Have read a couple of things in the past few days that made me start thinking about “authenticity” when it comes to drawing characters who aren’t members of the dominant power group.
First up was a great photo project featuring the huge diversity of labels that queer folk use to describe ourselves. In the comments on one of the articles about this project was a gay man who was furious about the “freakshow” making “normal” gay people look bad. Sadly, this is not an uncommon sentiment. A lot of “straight-acting” queer folk sincerely believe that the B’s, T’s, queens, fairies, butches, bears, oh my! are what’s really to blame for homophobia. If we’d just act “normal,” they argue, surely there would be gay rights for all and everyone would get a puppy or something. Conversely, there’s also a contingent on the other side that’s convinced anyone who could pass as straight or cis, or who is fighting for legal marriage is just trying to suck up to the people in power and crib their privilege. Nevermind if someone just plain happens to pass easily or genuinely wants to settle down and raise gaybies with the love of their life; obviously everyone who does is just trying to be straight and insulting the “real” queers.
The other thing I saw was this great article examining whether a character would be “black enough” if he didn’t use Black Vernacular English because apparently some people see BVE as some sort of stamp of black authenticity (see: “But you don’t sound black!” Egad.)
As I’m basically pink, I have no business really commenting on the racial aspects of this question, but I can definitely relate it to the overall issue of authenticity policing among marginalized groups, and the fact that it’s a giant pain in the ass both for people living these issues in real life and creators who want to be inclusive in a respectful way.
Of course, there is a real issue sparking the policing: Some people really DO try to erase all traces of “other” in themselves in a dogged pursuit of approval and privilege, and look down on people who either can’t or won’t play that game (see: the obnoxious “normal” gay man mentioned above.) We are told from birth that straight guys with Aryan features, strong bodies, etc. (what Kate Bornstein calls the Perfect Gender) are the ideal to which we all should aspire, and massive amounts of cash, blood, and pain are poured out each year on things that will supposedly get us closer to that level of perfection. This behavior is understandable in people who feel their very survival is in question if they don’t play that game, but many more who have a choice nonetheless keep trying to meet that ideal to gain power, even if in doing so they validate the imbalance and thereby make it harder on the rest of us who either can’t afford the masks or who simply can’t fake it no matter what we do.
However, not everyone who happens to pass or otherwise has the privilege of seeming more “normal” than others is doing so deliberately. For example: I’m pretty darn queer on many levels, but I am in a legal, opposite-sex marriage, which gives me a lot of practical benefits and also means I pass for straight in many contexts. My husband and I both ping gaydar (me more so than him, since I’m genderqueer and he’s merely not-macho), so people paying attention can figure it out anyway (or, in the case of some gay people, wonder why the hell an “obvious” lesbian is married to an “obvious” gay man), but yeah: Muggles generally think of us as straight unless we say otherwise. This is not by our choice. We try to be out as much as possible and mindful of our privilege, but this just plain is who we are. We didn’t actively choose to fall in love with someone who has different crotch tackle. We’ve sometimes come under fire from people who insist that we did choose this, and that if we were “really” queer, we’d have ignored our feelings for each other and chosen a same-sex partner for political reasons. (Because asking people to deny their true feelings and selves always works out SO WELL, yeah?)
This unintentional passing/getting closer to the ideal is of course common among many people in marginalized groups–cisgender LGBs, lighter-skinned or multiracial people of color, people with disabilities that aren’t readily apparent, etc. All of us who are less visible regardless of intent unfortunately carry the bullseye that rightfully belongs to the assgaskets who actively seek this privilege, hide behind it, and thus further the oppression of people who aren’t so lucky. Over the years, I’ve personally come to accept that this misguided hatred is one of the ways in which my unearned privilege gets balanced out, but it’s still unfortunate and, in my opinion, counterproductive. This is especially so when it comes to media representation, as those of us who are less visible often aren’t represented in media at all, leading to the perception that the only people in a given group (or at least the only “authentic” ones) are those who fit very limited archetypes. We who pass are given the “benefit” of being considered one of the dominant group, thus erasing huge chunks of our identity, and also making it harder on those folks who don’t pass and thus keep getting pigeonholed.
People in marginalized groups are so underrepresented in popular media to begin with that the handful of characters we see often have an incredible amount of weight put on them to be all things to all audiences who share a particular trait. If there’s only one black lesbian in the entirety of popular media, she has the unenviable job of trying to represent every single black lesbian on the planet, no matter how different they all may be. If one were to go solely on media representation, one might believe that all bi women are young, femme and traditionally attractive (and woe to anyone who isn’t.)
Complicating matters is that even writers who make an effort at being inclusive often don’t have the time or interest for doing much research, so they fall back on stock tropes for their diverse characters. Sometimes this manifests in awful stereotypes and one-note characters, but sometimes it’s also characters who, while they may be “authentic” and legitimately represent real people nonetheless tend to represent only a few types of people. Every fat woman is a comedian. Every gay man is a sassy sidekick. Every person of color in a fantasy work is a mage or priestess. Etc. If done respectfully, these character types aren’t necessarily offensive in themselves, they’re just overrepresented, which means people come to believe that this is what “all” people who share this trait must be like. This then perpetuates the problem: creating a definition of “authentic” that exists, but not in the numbers that the media would make it seem. Hence why the author mentioned in the second link above questioned whether her character should use BVE. If 90% of the representations of black characters you see use it and you don’t have a lot of personal experience otherwise, you assume that’s what authentic blackness is. In choosing to make a character who doesn’t use BVE, she’s not being inauthentic, but including a measure of diversity not often seen. While I can’t speak to the feelings of black people on this, from my perspective, it seems like that would be a good thing.
One of my goals as a writer is to tell stories about people who don’t often get their stories told. My protagonist in Harper, for instance, has a white Canadian father and a dark-skinned Egyptian mother, and is bisexual. His (male) love interest comes from an urban working-class background and struggles with money. Another prominent character is British-Indian and a transwoman. I’m not nearly as well read as I should be, even in the genres in which I write, but from my research into the market, there’s only a handful of characters who have those demographics, much less books that have more than just one character who isn’t straight, cis, white, etc. We’re luckily getting more and more LGBT characters and characters of color, but the particular ones I’ve written are in demographics that are still rare. Lesbians and gay men now have quite a few (though of course not nearly enough) characters like themselves in YA SFF, but bi men? Not so much.
It’s entirely possible that I might receive criticism for making these choices. Not just the obvious racist and homophobic nonsense, but from people who are upset that I didn’t represent certain groups or that I didn’t represent a given group in an expected way. I have a lesbian couple, but they’re very small roles. None of my characters are Latin@, East Asian or Native American/First Nations, and the only black character is an elderly British-West Indian man who doesn’t get a lot of page time. Harper himself, while half-Egyptian, is not Muslim (his mother having chosen to leave Islam in her youth) and has lived a fairly assimilated life in a liberal city. While I don’t at all argue that these groups don’t need representation, and some definitely more than others, I did consciously choose not to include them in this particular story. That doesn’t mean I’m ignoring them, though. My first novel, Thunderstone, has people from cultures modeled on feudal Japan and Coast Salish tribes, and my current work in progress has a laundry list of non-straight-white-dudes that’s so long I’d probably forget some if I tried to list them all.
I do this not because I want congratulations on how awesome I am for deigning to include marginalized people, but because the wall-to-wall straight, white dudes in most works in my genres is both boring and offensive. If I want to see more representation of people like me, it’s my responsibility to be more inclusive of people unlike me who also aren’t getting enough face time in popular media. What this means is that I won’t be writing the sassy, black best friend. I won’t be writing the overachieving Korean-American genius. I won’t be writing the pretty, femme lesbian or bi woman. Characters like this can be well written, and can represent real people, but they are done absolutely to death in popular media, and have the effect of erasing the existence of other real people who share those traits. So yes, I’ll be choosing more people whose “authenticity” is questioned by people who believe there’s only one way to be x. We need diversity not just in the top-level categories of race, gender, ability, etc., but within those categories, too. All of us have stories to tell, and though many of us who share a trait will have similar elements in our stories, overall they are just as unique as we are.