Summer of Zombie 2015
“LGBT and Zombie Stories”
by Jay Wilburn
If you listen to certain opponents of equality in terms of gay rights, the apocalypse is on the way due to the advances of the LGBT community. I disagree, of course, and that is not what this post is about. In science fiction fandom circles due to dust ups around the Hugo awards and the personal politics of certain writers, the conservative and progressive leanings of various authors, stories, and genre writing in general have been brought into question. That’s not really what this post is about either.
Zombie stories cover what happens to the world after the structures of the modern world are suddenly and violently stripped away. They follow the survivors after the rest of the population is transformed into monsters. These survivors cover a cross section of the population and typically involves throwing together survivors from differing backgrounds that are often in opposition to one another. This includes different races, faiths, socio-economic backgrounds, skill levels, political leanings, and levels of personal character and morality. This should naturally and logically include LGBT characters as well.
There are some notable, but isolated examples of gay characters in zombie fiction. Brian Keene uses a gay male protagonist in Dead Sea. There is a scene where this issue is discussed quite directly during that novel. It errs on the side of preachy, I think, but Keene is a skillful writer and the book stands as a great, zombie story. He uses many characters from across the spectrum of demographics including other gay characters in his other works.
Robert Kirkman uses a gay male couple in a notable role in the later editions of The Walking Dead comics. In the comic version, there is also a gay relationship portrayed during the prison stretch of the story which is not included in the television show’s prison seasons. The television show included a prominent lesbian character with little reaction from the audience. When the gay male relationship was introduced in the series, there was a little bit of a negative reaction on social media that did not last long.
It is telling though. Despite a wide range of gay characters portrayed positively in dramas and comedies over many decades on television, there is still a reaction with some people. Female homosexuality in everything from mainstream porn to zombie fiction is more readily accepted than portrayals of male homosexuality. When the gay male sexuality is shown through acts of affection from touching to kissing to whatever, it is viewed as threatening to some people in a way that lesbianism is not. Silly straight males!
When I sent out my novel Dead Song Book 1: January from Milwaukee to Muscle Shoals, I had two beta readers that gave notes about the gay characters making them nervous. Something about having two gay males in a scene together made them afraid that “gay stuff” was going to happen. Their reactions are disappointing to me still, but it illustrated the importance of those characters being in a story. One gay male in a story they could look at as a token nod to diversity, but two gay males in a story is a threat. Maybe I can invent the “Wilburn Test” wherein a story passes the Wilburn Test when two gay characters are in a scene together without having sex … until later.
This speaks to a need to include the range of humanity in a way that tells our broad story as people. It can have a direct message or an implied one. The very inclusion of people from a broad range of demographics in a story sends a message. Whether that message is sent well or clumsily is the responsibility of the writer. Whether that story is worth reading or not is on the shoulders of the writer too.
Equality issues are on the forefront of American culture and media at the moment. These issues, of course, extend globally to countries that have moved to inclusive laws more quickly than the United States and to countries where being gay or being the wrong religion have the same deadly potential. It is a wonder to me that this fact does not draw people together more than it does, but humans are a bundle of contradictions. This is what makes life hard and fiction interesting.
One book I’ve read recently is My Razzle Dazzle: An Outsider’s True Story by Todd Peterson. It is a novelized biography and not genre, but it drove home to me how deeply intertwined the story of growing up gay in America is to the American story broadly. The struggles of gay Americans in youth through adulthood from finding identity, dealing with bullying, reacting to institutions that are closed to them or only partially opened, coming to terms with family, finding friends, and discovering destiny are all relevant ideas to all readers. These are stories that are heartwarming and heartrending. It is a portion of the American experience that has not been fully told and has not been fully heard by people outside of the immediate circles of experience. Including gay characters in any story isn’t just about meeting a quota or getting diversity points nor passing the all important Wilburn Test. It is seeking out the story that hasn’t been told yet and telling it well. Whether a writer is gay or not, the experiences of gay characters have a wide potential of telling what has not been told in stories before.
Every character and real human is made up of a wide range of aspects that form identity. Orientation is one. How they approach faith is another. Their general demographics, culture, and background represents others. Their family history shapes them. There are a wide range of other details that define a person. In some ways, a character being gay is just a fact in the way that characters being straight, or Lutheran, or Green Party, or from a family of six brothers, but single does not directly feed into the details of how they kill a zombie. Although, it might. In another way, just stating a character is gay, having them kiss someone of the same gender, and behave identical to how you would write them straight is a disservice to readers too.
Having the fact that a character is gay be their only defining characteristic is insulting to the orientation and the readers. Avoiding an exploration of that aspect of their orientation is a wasted opportunity of storytelling too. There is a unique experience in terms of dealing self-discovery, family interactions, second family in finding support after adolescence, and the experience of society that has great potential to flesh out a meaningful character that is different and yet universally relatable in the story. This matters for storytelling and it matters for the progress of the world in which we live.
Those that feel threatened by gay issues being in their face in media and society are missing an important point – probably many important points. LGBT characters being represented in zombie fiction in the same way that all humanity is meant to be represented is important to the depth of the story and to the experience of the readers. Marriage Equality struggles echo other civil rights issues from America’s history. The new conflicts are a familiar part of an ongoing American story. Zombie stories may seem like an odd or unimportant place to address this, but zombie stories have great untapped potential and all stories are written to tell something.
In The Dead Song Legend Dodecology, two of the main characters are gay. The story rests on their shoulders and we experience the unique world of the apocalyptic American landscape through their travels and growth. The story is also told through the music of unlikely survivors thrust together by the rough hands and rough times of the end of the world. Music changes and so do the people. In writing my characters with normal, human flaws in an extraordinary world, I took it as an important responsibility to represent the gay characters as realistically as I could. I wanted them to be multi-dimensional characters worthy of carrying a twelve book series. They are my two most important characters and they have a lot of story to tell for themselves as individuals and the entire Dead Song America that they will explore on foot and through music for as long as they are able to survive.
I think zombie writers need to take on the challenge of writing LGBT characters well in a world that includes all of humanity fighting to survive.
Check out the first book in the Dead Song dodecology and the soundtrack The Sound May Suffer for the story told through words, pictures, and music.
Check out The Dead Song Legend Dodecology Book 1: January from Milwaukee to Muscle Shoals –
Check out the five song sound track in The Sound May Suffer … Songs from the Dead Song Legend Book 1: January –
Jay Wilburn lives with his wife and two sons in Conway, South Carolina near Myrtle Beach on the Atlantic coast of the southern United States. He was a teacher for sixteen years before leaving to become a full-time writer. He writes in many genre. His Dead Song series book 1 is available now along with the five song soundtrack The Sound May Suffer.
* * * * *
The stench of rotting flesh is in the air! Welcome to the Summer of Zombie Blog Tour 2015, with 30+ of the best zombie authors spreading the disease in the month of June.
Stop by the event page on Facebook so you don’t miss an interview, guest post or teaser…and pick up some great swag as well!
Giveaways galore from most of the authors as well as interaction with them!
#SummerofZombie is the hashtag for Twitter, too!