Part of the fun of writing the Flame Cycle novels is playing with sexual orientation and gender identity before it was cool—a long time before it was cool. Writing a historical piece, even within the realm of fantasy, means using the etymology of those times. Therefore, there is nothing at all gay or transgender in my new novel, Edge of a Knife, the latest Flame Cycle novel. That is, many of the characters are gay or trans, but those words never appear in the book.
After all, if you go back sixty or seventy years, no one would have known what you were talking about if you said the phrases “sexual orientation” or “gender identity.” Gay meant happy, and homosexuality was a disease to be whispered about in psychologist’s’ offices. Lesbians… well. The island of Lesbos may have been around forever, but the connection between women loving women in Sappho’s poetry and modern lesbianism is a relatively recent linguistic trend. Bisexual often meant transgender much as it referred to sexual orientation, and as for trans people, forget it. “Transsexualism” may have been formally named in 1923 by Magnus Hirschfeld, but even today we’re still debating what to call ourselves. We’re not alone in that: pansexuality, asexuality, BDSM, polyamory… hell, we’re not done with the LGBT-alphabet-soup by a long shot.
Long before we struggled with visibility and naming ourselves, those living in earlier times had similar issues. Edge of a Knife takes place in a late Regency/early Victorian-like era, replete with top hats, gaslights, cravats and coal smoke. And just like the historical background, I had to find other ways to describe gay.
What words made the final cut? For the most part, I used “invert” and “molly” to describe men loving men. For those of you who are sticklers for accuracy, I’ll admit my historical chops are a little messy. “Invert” was actually a Victorian word, used to describe men whose affections were “inverted” toward men instead of women. “Molly,” on the other hand, was a Regency-era word used in London to describe the highly illegal cross dressing and gay sex that went on in certain neighborhoods. Since my fantasy world is made up, and since I wanted the later period to be more uptight and stringent, I switched the words in their respective time periods: invert became the Regency word, while molly is used in the Victorian section of the novel. Doing so made me twinge; I don’t like historical flaws bowing way to plot, but there is a difference between nonfiction and fiction. Eh, let’s call it poetic license, okay?
But wait, it’s not simple as that. Sure, some variations are easier than other: the trans characters have their own special designation within the world of Uos—the Flame—and characters who have lesbian sex never name what they’re doing in terms of a noun. But I had to figure out how to describe a straight, heterosexual man. Believe it or not, this was actually the hardest part of the whole etymological exercise.
Heterosexually was named around the same time transsexuals and lesbians were being identified as such, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It makes sense—in order to name a difference, first you have to distinguish it from everyone else. This is how we get “cis” in contrast to trans, a linguistic twist I’ve been watching unfold from the ground up these last fifteen years.
Why did I need to name heterosexuality? If you’re going to write a scene in which Flame protagonists are bent (so to speak) on seducing a straight man, they’re going to have to think about the details: how to do it, what it is they want, and who they wish to do it to.
That’s where I hit a research stumbling block. Try as I might, I had to accept that sometimes history doesn’t provide answers. So I leaned back and decided to name the mindset and behavior rather than trying to find a relevant noun. “Straight” simply became “narrow minded with limited interests,” men who could become violent if those interests were questioned in any way. Which, naturally, makes seduction irresistible to Flame, who enjoy such challenges.
As do we all.
Edge of a Knife comes out March 28th and is available from ForbiddenFiction.com.