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But Make It Gay: Reading Queerness into Heteronormative Narratives

Whether scrolling through Netflix for films or browsing for books in Waterstones, I am happy at how easy I can find gay fiction. With a touch of a button, I can watch Kurt Hummel pirouette across a stage; with the turn of a page, I can imagine a world where the Prince of Wales is gay.

As a gay bibliophile and binge watcher, finding my queerness in the pop culture I love is essential.

But as our queer forerunners fought for our rights, they also championed our representation. With minimal overt queer fiction, the queer bookworms and cinephiles of the past had to use alternative ways to identify themselves in texts. While we are surrounded by openly queer narratives and characters, we shouldn’t forget how it was and we shouldn’t forget how to read queerness between the lines.  

During the Hays Code of the 1930s, certain ‘deviant’ things were prohibited on the silver screen including obvious displays of queerness or gay characters. While this censorship prohibited anything explicit, gay characters disallowed, those clever movie magicians managed to slip queerness into their films. 

Thus, queer coding was devised: tropes and signs used to imply queerness. It was a secret language written into movies for queer viewers to follow like fairy-tale breadcrumbs. Under the cover of eccentricity and suggestion, queerness was slipped into blockbusters. 

Queer coding often relied on the stereotypical qualities: anyone who extravagantly subverts gender norms, effeminate men or butch women; an interest in non-traditional fields such as men interested in fashion or women interested in cars; and a romantic disinterest in the opposite sex. There were cookie-cutter roles of queerness such as the confirmed bachelor and the maiden aunt. These characters could never be openly gay – every trope is a wink to queer audiences.

queer coding
Photo by Jeremy Yap

Later connections were made between queer-coded characters and villainy. Watch any Disney film in the 90s, villains are flamboyant spectacles of malevolence. Think about foppish feather-capped Captain Hook, obsessed with capturing a young man, or Ursula who was based on the drag queen Divine. Under a critical eye, queerness becomes tightly bound to cruelty and evil – if you’re subversive, queer, or othered, you must also be a villain. And this is just Disney movies. 

How easy it would be to discount queer coding now; we don’t need to rely on outdated stereotypes, sleight-of-hand subtleness and animated baddies anymore. Instead, we should welcome and reclaim the queer-coded characters of cinematic days gone by. Where their queerness was silly and secret, we can assert the truth of it, joining the dots of these signifiers to create a fleshed-out queerness. 

While queer-coded villains have become gay icons, other characters such as Elsa from Frozen have equally be elevated to queer heroes. Elsa’s hidden nature and her mantra of ‘conceal, don’t feel’ are identifiable traits for gay fans, who follow her journey of acceptance through her song ‘Let It Go’ – the unofficial gay anthem of 2013. Raising these queer-coded characters up as icons finally gives them the attention they deserve. 

While queer coding is dropping hints about why the eccentric uncle has never married, reading queerly is the sole pursuit of the reader, the viewer. To break this down, I refer to everyone’s favourite gay literary theorist: Roland Barthes. As every literature student will know, Barthes’ infamous essay ‘The Death of The Author’ stipulates that authorial intention doesn’t matter once the work is out in the world. The text belongs to the reader, and can be read, interpreted and understood however they wish.

Image of Ursula from the Little Mermaid // Copyright Disney
queer coded

Cousin to queer coding, reading queerly includes picking up on narrative tropes that can be interpreted queerly. The difference: queer reading is in the eye of the beholder and could be explained away. We can find common elements that lend themselves to being queered. Any kind of otherness can be read analogically for queerness. In sci-fi and fantasy, this might translate to powers, gifts or some sort of fantastical identity. 

More importantly, this ‘otherness’ must be kept secret, at least around those who do not share it. A popular example is, of course, Harry Potter. Yes, the living-in-a-closet might be a bit heavy-handed, but Harry’s otherness due to his identity plus the scorn The Dursleys highlights the possibility of reading Harry as queer. There’s the idea of escape, of finding a place where the otherness is accepted – in modern queer fiction, we watch this in young gays moving to big cities and finding a chosen family. In Harry Potter a young wizard moves to a big castle and finds a wizarding community. Starting to see a resemblance? 

Thanks to social media threads, tracking explicit examples of reading Harry as queer (or specifically bi) is surprisingly easy: the way he describes and perceives other men such as Sirius and Cedric; his reaction to Dudley’s homophobic taunts. It’s all there for the picking. 

Other tropes that lend themselves to being read queerly include intense same-sex friendships (Thelma and Louise), or the exclusion of the opposite gender from the bulk of the narrative (I’m looking at you, Lord of The Rings). Reading the characters we love as LGBTQ+, claiming texts as Barthes intended, has become somewhat complicated by social media. Some creators are unable to stop tweeting offensive apocryphal titbits, but the text is no longer theirs. They are grasping at the creative control we have and must continue to wrestle from their hands. But they’re not the only keyboard warriors. After all, what sticks two fingers up to authorial intent more than the glorious art of fanfiction?

In fact, you don’t even need any hint of queerness to stick character A with character B and wrap them in queerness. Some of the greatest queer love stories ever told can be found on fanfiction websites. Whether it’s Grantaire and Enjolras from Les Miserables or Sam and Frodo, or any pairing of Marvel characters, there’s a plethora and precedent for writing our most beloved characters into queer narratives. 

In my eyes, queer reading is an act of resistance. As protests insisted on our social and political existence, queer reading asserts our existence in the stories we’ve historically been excluded from. From the tragedies of Shakespeare to the Regency of Austen to the galaxies of ‘Star Wars’, reading queerly allows us to be part of literary legacies and cinematic institutions. Sometimes we have to slip between the cracks of the words and pull out a thread of queerness that becomes a whole tapestry. Once you start reading and watching this way, you’ll begin to find queerness even in the straightest of plots. 

Queer coding and reading queerly are powerful and important acts. Yes, representation has improved, but that doesn’t mean these acts have become redundant. Queer coding allows us to reflect on the erasure of gay characters in our collective cultural history. Even today, as we wait for Elsa to officially come out or a different gay Disney hero, for gay fans, queer coding is a doorway into these stories. Continuing to read queerly demands that creative power rests in the readers’ hands. After all, we all know Robin wasn’t just Batman’s side-kick, right?

Bisexual Harry Potter FanArt