February is LGBTQ+ History Month (in the UK, to mark the revoking of section 28), and so I thought I’d take the opportunity to think about when to set your LGBTQ+ book and the differences that time makes to LGBTQ+ fiction.
It’s a commonly held misconception that, until recently, all LGBTQ+ people were held in low regard, feared, persecuted and that, generally, “otherness” was not tolerated. This is simply not the case.
Certainly, in recent history, we know there have been many laws that prohibit things such as same-sex sex and gender non-conformity. However, the levels to which this was enforced, the locations and details are all different throughout history, so we need to really consider time when we write.
Throughout history, there have been moments that have changed life for LGBTQ+ people. Obvious milestones that completely change cultures. It’s important to recognise when your story is set and reflect the attitudes, culture and changes that were taking place at the time.
For instance, a story set in early 2000s Britain is not going to feature gay marriage. It was only just legal for LGBTQ+ people to serve in the UK armed forces, The Admiral Duncan pub had just been bombed and there was no such thing as a civil partnership. In fact, we still had section 28.
This would, of course, have a huge impact on your characters.
Let’s go further back in time. Let’s go to ancient times!
If you write historical fiction, you’ll know that research is vital. Facts, although in fiction, still matter! But finding reliable sources, as author Garrick Jones told us in a previous blog, can be a little tricky. However, there is some evidence that figures in the ancient world enjoyed same-sex activities.
In his book Queer City, Peter Ackroyd points to Greek, Roman and Saxon art and figures that are thought to be queer. And these aren’t everyday folk; these are leaders, military men and, in the case of William II, kings who kept a very male court.
It has been suggested that the Knights Templar engaged in homosexual acts. Yes, they were punished for it, but it happened. How would fiction with gay knights work?
Whatever period of history fascinates you, whether modern or ancient, there are opportunities to write a queer fiction book.
The challenge for writers is researching.
Finding the right source material that explains the attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people can be tough. Often hidden, finding reliable material from authentic LGBTQ+ sources that authors can use for fiction research can be tough.
But isn’t that the joy of fiction? What’s missing, imagination can be used!
Of course, you can invent details but you need to do it authentically. When writing historical fiction, particularly with LGBTQ+ characters, you need to be careful not to fall into the trap of assuming.
It’s natural to assume that, throughout history, LGBTQ+ people have been hated, outsiders and hidden. But, as we’ve seen, throughout history there have been those who have been visible, in positions of power, not hated but admired.
Perpetuating the outsider stereotype might be doing more harm than good.
Next time, we’ll look at LGBTQ+ language throughout history and how we can use it authentically but sensitively in our fiction writing.
Nick (he/him) is an editor and proofreader, specialising in LGBTQ+ writing. He is an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and a member of PEN, the Professional Editors Network.
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