Can Genderqueerness Be No Big Deal? Characters and Identity

Familiarity and research in writing minority characters

A reader asks:

I'm creating a genderqueer character, which is not a background I'm generally familiar with.  This gender identity was essentially random. Now I'm wondering whether this needs to be a big deal.  In order to create respectful representations, how much research do I need to do when including minorities I don't know a lot about?

I think you’re asking two different questions here. The first being, does this have to be a big deal within the narrative?

In my opinion, the answer is no. Everyone intersects with their identity and culture in different ways; it is perfectly reasonable to have a character to whom their identity is more incidental to them. It’s generally a good idea to mix this up (i.e., not have gender identity be a “nothing thing” to all of your characters of marginalized genders) — minorities, like anyone else, are not monoliths, and we won’t all feel the same way about our identities. But it’s totally plausible for an individual character to consider it no big.

However, I’ll caveat that with: it makes a portrayal a lot deeper if, even if you don’t make a character’s identity a big deal, it’s not something interchangeable. You may have heard the complaint about male writers writing women as if they were “men with boobs” — incidentally, I hate this criticism because of how very shallowly it assigns gender stereotypes. But the grain of truth is that it can ring false if a character interacts with the world in a completely interchangeable manner to someone of another identity, especially in a world that interacts with different people quite differently.

I’ll give you an example from my own work. I got asked on a panel recently (by a POC moderator) about the frequent references I weave into the Cas Russell books about Cas being a brown woman. And I talked very truthfully about how — being a visible minority myself — my status as a nonwhite person is not something the world ever lets me forget. It’s a constant friction of moving through contemporary America, and it happens whether my heritage is a big deal to me or not. (The audience was quite diverse, and responded enthusiastically to this answer.)

So even if, to your character, their genderqueerness is no big deal — unless you’re writing in a world with true, perfect equality, it can improve the characterization immensely to have some texture that suggests their identity isn’t interchangeable.

Now on to your second question: yes, I recommend still always doing the research, at least beyond the “101” level. You don’t need to be at the level of a PhD thesis, but in my opinion you should at least feel like you can talk about the politics of that identity fluently and without stumbling.

The reason is, there are so many small things that can go wrong in a portrayal. And I actually do see this the most with trans and genderqueer identities. When they’re written by someone who’s not at least fluent in the 101 — and even often when they are — there are myriad small things the person often gets wrong, from terminology to small implications that are part of wider offensive stereotypes. It can be really easy for writers to accidentally make these assumptions without realizing they’re doing so!

The thing with fiction writing is that it has so many small pieces of texture that we wouldn’t even necessarily think to Google. This is why sensitivity readers can be so helpful, for all those questions we wouldn’t think to ask. But in my opinion, hiring a sensitivity is not, across the board, always a necessary or sufficient substitute for doing the research yourself.

So yes, I recommend reading up on genderqueer people, following them (us) on social media, looking up what media portrayals often get wrong, and giving yourself a grounding in how they (we) navigate the world. You may very well run into some assumptions you didn’t even know you had, and that will affect the way you write the character, no matter how much their gender identity plays into the plot.