As I’ve said before, I am quite capable of setting aside an author’s beliefs to read a quality or engaging story. (Yes, or. I am not always the discerning reader I appear to be. However, Card manages to hit both categories, to me.) While it causes small ethical dilemmas when it comes to how I get my hands on the book, none of that matters while I’m actually reading it … until it starts to bleed through.
I know Card’s queerphobic. His books are, on the whole, utterly lacking in queer characters; if there are any non-heteronormative characters, they’re pretty much pulling a Dumbledore. Card routinely employs erasure. In Shadow of the Hegemon, there was one horrible moment where transphobia (and intersex-phobia, and strong-female-phobia, and a complete lack of understanding about what defines gender or even sex) became the brunt of a very unfunny joke. The only reason I got through that book without gagging was because it didn’t happen again, and the scene was from the point of view of the person being “joked” about and thus showed it was unfunny. I thought, okay, the character who said that is the villain, and he says (and does) lots of horrible things. The other party involved in the set-up for the “joke” is the military. It is not actually beyond belief that something like this would happen; I can accept it because it was only once and it was not presented as being actually all that funny.
But then there’s chapter seven of Shadow Puppets. (For all I know, it’s all of Shadow Puppets; chapter seven is simply as far as I’ve managed to get so far, though I plan to finish the entire series-so-far.) In this chapter, we have the following gem:
“Listen to me, both of you. Here is the meaning of life: for a man to find a woman, for a woman to find a man, the creature most unlike you, and then to make babies with her, with him, or to find them some other way, but then to raise them up, and watch them do the same thing, generation after generation, so that when you die you know you are permanently a part of the great web of life. That you are not a loose thread, snipped off.”
“That’s not the only meaning of life,” said Petra, sounding a little annoyed. Well, thought Bean, you brought us here, so take your medicine, too.
“Yes it is,” said Anton. “Do you think I haven’t had time to think about this? I am the same man, with the same mind, I am the man who found Anton’s Key. I have found many other keys as well, but they took away my work, and I had to find another. Well, here it is. I give it to you, the result of all my … study. Shallow as it had to be, it is still the truest thing I ever found. Even men who do not desire women, even women who do not desire men, this does not exempt them from the deepest desire of all, the desire to be an inextricable part of the human race.”
Which is nicely capped off by this:
“The woman I’m going to marry is a good woman, a kind one. With small children who have no father. I have a pension now – a generous one – and with my help these children will have a home. My proclivities have not changed, but she is still young enough, and perhaps we will find a way for her to bear a child that is truly my own. […] I’m happy for myself. This will make me miserable, of course. I will be worried about the children all the time – I already am. And getting along with a woman is hard even for men who desire them. Or perhaps especially for them. But you see, it will all mean something.”
I can get past erasure because (and this is also the negative side, so please don’t take this to mean that I’m at all a fan of erasure) it is, by nature, completely forgettable and easy to overlook. Most readers don’t see it happening. Many of us who do have learned that if we don’t get over it occasionally, novels that meet our criteria for reading fast become slim pickings. This, however, is absolutely not erasure. This is more like, “Hello, here’s a queer person; his highest goal AND THE MEANING OF LIFE PLEASE NOTE is to live a heteronormative life.” This is one step away from an advertisement for conversion therapy. This is promoting a life that not only doesn’t work for most queers, it’s actively harmful to us. This is Card telling us that it’s better to live a complete lie than be who we are, that it’s better to risk all the psychological damage than let someone think we might be queer.
The only saving grace to this scene is that the comment is said by the queer character – or is that actually what pushes it over the edge? I can support an individual’s decision. I do not agree that conversion therapy works or would be a good idea even if it did work, but if a person decides (uncoerced, fully informed, freely decides) to try such a thing, I will support their decision. I might give an unknown author the benefit of the doubt in this situation, depending on other queer content in the book. (Positive portrayals? Okay. You get a pass, with a small note that maybe you’d benefit from some education. Negative or no portrayals? I’ll … consider it.) However, in the context of “negative or no portrayals” and knowing about Card’s extracurriculars? It’s not a saving grace. It makes it worse, because someone with no previous exposure to the queer community will see this as words from a queer character, rather than words from a queerphobic author.
This is the kind of scene that makes me look back at the transphobic remark and wonder if it wasn’t meant to be a sort of nudge in the side to the readers, a joke that Petra doesn’t find funny only because she’s the butt of it. A way to build humanity in the serial killer, by letting him say something like that. Oh, these silly heros, not finding that funny. I hope that’s not true, but I’m not going to hold my breath.
I find the overall writing Card puts out to be worth overlooking his erasure. But I’m not going to sidestep the blatant homophobia being aired in Shadow Puppets without at least saying something, and I’m not ever going to pay money for these books or recommend them to someone who won’t pick up on this awfulness. I don’t want to support a man who can casually advertise actively harmful practices. I don’t want to be party to someone reading this and internalizing the idea that conversion therapy is a good plan or that other homophobic practices are awesome. Most of all, though, I want everybody to know before they pick up his books. We are second-class citizens the moment we enter his world, his mind. If you are able to set that aside and still enjoy his books, forewarned is forearmed. If not, you can avoid ever even picking up his work.