So, you want to write a queer relationship. Perhaps you have two female characters you just really want to see fall madly, head over heels in love, spiting all the odds and standing up in the face of adversity to say, ‘Fuck you, world, we’re going to bone and kiss and hold hands and shit, and you can’t stop us.’
Problem is, you hit a road block.
Which one’s the man, and which one’s the woman?
Today, we’re going to talk about heteronormativity. Strap on your big-kid panties.
As a queer writer, reader, and general internet gremlin, I come across discussions and opinions on this topic a lot. Like a lot a lot. Especially considering I tend to write predominantly queer characters, follow queer writers… You get where I’m going. There’s always a recurring theme every few weeks or so on the topic of heteronormativity in the portrayal of queer couples. You’re either on the side of aggressively hating heteronormativity, or you just don’t give a shit. Me, personally, I think I fall somewhere in middle.
For a quick run-down, heteronormativity in writing is the phenomenon where a couple is assigned roles expected of heterosexual couples. The man will be the more masculine partner, the provider, the protector – the strong one. The woman will be the more feminine one. The caregiver, the lover, the one needing protection. This is a common trope in romance especially, where the male character and female character fit rigidly in their masculine and feminine roles, and staunchly supports or aggressively pushes this image that men and women have specific, defined, unwavering roles that they cannot and do not deviate from. Overt or covert, it doesn’t matter. Man provide, woman serve, Neanderthal style. From my experience, this is generally accompanied by literally every other couple following the same mold, regardless of sexuality, perhaps with one female character being a lil’ mouthy, just to spice it on up. You can see where this gets dicey in terms of queer relationships, especially when it comes to same sex couples and couples that don’t fit gender binaries.
Get out of here, 1950’s, you make everything infinitely worse.
The biggest issue I see when it’s discussed within the community boils down to this: the idea that any sort of ‘heterosexual presenting’ queer couple is an example of heteronormativity and is therefore a bad, bad, thing, and you can’t do it like that.
Let’s unpack this.
Is It a Thing?
Yes. Yes, it’s a thing. I have read, whether in fanfiction, contemporary romance, a manuscript for editing, whatever, where it’s clear that the author is looking at their queer couple in terms of ‘This one goes in the manly role and this one goes in the womanly role and they stay there. Because rules.’ Where it becomes so painfully obvious they’re trying their hardest to make this couple seem heterosexual while not actually being heterosexual – see: high-femme lesbians being paired with overtly masculine, pink-and-glitter-hating lesbians, or feminine men who ‘might as well be women’ (not my words, I promise) paired with hyper-masculine partners.
Side note: One day we’re going to talk about this, as well, but it is not this day.
Is It a Problem?
This is where it gets tricky. It’s a problem in the sense it’s often the only thing we get out of mainstream writing and contemporary romances featuring queer couples. It’s literally the only flavor I ever see out of queer characters in contemporary romance, especially when the romance is coming from an author who isn’t queer themselves.
On the other hand. When you’re writing, you should strive to make your characters interesting, yet realistic. And, realistically speaking, there are real-life queer couples who are like this. One partner will be extremely feminine and the other will be extremely masculine, and they stay that way; that’s how they are. There’s nothing inherently wrong with couples like this, whether in real life or in fiction.
One Plus One Equals…
So, if heteronormativity is a thing, but not necessarily the big problem, what is?
Perception and execution.
In romance in particular, there’s already the idea that relationships are a specific way. Especially in romances featuring heterosexual couples, the male and female character are put into boring, square, confining little boxes with no air holes and told to stay there. Indefinitely.
No, John Doe, you’re not allowed to get out of the box and cook. What are you a woman?
Similarly, in queer romances, people expect the same thing. For one character to fit into one specific box and for the other to fit in an opposite box. And then the boxes never touch. Except for when they need to fuck.
This isn’t how people work. Even in heterosexual relationships, there’s variety. Every single heterosexual couple isn’t the same; your queer couples, when you write them, shouldn’t be either, and they shouldn’t consistently be forced to follow gender norms and rules. I find in general this reflects people’s real life perceptions of couples. We look at heterosexual couples – a man, a woman, one fits this role, the other fits that – and then look towards queer couples and expect or in some cases even demand the same thing. It’s toxic. And bullshit. How many times have we heard real-life queer couples recount the dreaded ‘So which one of you is the man and which one of you is the woman?’ conversation?
Too many. Stop it.
So. Perception is a problem. Society perceives mates, couples, partners, whatever you want to call them, in a very specific way. Even with social advances made we still have issues with people having very rigid ideas of how people within a romance act. Our perceptions about life often bleed into writing. Which is where we get the second issue.
I’ve read a lot of stories, romance or otherwise, where there are queer couples or characters. And I can tell the author is trying, but they still don’t really get it. This is where we tend to dive into tropes or questionable wording – like the mentioned femme man who ‘may as well be a woman’ and his hyper-masculine partner, for example. And it’s painfully, over the top, in your face in a way where it sort of hurts your eyes just reading it.
I also see that there tends to be an emphasis placed on these aspects and these aspects alone being the reason two characters are together, rather than factors that actually contribute to why two characters would find themselves romantically inclined to the other. The main character is such a manly, manly, man, and his saving grace is his partner, a womanly, domestic man who knows how to cook something that isn’t Hot Pockets and cup ramen. The super feminine woman who doesn’t know how to change her own oil but her beefy lady can do it for her.
And… that’s it. They’re in love because of that. Somehow… There’s literally nothing else going for them.
Execution is where the perception and in some cases lack of understanding an author has of certain people shows through. And people think, that if these roles are fulfilled then that’s it. That’s all they have to do. The writing tends to err on the side of being woefully fixated on emphasizing these points, and results in a lack of substance while seeming to try and push a misguided heterosexual perception onto a queer romance (I also find this in stories where it doesn’t seem like writers understand how relationships work in general. Correlation, perhaps?)
It might not even be intentionally malicious. It might just be an author just doesn’t know or doesn’t get it. I also think that, largely, people writing queer relationships are often afraid of getting it wrong, whether because they simply don’t know how to go about it or they aren’t aware of how easy it actually is to write queer characters in general. And that’s okay. Writing is a learning process.
Fixing the Thing
So, there’s the problem, and the cause. Logical step is the solution, which is obviously going to be a series complex algorithms and equations because this is complex shit.
The solution boils down to – perception and execution. Keeping it simple.
Evaluating how couples are perceived versus how they actually are, is a good place to start when applying it to your treatment of your queer characters. You should be treating your characters like people. Would you or literally anyone else you know appreciate having someone else’s relationship standards foisted upon you like some contagious disease? No. Your readers, especially your queer readers, will appreciate you giving them characters that actually read like people, rather than cardboard cut outs of Mary and Gary Sue.
It’s also good to remember that sometimes these aren’t even conscious choices. Sometimes you don’t even realize you have built up preconceived notions until someone’s handing you back your manuscript, full of red ink, asking you ‘Why though?’ And that’s fine. If you’re new to writing queer relationships, or you’ve written them for a while now but perhaps fall into the habit of writing your queer couples in a box, there’s always room for improvement.
Execution boils down to keeping some simple things in mind:
- Erase the ‘which is the man and which is the woman’ thinking from your plotting and writing entirely. Don’t even make it a part of your writing process. It no longer exists.
- Remember that even masculine or feminine people in real life have cross over traits. Give these to your characters. Make them balanced. Make them believable. They will be far more interesting because of it, and will make the relationships you craft around them more dynamic.
- Do not let the phrase ‘may as well be a -insert opposite gender here-’ in reference to how a character acts cross your screen. Just. Please, from a desperate queer to you. Stop it.
- Having a queer couple where one partner is the more masculine and the other is the more feminine isn’t inherently bad – it’s how you present it. If the focus is always on how manly one is while the other is the opposite, you might need to sit back down at the drawing board.
- Being masculine or feminine doesn’t necessarily equate hating literally everything associated with the opposite. Please don’t let your queer characters fall into this trap. It’s redundant. And silly.
I hope this was somewhat insightful and perhaps semi-helpful. Now it’s time to forth and queer up your writing, as the fiction gods intended.