Being a queer consumer of entertainment is a little like being a diabetic invited to an ice-cream social: It’s fun until it starts to hurt, and at some point you’ll inevitably feel left out. While some media seem to be moving further ahead than others—see the influx of TV shows like Transparent, Sense8, and Orange Is the New Black, which feature queer characters from a range of backgrounds—as long as Hollywood is still making movies like Stonewall, where white cisgender men are insistently transformed into ahistorical heroes, representation is still a problem. For many queer viewers, favorite movies and TV shows offer a world in which complex, dynamic, actively queer people—people like them—do not exist.
However, as history has taught us, queer folk can always make a space for themselves, even in the most hostile of conditions. Fan fiction (or fanfiction, fan fic, fic, or any of number of abbreviations used around the web) is a term that can cause a lot of spontaneous eyerolling and sarcasm-flinging in some circles, but in others, it’s a tradition that has long united fan communities. Using characters, settings, plots, or any combination of these elements, amateur writers reimagine existing works—fiction and nonfiction—in new ways. The Brontë sisters wrote “fantasy stories” about the Duke of Wellington, and expanding upon the Sherlock Holmes canon has been a professional pastime for dozens of published writers. Nowadays, most fan fiction is on the internet, accumulated in vast archives like Archive of Our Own (Ao3) and FanFiction.net.
Fan fiction empowers authors because, in a longtime fan fiction writer’s words, “It doesn’t have limits, and it doesn’t prescribe them.” With the basic foundations already laid, fan fiction authors can change anything they don’t like about the original story by adding, removing, or inventing at will. Missed moments, new romances, alternate universes where their favorite characters are talking squirrels who live in a magic oak tree—or, perhaps, where two canonically straight characters are in a queer relationship.
Actually, there’s not much perhaps about it. Queer fan fiction, or slash—a term usually used for male/male stories, femslash for women—goes right back to the roots of modern fan fiction, when fan magazines in the 1960s published pulpy romances between Star Trek’s Capt. Kirk and Mr. Spock. (If that surprises you, you’ve clearly never seen the way William Shatner used to look at Leonard Nimoy.) The majority of television’s and movies’ most popular franchises are full of characters whose heterosexuality is unquestioned, but that doesn’t kill the chemistry that can arise between well-written characters and talented actors. In those instances, queer audiences long for same-sex characters to have an equal shot at romance or at least an approach to queerness that isn’t “all-or-nothing”—something a little like bisexuality, for example, which has recently been acknowledged and realistically portrayed on several television shows (hello, American Horror Story: Hotel, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Orange Is the New Black), but sadly remains pretty scarce in movies.
One writer of slash fan fiction, who wished to remain anonymous—professing, like many I interviewed for this article, to being “ashamed” of her involvement with the fan fiction community—pointed to the double standard between onscreen romances for straight and queer couples. “The sort of love stories I like are totally reflected and visible in [mainstream media’s] canon straight romances,” she said. “Professionally produced media doesn’t give me that sort of well-written, emotionally devastating love story with LGBT+ characters.” The eroticism, the passion, the high stakes—in most cases, these are all reserved for straight characters. It’s up to the queer fans to claim them for themselves.
Take, for instance, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where the superpowered members of the Avengers are mostly male, toned as hell, and love to banter: Right out of the gate, fans were eagerly exploring the possibilities of Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, and Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, becoming lovers. On Ao3, there are almost 10,000 stories pairing the two romantically; that’s 3,000 more than the next most popular pairing, which also features two male characters in a queer relationship (Agent Coulson and Hawkeye). Parks and Recreation, one of television’s most beloved sitcoms, has more stories that romantically pair protagonist Leslie Knope with her female best friend, Ann Perkins, than with her husband, Ben Wyatt. And in case you were wondering, Shakespeare fan fiction does exist, and yes, Henry IV’s Prince Hal does fall in love with his childhood friend Ned.
This re-pairing of characters can be written off as unsatisfied fans indulging in wish fulfillment and the occasional erotic daydream. Outsiders who have ventured into the world of fan fiction—including Slate’s David Plotz and Laura Miller—have struggled to remain neutral while describing the genre, referring to an “obsession with emotional intensity” that has “spawned slash” or raising eyebrows at “romances, often torrid, between ostensibly straight male characters.” But when you are a member of the product’s original target audience—when you identify with characters whose sexualities are socially approved and unthreatening—you are much less likely to understand how empowered one can feel when writing queer romance into straight stories. There is power in giving Harry Potter a crush on Draco Malfoy, or creating a world in which Scandal’s Olivia and Mellie leave Fitz for each other; there is power in creating a means by which those in the mainstream might see from your sidelined point of view. It’s easy to trivialize, but the fact is that fan fiction is one of the few outlets that an increasingly frustrated queer audience has to engage with material that refuses to engage with them.
Authors of queer fan fiction make no bones about the fact that their work has political and social implications. “[Queer fan fiction] turns an essential but societally marginalized part of our identities into a tool for creating real and recognized art,” insists one fan fiction author. You don’t have to be queer to appreciate queer fan fiction, or even to write it—in fact, a recent census of Ao3 showed that at least one-third of slash fan fiction authors identify as heterosexual—but, as many writers will tell you, it helps to know the scene before you write about it.
In populist media like film and television, the history of queer representation is one long yellow brick road of insulting punchlines, drag queen gags, and after-school specials. Queer characters are traditionally relegated to secondary status and only brought into focus when storylines touch on topics of sexuality. If a queer person ever does get a shot at the spotlight, they often fall victim to a host of unfortunate tropes that are as insulting as they are tired and overdone. Indeed, increasingly out-of-date standards are a huge part of the problem as TV and film have struggled to toe the line between groundbreaking and offensive. The most obvious example that comes to mind is Will & Grace’s Jack McFarland, who was once a trailblazer but now appears to us as a screaming bundle of stereotypes. McFarland’s original portrayal was bold and proud in a time when queer men were invisible; now that visibility is no longer quite as limited a commodity, starting and ending at the extremes is a poor strategy for representing the vast expanse of queer identity.
Then again, at least Will & Grace had more than one queer character. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and to a much greater extent, transgender audience members are worn out from watching straight characters speak to every experience but theirs. We have been waiting for that simple, yet apparently impossible creation: the queer main character, with three whole dimensions and a life of their own that includes, but does not necessarily revolve around, an active love life. “Fan fiction provides a world where your favorite characters don’t have to be queer or, but have every opportunity to be queer and,” says Menzosarres, a femslash author and community member. “Queer and alive, queer and three-dimensional, queer and happily ever after, queer and successful, queer and strong, queer and robot dragon women from a colony of underwater space pirates. In being a world where queer is expected, fan fiction opens up the rest of the story to be anything you can imagine: Queer is the jumping off point, not the end goal. And, because of that, it creates a world where the young queer consumer can be all the same things.”
That said, it’s important to remember that the world of queer fan fiction is not immune to the same prejudices and exclusionary frameworks that are at play everywhere else. Menzosarres, who identifies as a white cisgender woman, and has made many online and offline connections with other fan fiction writers, readily admits this. “People of color are hugely underrepresented,” she says, “as are trans people, people with disabilities, people with mental illnesses and, yes, women. The [male]slash side of fandom is always quick to praise how groundbreaking their writing is, how subversive, while ignoring the gross misogyny they so often perpetuate in their haste to do away with the female love interests getting between their two favorite (white, cis) men. This isn’t the dawn of all things slash where Kirk and Spock were first written out of the heteropatriarchy and into a gay space relationship. We’re expected to see ourselves in those white men, for them to somehow represent all of society, and if all we do is continue to use those same characters as the end-all-be-all exploration of queerness, we aren’t doing much of anything at all.”
Menzosarres’ criticism delivers direct hits to several tender spots in the fan fiction community. In part because the entertainment industry continues to be overwhelmingly dominated by white and cisgender actors, as well as by programming that relegates actors of color and trans actors to “niche” projects, there is far less fan fiction exploring characters of color and transgender characters in the same depth as white, cis ones. In the same way queer authors will write queerness into straight-dominated universes, authors of color may do the same with countless white-dominated narratives. And the exclusion of women is an all-around problem: Misogynistic inequality, racism, and violence pervades fan fiction just as it pervades the source material.
“I collaborated with my childhood bestie on a Harry Potter fic entitled ‘Harry Potter and the Asian Invasion,’ ” recalls author Jo Chiang. “In hindsight, it’s become clear to me that one of the reasons why I started writing was because I wanted to see myself, a young Asian American girl, in the stories that I was reading.” Chiang, who now reads more than she writes, advocates for fan fiction as a way to address the disappointments and isolation that marginalized audience members encounter. In her words, “people write fan fiction partly out of love, but also partly out of a deep dissatisfaction with what is available. Fan fiction is an incredibly transformative approach to literature. It is both appreciative, but also irreverent. Fan writers, by taking an established canon and shaping it, twisting it, remolding it, are challenging authorial intent and taking a swipe at the assumption of authority and dogma.”
When you see the words authorial and authority so close together in the same sentence—referring to the same interest, no less—it may be a little jarring. Many writers’ rooms are full of people who have worked incredibly hard for the chance to tell one story, let alone an entire season, and their creative impulses are tightly controlled by networks and producers. It is unlikely that any of them feel more authoritative than the writers who post to fan fiction forums.
And yet, their stories are the ones that reach millions. Their stories come to life. And those lives belong to straight white people. Make no mistake, a straight white character can still be extremely compelling and well-written; but for viewers of color, for queer viewers, for everybody out there who is tired of their culture and identity being treated as a passing thought, fan fiction represents something crucial. It represents a challenge to the notion that being created in a straight world means one must live a straight life—a notion that queer people have been fighting forever. It represents an outlet of expression that begins on a populist level and hasn’t yet stopped. It represents a refusal to be punchlines anymore, a refusal to express ourselves less because it’s more convenient for everyone else.
In writing fan fiction, we do more than rewrite our favorite stories. We take those stories and make them strong enough to handle people like us.