Once upon a time on the internet, probably five years ago, I read some kind of post about the novel Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner, saying queer people wouldn’t ever be as invested in queer literature as they are in queering straight literature. Essentially that the motivation to create fanworks isn’t there, so the fan commitment will be less. The point, or what I took to be the point, was that stories about queer characters and relationships are less valuable because of that. Every so often, I get to thinking about that statement and what fan culture is like at that moment. I recently re-read Swordpoint, so I’ve been thinking about it again.
There’s certainly more enthusiasm about shipping Holmes and Watson than George and Jim, for instance, and I’m thinking of the Robert Downey Jr. Holmes movies all on their own to keep things fair. “Slash fandom” as a whole is associated with slashing characters who are by appearances straight, back to the fandom’s Kirk/Spock origins in the 60s. And fanfic is a powerful queer space, where symbols can be modified with literally no limit. I can see how losing a queer space with that level of freedom might be a negative thing, and I suppose I can understand that people are less likely to write a “gay headcanon” if the canon is actually gay.
To me, though, the central issue is genre and popularity. If you don’t like the drama or indie-drama genres, you just don’t have many couples to ship, so you make them. You imagine the representation you want. That’s true for all media types — there’s frequently a weird little queer indie niche, but it’s oppressively difficult to find those characters and stories in the mainstream. Not everyone has the time, energy, money, or locality to access those indie niches, even if you like indie stuff. It should be no surprise that the more popular any thing is, the more fans will create fanworks, queer and otherwise. Some pairings seem to inherently convey a lot of subtext, like various versions of Holmes and Watson, so certain magic combinations of popular media with subtext-heavy pairing create these massive fan followings.
On the other hand, I also see a lot of alienation in the queer community from those kinds of ships. They — we — are increasingly upset that creators use the ships to manipulate fans without actually including out characters. Frequently franchises will tease gay ships (and ONLY gay ships) to appeal to straight female audiences. Actual queer people see right through this, and are less and less willing to put up with it, fanfic or no fanfic. It’s not about entertaining ourselves with unintended possibilities at this point, it’s becoming more and more of an issue that all these content-producing industries are blatantly refusing to make stories about queer people, and if they do offer anything, it’s not for the queer community.
Which brings me back to Swordspoint, its cultural bisexuality and the male-male couple at the center. It’s not subtext, it’s text, and that IS the reason people love it. The fandom has persisted for thirty years, and is even growing, due to new installments like Tremontaine that further diversify the world. If you’re queer and into fantasy, Swordspoint is the first book you’ll hear recommended, and there’s basically a secret society of internet denizens who recognize each other with the secret signal “OMG YOU LIKE SWORDSPOINT TOO SQUEEEEEE!!” because there are so few gay fantasy books, and it was one of the first.
And that, finally, is my opinion. A massive shipping community doesn’t mean a single thing when the emotions and attachments of actual queer people are concerned. You can’t measure that kind of personal significance by the number of posts on a message board — especially when the specific book came out before the internet, but also in general terms. We may get a kick out of a crazy shiptease, or we may not, but the point remains: We want queer characters. And we want them in public, not just queer online corners. Because safe spaces are important, but as long as we need them, it means everywhere else is unsafe. If it looks like we’d rather have subtext, it’s only because in public, in the mainstream, that’s all we’ve had to go on.
It might sound silly for me to engage a statement like “We shouldn’t bother making queer characters because the queers like subtext better anyway,” I don’t think many people in the community are saying that, but put in such a condensed form that’s really been the argument from outside. Appease the LGBT+ audience with a tease, but don’t go all the way. That’s not enough. Give us real queer characters, and we will love them!