ve rounded the corner on 60,000 words, realized I’m not sure how much I have left to say, schwellenbach-scourge-2-396p.inddand gave myself permission to write a significantly shorter novel than I did with Scourge of the Righteous Haddock (much of which is owing to the fact that Scourge was a fantasy novel and those tend to run longer because you have to build an entire world and that takes time and words). So as Vestal winds down, I’ve begun to think about how this is different from and similar to my last book. I’ll probably explore this question in greater depth at some future date, but the first and most obvious point of similarity is the fact that my protagonist is once again gay.

The obvious question is what repressed desires or identity am I expressing with my gay protagonists?

Which is sort of a silly question. No one asks JK Rowling whether she has some subconscious desire to be a boy. Or wizard. Did Tolstoy secretly long to be a woman when he wrote Anna Karenina? Is the sole purpose of the author to create characters that are shadows of ourselves or who we would like to be? To a certain extent, and for some authors, yes; it’s natural to write characters with whom you identify. But there also has to be an element of ambition, of reaching beyond your own limited experiences and trying to discover and examine more of the world and humanity.

If you want to know why Emily, my protagonist in Scourge of the Righteous Haddock, is a lesbian, I’ll give the terribly anticlimactic answer: I was looking for a way to distinguish my protagonist from the young adult heroines I already knew and loved. They were tomboys (Jo of Little Women) and dreamers (Anne in Anne of Green Gables), fighters (Pippi Longstocking in The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking) survivors (Karana in Island of the Blue Dolphins), warriors (Katniss Everdeen in Hunger Games), spoiled brats (Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden) and I dearly love them all. But none of them were gay. Not one. In fact, of the hundreds and quite possibly thousands of books I have read, I had to struggle to come up with a handful of novels featuring gay protagonists, or even characters.

This is what I came up with:

Rubyfruit Jungle

Tipping the Velvet

Santa Olivia

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Brideshead Revisited

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Girls, Visions and Everything

There may be a couple more lurking around my brain, hovering shyly on the periphery, refusing to announce their presence. But still. Just seven books. And two of those were assigned in an English course about gender and identity.

So I selfishly wanted to differentiate my protagonist. But once I realized how rare she would be, I also wanted to fill a glaring void. I don’t think I can measure the impact these childhood heroines had on me. I compared myself to them, tried to measure up to their standards, took solace in Jo March’s challenges and triumphs as a temperamental tomboy. They helped shape and guide me. How would it have felt to cast about for a heroine, or even character, who reflected who I was, and not find her? I can’t imagine how painful that would be, because I didn’t have to experience it. I had Jo March. And Anne with an E. And to say that I don’t know what I would have done without them sounds dramatic, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Growing up is dramatic. Figuring out who you’re going to be and what you’re going to stand for in a world of near endless options, but often cut off from many of those by virtue of geography or family structure, is really difficult.

So Emily was gay. She was also sweet and shy and talented and determined and gutsy. And I’m really proud of her.

Then came Rhea, my protagonist in Vestal. My decision to make Rhea a lesbian was primarily a practical one. The story works much better that way. Certain plot points—how could a vestal virgin come into close enough contact with a man to violate her oath of chastity?—were just easier to deal with. So Rhea’s a lesbian.

No one seemed all that bothered that Emily was a lesbian, but now that I’m two for two? Well, that’s enough to provoke some questions apparently.

Which set me to wondering: What are other readers’ experience with gay characters? Am I alone in feeling that this is an underrepresented demographic in literature? Maybe the impetus to flood bookshelves with gay protagonists is some kind of misplaced do-gooder nonsense. Maybe they’re already there—it’s this great, big party that I haven’t been invited to—and I just missed the boat somehow.

So I put out a Facebook call for avid readers willing to answer a handful of questions. I didn’t specify what I was going to ask, or why I was pursuing this information. The sixteen people who responded to my call answered five questions. And (SPOILER ALERT) I don’t feel that I walked away with any hard and fast answers to my questions. But I didn’t exactly walk away from reading their answers kicking up my heels over how pathetically wrong I was about the absence of gay characters in mainstream literature. Because most of the people I polled could recall reading even fewer gay protagonists than I could. If you want the exact numbers, keeping in mind that it is a difficult task to quantify gay characters and protagonists, roughly 20 percent of those polled couldn’t recall a single gay protagonist or character; roughly 20 percent could recall one, but in several of those cases that one was from Scourge of the Righteous Haddock; two people cited a series with lots of gay characters (Amistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, which I hadn’t even heard of until they mentioned it, and which is now at the top of my reading list); two people could cite three; and everyone else responded four or more. These are readers who reported consuming 3.5 books per month, after I took their averages.

Of course, I don’t know if anyone would swear to anything they told me under oath; I got the distinct impression that everyone felt nervous about how they answered. Almost everyone seemed apologetic about the number of books they read each month, and expressed a desire to read more. I suspect they rounded up when they gave their answer, and I don’t hold it against them; it’s what I would have done. And most of this is conjecture anyhow.

A very common theme among the responses was an inability to remember any gay protagonists, but they chalked that up to a faulty memory rather than an absence of gay characters. They must be out there. Another common response was that it was difficult to assess how many of the characters were gay because that’s not how readers think about books. They don’t divide characters into gay or not gay and file that information away. Which is a fair point, except that romance is sort of an underlying theme in just about everything—book, movie, show—and across just about every genre. Show me a book not at all preoccupied with love, romance, or sex, and I’ll likely argue that it was there, but you somehow missed it, being an inattentive reader and all.

So maybe it’s true that you don’t keep a creepy list of gay literary characters, but you remember Mr. Darcy’s words to Elizabeth Bennet, you remember what happened when Laurie proposed to Jo, you remember your complicated feelings about Heathcliffe and Cathy’s extremely unhealthy relationship. So, do you consciously divide characters into gay or straight columns as you read? No. But you remember details and plot points that distinguish the straight characters from the gay. It isn’t so incidental that you forgot to notice it. Note that I’m not arguing that there should be some major difference between gay and straight characters, merely that arguing that you don’t notice a character is gay is sort of the same as saying you didn’t notice someone was black. You don’t have to pretend you’re blind in order to convince people you aren’t a bigot. It’s the conclusions you draw after processing this information that matter. Of course, one person pointed out that a character’s sexuality is not always specified, and this is an interesting point, particularly after I realized that my assumption is always that a character is straight, unless I’m given evidence to the contrary. I suppose that fact alone is pretty problematic.

I pulled some of the more telling quotes from my poll, and I like the way the first quote expresses my own feelings about noticing a character’s sexuality.

If a character in a book I read is gay, that means about the same thing to me as the color of his hair. It allows me to know the character better, but no more than that.

I don’t recall a lot of gay protagonists. There have been great stories with interesting gay characters (Portrait of Dorian Gray or Billy Budd). I can see how gay characters could be interesting in a similar vein as African American characters for having to deal with prejudice, but their struggle is one I can’t identify with, so those novels tend not to draw me in. Same with women protagonists. I can like their books fine, but they seldom make my favorites lists.

I like sad books for some reason. Basically, my job is sad (mostly) so I tend to gravitate to those.

I think in more mainstream literature they gay characters are usually a little “campy” with too much cliche.

While I understand that Baldwin was writing during a time and literary movement in which homosexuality was highly frowned upon, I was disappointed the sexual confusion and overall weakness of David, the protagonist. He is constantly feeling shame and guilt for his homosexual feelings, especially when his lover is put on trial for homosexuality and sentenced to be executed (so glad anti-homosexuality laws are now unconstitutional). While Baldwin’s prose and descriptions of Paris are gorgeous throughout, in terms of its handling of LGBT themes, I found the book to be more of a historical curiosity especially given its publication during the Harlem Renaissance. I think you should aim for at least one strong gay protagonist who is a role model.

Since I mostly read historical non-fiction, any gay characters were real-life characters, and their circumstances are normally described pretty objectively

Some books had minor characters that were gay. Men, that I recall. Obviously they didn’t stand out at me solely because of their sexual orientation. Its not something I pay attention to or am hyperaware of.

I honestly don’t remember if I read any books with a gay protagonist but I’m sure in all the books I’m forgetting that I’ve read there have been a couple, but I’m all for more

I must have read books with Lesbian protagonists  in my early coming out days but sure can’t remember them. It was common in the 80s and 90s to head to Lesbian and Gay bookstores in big cities when one was wanting to learn more about being gay.

Other books have had lead characters who develop loving, often sexual, relationships with same gender people, even though they are not called gay. I know i’ve read several like this over the years. They are fascinating and intriguing to a more general audience since often straight women have had crushes on or fantasies about friends and enjoy reading about someone ‘acting out’.

Of the other books I have read, I don’t believe sexuality came up much, so I am honestly not sure.  No other ones that stood out to me or made any sort of lasting impression.

I think that whether the characters are gay or not doesn’t really matter much to me in literature, human is human and a good story is a good story.

The gay protagonists and main characters were smart, funny, flawed, human—a bit unrealistic in Will Grayson—but generally the same as non-gay protagonists. Though I noticed that their surrounding characters and extras were far more welcoming and understanding than I believe their average real-world counterparts would be.

So there you have it. Not answers. Maybe just more questions, a dilemma I may have invented myself, but I don’t thinks so.



  1. Adaire Salome-Keating says:

    I’m thrilled you are writing more lesbian protagonists into literature. We do have a handful of them that are the “go to” of late (Nan of Tipping the Velvet, Molly Bolt in Rubyfruit Jungle) I preferred Idgie Threadgood in Fried Green Tomatoes. I am disappointed in the audience that can’t seem to “get into protagonists” that aren’t: white or male or heterosexual just because they can’t empathize with their plight. Seriously? How shallow of a reader would I be if I only read lesbian novels that were Caucasian? A classic is a classic based on the merits of the writing style and how they bring the reader headlong into the story. What the flip do I know about being a distraught rich Italian angsty teen hell bent for unrequited love from a feuding family, but I can recognize the power of tragic love story when reading “Romeo and Juliette”. I have never been a 19 year old male going to war, and yet feel deeply for the protagonist in “Slaughterhouse Five” and “All Quiet on the Western Front” It is a poor excuse for willful ignorance that a reader will shy away from a life changing novel because he doesn’t share the same sexual identity.

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