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Eye of the Beholder

Amy Leibowitz lgbtqia books media queerbaiting representation

"First, I want to emphasize that what I say about my books is only my opinion. This may sound weird because I’m the author of my books, but I truly believe that the author’s opinion about their book is largely irrelevant to readers once the book is published. My intentions are on the pages of the book. If I didn’t put it in the book, I don’t believe it’s important to your understanding of the story.
... I’ve learned that when I say things about my books, people tend to believe that’s The Truth. But it’s not. The only Truth is that interpretations of books vary according to the person who is reading them. There is no one correct interpretation. Every reader approaches a book with their own experiences, and they engage with that book using those experiences. Their reading of the book is correct — for them." -Malinda Lo
A friend and fellow writer, Pekky D., shared this quote and sparked a discussion in particular about fan "shipping" (pairing two characters, often who are not otherwise in a relationship as part of the series, film, or book).
There are as many views on fandoms, fan fiction, and shipping as there are people who engage in them. I've been around the fandom block a time or two, and I've seen how heated things can get when people cling hard to their preferred pairing. It can lead to intense feelings on all sides, particularly among LGBTQ+ fans who want to see their favorite same-gender characters as couples.
So who is right? Is it the fans and their interpretation? Which interpretation? Or is the author the Voice of God in this case? I like to hope there's room for all of the above, and that it contributes to enjoyment of the fandom. Sadly, it often leads to frustration and disagreement.
In fact, fans sometimes resort to shaming people for having a different preferred pairing or even for not interpreting the character as LGBTQ+ at all. Some of us have been accused of "homophobia" for suggesting that sibling incest is not implied in Harry Potter or Supernatural. Creators of mainstream media face accusations of "queerbaiting" simply for writing a relationship that could be interpreted as queer and then failing to agree with fans (or outright denying it).
One of the key ingredients here is that there is so little mainstream media with LGBTQ+ characters as the leads. When they do take center stage, or when they are part of an ensemble, there are often problematic elements (for example, Bury Your Gays plots or having the character's entire storyline focused on coming out or dealing with LGBTQ+ antagonism). It's no wonder fans create pairings in their favorite media.
This has another complexity to it. These preferred pairings are often two (cisgender) men. Many beloved fandoms are heavily male-dominated. Even in ensemble casts or media with a solid female lead, there aren't necessarily enough women to create pairings. People of any other gender are all but invisible. Also, due to the nature of how men's vs. women's friendships are shown in media, women are rarely interpreted as lesbian or bisexual based on cues in the intimacy of their relationships. Men are more likely to be read as gay or bi the moment they enter into an emotionally vulnerable friendship with another man.
The only way to combat this multi-faceted issue is to create more media with LGBTQ+ lead characters of all genders. The more visible we are, the less likely we will need to resort to fan shipping to satisfy seeing ourselves in books and television. We need to be more than the sidekicks or an afterthought or a way to spice up a dull plot.
Right now, there is a significant body of LGBTQ+-themed media. It simply isn't mainstream because while we are expected to extrapolate from non-LGBTQ+ media, straight people are not expected to do the same. It's time we change that.

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