Reaching into the QUILTBAG: The Evolving World of Queer Speculative Fiction9 min read


Julia Rios
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Here’s a cool thing about speculative-fiction readers: we’ve always been interested in exploring all the possible variations of human existence. From Samuel R. Delany to Ursula K. Le Guin to Caitlín R. Kiernan to Geoff Ryman, we’ve covered some serious ground in our examinations of gender and sexuality. We’re also used to constructed languages and glossaries, which means we’ve got a good chance at being open to changing our vocabulary in real life. If you aren’t familiar with it already, allow me to introduce QUILTBAG.

People experience gender identity and sexual orientation in very different ways. I used to default to “queer” to encompass all these things, but that doesn’t work for some people, either because it’s been used in an insulting way, or because they don’t identify as queer. Take a transwoman who has always felt like a woman and been attracted to men: she might very well identify as heterosexual.

What about intersex people? Or asexual people? Or…?

Enter QUILTBAG. QU is for queer and questioning, I for intersex, L for Lesbian, T for transgender and transsexual and Two-Spirit, B for bisexual, A for asexual and ally, and G for gay and genderqueer. Even with all those letters, we’ve missed some of the possibilities (such as pansexual and fluid, both of which are identities I’ve heard people claim), but QUILTBAG still offers a rainbow of different ways to identify. It’s also a lot easier to say than LGBTQIA (which is what I started using after I realized how exclusive LGBT and queer were). Now let’s apply our new vocabulary word in some practical situations, eh?

Over the past few decades, stories have slowly changed from being the kind where the author first explains how QUILTBAG people might come to exist and be acceptable (see Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, in which a group of women become lesbians because they’re stuck for centuries on a planet without men) to the kinds where we take it for granted that QUILTBAG people need no speculative explanation (see Elizabeth Bear’s Carnival, in which there’s a planet run by lesbians because some radical lesbian separatists—people who already exist in present day Earth culture—decided to start their own colony). That’s awesome, but we still have a long way to go.

Here are five unfortunate stereotypes commonly assigned to QUILTBAG people.

1. The Dead Lesbian: Okay, we’ve got a lesbian. Yay! But she dies. Nooooooo! This goes for gay men, bi people, trans and intersex people, too. Sometimes it’s a noble sacrifice, and sometimes it’s a comeuppance, but it’s almost always egregious. It’s especially bad when the QUILTBAG character dies so that straight characters can live and be together, like when a brother dies in an action movie. Incidentally, we can generally assume the surviving character or couple will be white. Yeah!

2. The Confused or Unfaithful Bisexual: Bi people get a lot of flack. We’re not queer enough for some queer people; we’re not straight enough for some straight people, and for some reason a lot of people think we’re either monumentally selfish and unwilling to commit to anyone, or that we just haven’t figured out our true nature. Even people who advocate for QUILTBAG equality can fall into this trap. Dan Savage, who started the It Gets Better Project, has said on multiple occasions that he’s not convinced bi people exist. You wouldn’t be reading this if bi people were imaginary; I’m one of them.

3. The Evil Gay: This guy is super-sinister because [dramatic whisper] he’s gay. We all know gay men are pedophiles and unnatural, right? Maybe he has a high voice, and a fashion sense so impeccable it’s deadly. He probably hates everyone and is always as nasty as possible. He might even be mean to puppies. Lesbians and other QUILTBAG characters are also subject to this fate, though the indicators of their evilness may be slightly different.

4. The Swishy Best Friend: Great news, straight ladies! This guy is not evil! To prove it, he’ll style your hair and take you shopping. Then you can go see the latest chick flick, and get a mani-pedi. Your gay best friend never has a boyfriend, of course. If he gets one, it’s off screen, and usually doesn’t last. He’s there to commiserate with you about how miserable dating is, and to cheer for you when you finally find a winner. He’s not really invested in his own personal happiness. He wants you to be happy most of all.

5. The She-Male: Have you heard that transwomen are really just men in dresses? It’s totally true! They’re anomalies, who should be stared at and put on display. Bonus points if the display is pornographic. Conversely, transmen are all actually just butch lesbians. They shouldn’t be on display, because nobody really wants to see that. A man with breasts is freaky and feminine, which means we should objectify him. A woman who seems mannish, though? Now that’s just unattractive. Under no circumstances should we respect the gender this person identifies as theirs. We know the truth is all about what’s between their legs (or what we think should be there, anyway).

Wow, that was a lot of sarcasm. I’m not usually this snarky, but I want you to understand where I’m coming from, and why I think this discussion is important. As a part of the QUILTBAG community, I experience some variation on these themes on a daily basis and so do many of my peers. It wears a person down.

So what can we do about it? What makes for a good QUILTBAG character, and how can we encourage more of those to appear in our spec fic? Let’s look at some solid steps we can take in different situations.

As Writers

In any kind of writing, doing your research is a good thing. Read books, observe people, and talk to others about their experiences. Apply what you learn to your writing. But that’s pretty vague advice, isn’t it? You might want something more concrete. In that case, this next sentence is especially for you:

Write complex characters.

Perhaps the single most important thing that separates good characters from bad stereotypes is complexity. A character can be evil, confused, butch, swishy, perpetually single, or even dead at the end of the story; as long as they’re well-drawn, even discriminating readers will find them worthwhile.

One of the reasons people are still talking about The Female Man (despite its age, and some problematic aspects) is that the characters are complex. They aren’t mindlessly complacent lesbians of convenience, who either hate all men, or long to be rescued by men. They’re individuals with different wants and needs, and unique personalities. The same goes for the population of the lesbian-dominated planet in Carnival. Some of those characters are not very nice (to put it mildly), but all of them are interesting, with believable feelings and motivations. These things hold true across all of the work Russ and Bear have produced, and for that of the other authors I’ve mentioned in this article.

As a writer, if you strive for complexity in your characters, you’ll be starting from a place of strength.

As Editors and Publishers

Editors and publishers are a very small subset of the speculative fiction world, but what I’m about to say applies to other segments of the community as well (like convention planning, and book group selection) and it’s important:

Actively encourage diversity.

Don’t just keep an open mind. State in your guidelines that you want to see diverse submissions. If people who write from underrepresented viewpoints know that they’re welcome in your publication, they’ll be more likely to submit. This sounds obvious, but it’s deceptively easy to miss. Actively encouraging diverse submissions means you’ll receive more of them, and that means your chances of finding truly brilliant pieces with QUILTBAG content will be higher.

Rose Lemberg and JoSelle Vanderhooft have both done this to great effect. Lemberg has said from the very beginning of her publishing career that she wants diverse viewpoints in her poetry magazine, Stone Telling. Because of that, she’s gotten some wonderful QUILTBAG poems, like Shira Lipkin’s “The Changeling’s Lament”, which spoke to so many people that it went viral and garnered over 100,000 hits on Stumbleupon. Vanderhooft is careful to encourage diverse and subversive viewpoints in all her collections, so her SteamPowered series of lesbian stories explores and expands the steampunk genre in wonderful ways. Many award winning and critically acclaimed authors have contributed to the series, sharing stories that take us far beyond the expected tropes of Victorian England and shiny gears.

As an editor or publisher, if you encourage diversity, you’ll be sowing the seeds for a bountiful harvest of spec fic goodness.

As Readers

I’ve saved this one for last, because I think readers are probably the most important part of the spec fic community. Without readers, there would be no community in the first place. Also, most writers and editors are readers first and foremost. So this one applies to all of us:

Have fun trying new things, and then talk about your experiences.

In case you need help figuring out where to start, I have a few recommendations to share.

Lee Thomas writes twisty, engaging horror stories with lots of provocatively grey areas. His latest offering, The German, examines what it means to be different in a small town, and what it takes to make ordinary people decide to torture others. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this book is the deeply ambiguous moral nature of the title character. I’m not sure he’s a good person, but he’s definitely a good character.

Jennifer Pelland is a two-time Nebula nominee, whose clean and clear prose takes us straight into the heart of dark uncertainty. Both her short story collection, Unwelcome Bodies, and her new novel, Machine, explore and examine gender, sexuality, and our notions of what bodies should be.

Craig Laurance Gidney writes fantasy with lyrical prose and haunting themes. His collection, Sea Swallow Me, is full of beautiful language and suspenseful narratives, both of which may leave you breathless.

Sandra McDonald is a versatile writer, skimming gracefully from science fiction to fantasy and beyond. Her collection, Diana Comet and other Improbable Stories, was shortlisted for the Tiptree Award and won the Lambda Award last year. In it, you’ll find lighthearted wit, daring adventure, and a beautiful transwoman who delightfully influences everyone she meets.

All of these writers present complex and believable QUILTBAG characters in stories that linger long after the book is closed. They’re the kinds of stories you might want to tell everyone about, and discuss in detail. Speaking of which, here are a few ways you can engage the rest of the spec fic community.

Talk about books and stories online. Even if you don’t have the time and energy to post in-depth reviews on your blog, you can still talk about what you’re reading. Mention it on Twitter or Facebook, or rate it on Amazon or GoodReads. Call out specific things you loved (complex QUILTBAG characters, for instance). Even short mentions can sometimes start conversations, and pique others’ curiosity. If you love a book and want others to love it, too, your recommendation is the best thing you can give. Plus, all those mentions and ratings are out there for authors, editors, and publishers to see (and yes, they do often search for mentions of their work).

Be honest. If you love a book, that’s wonderful, but don’t be afraid to talk about things that didn’t work for you. Sometimes great conversations come out of reviews that find fault with works. Talking about what doesn’t work can lead to a broader awareness on the part of authors and editors in some cases. In others, someone might surprise you by showing you layers and facets of a story that you’d missed. Both of those outcomes make for a richer reading experience overall.

Talk about books and stories offline. Start a local reading group, or just rave about books you love to friends and family. The success of runaway bestsellers like Twilight and The Da Vinci Code is fueled in no small part by word of mouth. Readers get excited about those books, and even more, they enjoy the experience of sharing their excitement with others.

As a reader, if you try new things and talk about them, you’ll be helping the spec fic community continue to grow and flourish, and to provide ever-more awesome QUILTBAG content.

Happy reading!

  • Julia Rios

    Julia Rios writes speculative prose and poetry, is the staff interviewer for Stone Telling: The Magazine of Boundary-Crossing Poetry, and hosts the Outer Alliance Podcast (celebrating QUILTBAG content in speculative fiction). She’s half-Mexican, but her (fairly dreadful) French is better than her Spanish. She has blue hair and brown eyes, though these things are subject to change without notice. To find out more, visit

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