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Homophobia in Queer Superhero Sci-Fi

Over the past months, I’ve been trying to read books that share similarities with Deficient. These include TJ Klune’s The Extraordinaries, C.B. Lee’s Not Your Sidekick, and Perry Moore’s Hero, as well as a classic, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which I hadn’t read since high school.

Occasionally, I’ll dip into book reviews to get a sense of what people liked or disliked, and I see what resonates with my own feelings. Hero was an interesting one, because one of the more common critiques was the perceived unrealistic nature of the overt homophobia that the protagonist, Thom, experiences (yes, even aliens are homophobic!). But was it ridiculous for homophobia to feature so prominently?

Hero was published in 2007, the year I graduated from college. It doesn’t feel that long ago, but here we are in 2023, and holy scheisse, a lot has happened since then. Barack Obama. Donald Trump. A global pandemic. iPhones. Game of Thrones. Black Lives Matter. Social media. Russia’s war in Ukraine. A Black Little Mermaid. Lady Gaga. We’ve made significant progress on issues like same-sex marriage and decriminalization of homosexuality in several countries, but we can’t forget where we were at back in. While he campaigned for president, Obama spoke openly in favor of marriage signifying a union between one man and one woman. In 2008, Prop 8 passed and effectively banned same-sex marriage in California. Hate crimes were rife during that time, as were suicides. One story that made headlines was that of 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, who, in 2010, jumped off the George Washington Bridge to his death after peers posted a video of him kissing a man on Twitter. The coverage brought back memories of other hate crimes I had heard about, including the torture and death of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998.

The fear Thom experienced merely by being himself was very real, and I think it represented the fears that Perry Moore experienced during his youth and young adulthood. Homophobia was a large, charcoal cloud looming over the country and much of the world. The homophobic comments I heard within my family, school, church, and community when I was growing up were symptoms of that – razor-sharp hailstones falling from that charcoal sky. The boys who were beaten up after school for not conforming to a cis straight norm, the unexplained suicides at such early ages, the horrible, daily bullying that I observed and did everything I could do avoid – more hailstones. Homophobia was part of our societal fabric, and it instilled a deep, abiding sense of fear in me and many others.

I think some readers hold Hero to a more modern and woke standard, which may be why, today, we’re surprised that Thom experienced homophobia the way he did. Much of the change in thinking has been influenced by the shows and movies we watch, the messages we receive, and even financial incentives that come with monetizing celebrations like Pride. But homophobia hasn’t disappeared. It manifests in different ways, across families, towns, states, and countries. The book bans throughout the United States are one example of the complex but nefarious forms that homophobia and transphobia can take. The country I currently live in is seeking to ban all LGBTQIA+ content on Netflix, and a neighboring county has recently imposed a death penalty for cases of ‘aggravated homosexuality’ – legislation with origins in the anti-gay Evangelical church in the US. Such actions are meant to control a “deviant” population – to keep offenders hidden away in their closets for as long as possible.

So I take no issue with the prominence of homophobia in Hero. But even I found myself wanting more. Namely, I wanted closure between Thom and his homophobic father, Hal, around Thom’s gayness. But perhaps that was too much to ask of a father in a novel written in 2007. It was something that took years in my relationship with my own dad. That closure, which contributes to a sense of belonging, can fall along a spectrum of tolerance, acceptance, openness, celebration, and even love. Today, social media, television, and movies make us feel like belonging is something we can expect, even though many are still struggling for it.

In writing Deficient, I’ve purposefully situated the book in a future when humans have evolved beyond discriminatory treatment in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity. But what emerges is a different question. What would happen if people were to change in a fundamental way that affected the very nature of our human experience? Would we take the high road, or would we slip into our old habits of creating castes and constructs? I chose the latter in Deficient, partially because the former wouldn’t have made for a very good book. But I also suspect, perhaps cynically, that “accelerated” humans would make mistakes—big ones that are amplified by their abilities—and prove that we may not have progressed as much as we think we have.

Strangely, homophobia has no place in my futuristic book, and I’m glad it doesn’t. But it wouldn’t be realistic for every book to eliminate or ignore it, and I don’t think it’s fair to criticize Hero for featuring it. I will never judge a book for giving something as insidious as homophobia the prominence it deserves after centuries of ravaging the human psyche.

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