The hero of A. R. Kahler’s new YA fantasy novel, Martyr, is gay, but that’s beside the point.
I still remember the first time I read a book with a gay character.
I was thirteen, reading “The Last Rune” series, and near the end of a book it’s pointed out that one of the side characters—a male knight—is in love with the male protagonist. The woman who says this asks the protagonist, point blank, could you love him like that? and the protagonist responds, I think so.
I was struck by that entire situation. I looked up and around and made sure that no one else was watching (which was silly because I was alone in my room) because obviously, if my parents walked in, they’d know what I’d just read. They’d assume something not even I had had time to consider.
We’ve all had that moment, when we stumble upon a character or situation that intrigues us—not because it’s strange, but because it resonates in a way we aren’t used to. We relate. Even if we don’t quite grasp why.
A few years ago, when I was writing Martyr, there weren’t many books with LGBTQ protagonists. There were even fewer such stories where sexuality wasn’t the main topic. In most of the fiction I’d read, LGBTQ characters were relegated to tropes or stereotypes. We were the martyrs—sexually confused/deviant, struggling with our identity, sick (physically or mentally), or militant. And there was a good chance we’d be killed off by the end of the book.
I was tired of it.
I’d struggled with my sexuality as a teenager. I grew up in small-town Iowa, which probably sums everything up. I rarely had positive gay role models I could relate to, in fiction or real life. I’d been bullied and harassed, considered suicide and praying really hard to be straight. Which is why I don’t condemn writing characters who struggle with that—I’ve been there. Most of us have. I just wanted to show what happened after. I wanted to prove our story could be more.
It took years, but I finally came to peace with who I was. More importantly, I realized I was more than a label. I was gay, sure, but I was also an artist and a world traveler and a wicked good vegetarian chef. I had stories that didn’t circle around who I chose to sleep with, and I wanted to write a book that exposed that truth: every single one of us is composed of hundreds of stories, and they deserve to be heard. No one is simply a cliché, no one is struggling with only one thing. We are diverse and complex, and we have more to say than what greater society thinks we do.
Which is why I wrote Martyr. I wanted to treat a gay protagonist in the same way I’d treat a straight protagonist—in other words, make sexuality a non-issue. Martyr centers around Tenn, a teenage remnant from the apocalypse cursed with the duty to keep mankind in the fight. He faces off against hordes of monsters and terrible magic. He has a boyfriend that means the world to him. Love is important. Orientation is not.
It’s my hope—and I think it’s the hope of every author—that readers will open Martyr‘s pages and feel that same sort of resonance. I want LGBTQ youth to see that they are so much more than a label. Due to some fantastic social media campaigns and reader outcry, there’s been a burst of new fiction for teens and adults that are filling this need. Mainstream society is realizing that “minority” characters can no longer be distilled to tropes and stereotypes. And that’s exciting.
You are the hero, and you can fight off any monster you wish.