Tuesday, February 1, 2022

LGBTQ & Autism in Fantasy

"It tells you the truth. As for how to read it,
you'll have to learn by yourself."
One thing Fantasy literature has always proudly stood for is the truth. Tearing down lies and deceptions to face the facts no matter how hard or twisted they may be; no matter how much grief they may cause, no matter what forces may at best try to tell you that you are wrong and at worst threaten you and those you love with death for daring to utter a truth that does not match their worldview and/or agenda.

"Truth is the fire that fetches thunder." - Diana Wynne Jones

"There's no such thing as 'one, true way'; the only answers worth having are the ones you find for yourself; leave the world better than you found it. Love, freedom, and the chance to do some good -- they're the things worth living and dying for, and if you aren't willing to die for the things worth living for, you might as well turn in your membership in the human race." - Mercedes Lackey 

"To crooked eyes truth may wear a wry face." - J.R.R. Tolkien 

"Do you understand that you must always fail, as long as your goal is not truth, but guidance? That as long as you seek dragons around you, you will never become the dragon within you?" - Sarkhan Vol

Such is the nature, the wisdom and morality of the Fantastic, but within all that is something more. Something that hits the highest peak, and is best summarized by Terry Brooks and Cadvan of Lirigon: "Love supplies a kind of strength that can withstand even death." and "To love is never wrong. It may be disastrous; it may never be possible; it may be the deepest agony. But it is never wrong." Where am I going with all this? That at the heart of Fantasy lies self-acceptance. Often this manifests with characters coming to terms with burdensome destinies, or accepting that they are not who they were when the journey began and trying find a path forwards. But, more than anything else, it supports love both self-love and loving another. Hence, to cut to the chase, Fantasy literature supports the LGBTQ+ community. Sadly, however, there are scarcely more LGBTQ characters than female sages in the genre, making it an issue that Fantasy needs to tackle just as heartily as it has cross-eyed monster that is sexism. Now I can hear you saying, "Uh, Ian, you can Google LGBTQ Fantasy and get whole lists of books with solid and strong LGBTQ protagonists." Alas, therein lies my exact point. You have to look them up. I breathe Fantasy and am always looking for new books and there is seldom a method in my search save High, moral, Fantasy that is unique if possible. As I said in my Race in Fantasy page, when I am in a bookstore searching for new Fantasies I just pull out whatever looks interesting, read the back and/or inside cover, and if it passes muster I give it a try. How many of those are LGBTQ Fantasies? Precious few are even on the shelves, and those that are lean heavily into being LGBTQ. Where is the issue? In short, LGBTQ Fantasy should not be a sub-genre; rather, Queer characters should be as common as books with female protagonists. Hence you should not have to look them up. Once Fantasy was male dominated and one had to search for ones with female leads. Now Fantasy literature has more woman/girl protagonists than otherwise and does an excellent job skewering sexism. One does not have to Google strong girl characters, nor is the fact that they are girls made great issue of in marketing the book. That the character is a girl is just a part of the story, part of their character just as much as a boy being a boy is. Harry Potter is a boy and Luna Lovegood a girl. Important facts, yes, but hardly needing a banner to announce it nor for a reader to understand what it means.

Meaning a gay/lesbian romance should be no more remarkable than a 'typical' boy-girl one. And is that not the goal? To normalize being LGBTQ. In my Females in Fantasy page, I say, "Is this not the goal? A world free of gender biases and norms may seem alien and yet, when written, appears as nothing less than utterly normal. Girl? Boy? Man? Woman? We are all Human and that is the great lesson Fantasy literature so often seeks to convey and rejoice in." Well, the same stands for being LGBTQ. Bisexual? Heterosexual (straight)? Homosexual? We are all Human and that is the great lesson Fantasy literature so often seeks to convey and rejoice in. It should not matter and thus, when I go to a bookstore, pick a book and begin reading it, I should find gay or lesbian romance between characters no less often than heterosexual ones. It need not be a sub-genre, as most good Fantasy has romance even when it is not classified as Romantic Fantasy. Which is another reason I have not read much LGBTQ Fantasy. What reason is that? The same as why I generally avoid Romantic Fantasy: while I have nothing against and in fact very much enjoy romances in Fantasy literature, I prefer it when they supplement the overall plot instead of dominate it to the point where it feels like the rest of the story is simply to drive and add tension to the romance. Which is what I think Queer Fantasy as a sub-genre has become, Homosexual Romantic Fantasy in effect. Not that there is anything wrong with that per se, as books like Isabel Sterling's These Witches Don't Burn series are thrill-rides but, again, having homosexual characters in Fantasy literature should be as unremarkable and unremarked upon as girl-boy romances. It should supplement the overall plot instead of dominating it.

Have I read books which feature such, or at least heard of and plan to read them? Blessedly and absolutely yes. Here is picture of Vanyel Ashkevron from The Last Herald Mage Trilogy by Mercedes Lackey, and not only is Vanyel the main protagonist but also a legendary figure often spoken of by Mercedes Lackey's other characters in the subsequent centuries and series. Oh, and he is gay. Indeed, I think Mercedes Lackey captures the future of homosexuality in Fantasy because she normalizes it. Her The Heralds of Valdemar, Vows and Honor, Mage Winds and Mage Storms in addition to The Last Herald Mage Trilogy all feature LGBTQ characters. Tarma shena Tale'sedrin is asexual, Warrl is physically asexual but male-minded, Vanyel is homosexual as is...well, I would rather avoid giving spoilers, so I will just say that one of his also preternaturally handsome descendants is gay as well. To say nothing of plenty of important secondary characters and minor characters who are never named yet we learn are homosexual due to the natural arch of the story revealing that knowledge. At this point it is worth noting that Mercedes Lackey's iconic Valdemar books was one of the first to feature Queer characters as heroes. Something of an irony really, that since then Queer Fantasy has risen as a subset/sub-genre of Romantic Fantasy and yet Lackey's normalization remains, again and in my opinion, the key to its future. For, and here is the key point, none of her aforementioned series are classified as LGBTQ Fantasy (with the possible exception of The Last Herald Mage, possible because I have seen many lists omitting it). Why? Because Vanyel being gay is not the point of the story. It is important, to be sure, for the Kingdom of Valdemar was back then far more homophobic and his family gave him worlds of grief over being gay, but a Herald's duty is to protect the Kingdom and Valdemar needed Vanyel to save it. That is the prime plot, how Vanyel Ashkevron became a the most powerful, famous, and important Herald who ever lived. I think you get the picture. In short, in order to best combat hatred towards the LQBTQ community, Fantasy literature must not create a sub-genre around it but rather internalize/write Queer characters in existing ones. Indeed, Lackey's books are frequently cited by the LGBTQ community as inspirational or comforting influences on their lives as LGBTQ characters are depicted as both good and bad and range over all aspects of life without engaging in blatant stereotypes. In fact, Radar Pictures is bringing of The Last Herald-Mage trilogy to the TV screen, and the importance of adapting a fantasy series featuring an openly gay protagonist is not lost on producer Kit Williamson: “Vanyel in The Last Herald Mage series was one of the first gay characters I encountered, and as a recently out 16-year-old I can’t stress enough the impact that these books had on me. The Valdemar series was far ahead of its time in the portrayal of LGBTQ characters, and Lackey’s writing afforded them a level of depth and complexity that is still very rare, especially in genre storytelling."

Still very rare, especially in genre storytelling. My point exactly. Fortunately, rare is not nowhere and I can give other examples of exemplary Fantasy which gives Queer characters proper and normalizing literary treatment: The Graceling Realms by Kristin Cashore and House of Hollow by Krystal Sutherland. While other books dip the toe in. Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time features some minor homosexual characters in its huge cast, as does, though I am loathe to mention him, George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire in characters such as the apparently bisexual Prince Oberyn Martell and the gay Jon Connington.

Alesha, Who Smiles at Death

Now I can hear you saying, "Ian, this is fascinating to hear, but you do know that LGBTQ is about more than one's sexuality, right?" Naturally I know, which is why this page is not finished yet and why I am introducing you to Alesha, Who Smiles at Death and Narset, the Enlightened Master and Transcendent. Yes, I know that Alesha and Narset are not even book characters but rather ones from the card game Magic: the Gathering, but that does not make them less strong, worthy, or important in regards to what, to who, they represent. Alesha is transgender (she was born a boy), and Narset is on the autism spectrum, but these traits are not roles they play as opposed to who they are. Their roles being leaders both figuratively and literally (in one timeline anyway) and the pride of their respective Clans. But their stories do not revolve around being transgender or autistic. Naturally they had to deal with these things and the obstacles they presented, but there is much more to both of them and I love their stories.


Yet, sadly, transgender and autistic characters are even less common than Queer ones, lacking even a sub-genre to call their own. Indeed, "autistic fantasy" is actually a medical term describing how an individual deals with external and environmental stressors by daydreaming and retreating into an inner fantasy world. As J.R.R. Tolkien says, "I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter." Do you not love how a medical term can be seen in a new light with a Tolkien quote? I know the term is valid, but the strict definition sounds similar what a non-autistic but very imaginative person does naturally. Anyway, back on topic, those on the autism spectrum are vastly underrepresented in Fantasy literature to the degree that, in all my vast reading, Narset is the only character I can point to. Sort of. Actually, I know for a fact that the justly famed and phenomenally popular The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson has several characters on the spectrum, but as I have not read it yet (though I plan to!) I cannot speak of it further save that Sanderson is doing exactly what needs to be done. That, by including them, he leads the Fantasy vanguard in fighting for all inclusiveness and understanding. Now I personally am not LGBTQ, and I reveal this for the same reason I say or reveal anything, to make a point – which is that fighting for LGBTQ inclusiveness should not only be no less important to those who are not as those who are, it should be especially important. Yes, especially, because while the LGBTQ are fighting to be included, those such as I who are not must be the includers (which may not be a word, but should be). That puts the battle on our soil. Hence it is our duty to proactively include them to the best of our literary ability in the manner I have described.

I call sexism the cross-eyed monster that Fantasy literature has basically if not utterly dealt with (for the lack of female Gandalf figures still needs rectifying), so I shall name homophobia along with all other anti-LGBTG+ sentiments and prejudice against the autistic the blind monster that the Fantasy genre is at this moment fighting and slowly but steadily besting. For it is said that the arc of the universe bends towards justice, which means that truth always prevails. A sentiment that is backed by history as pointed out by Mahatma Gandhi: "There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it--always.” Well, anti-LGBTG+ sentiments are tyrannical by definition since trying to tell other people who they are and/or whom they are allowed to love is despotic to a level Sauron would approve of; and Fantasy literature, guided by the Spirit of Tolkien and the will of countless authors since, has now and always will oppose such evils.

"The young must grow old,
Whilst old ones grow older,
And cowards will shrink,
As the bold grow bolder.
Courage may blossom in quiet hearts,
For who can tell where bravery starts?
Truth is a song, oft lying unsung,
Some mother bird, protecting her young,
Those who lay down their lives for friends,
The echo rolls onward, it seldom ends.
Who never turned and ran, but stayed?
This is a warrior born, not made!
Living in peace, aye many a season,
Calm in life and sound in reason,
'Til evil arrives, a wicked horde,
Driving a warrior to pick up his sword,
The challenger rings then, straight and fair,
Justice is with us, beware. Beware!"

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