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A WHEEL OF TIME COMMUNITY

Queer Themes in the Wheel of Time


Lezbi Nerdy
  • There are queer themes layered throughout the Wheel of Time, even beyond the canon queer characters.

     


Recently, as has become tradition, along with the Wednesday Wheel of Time TV show teaser, Rafe Judkins answered some fan questions about the show. In amongst his answers was one that, while I fully anticipated his answer, I was still pleased to see.  A fan asked him if there would be LGBT representation in the show, and in response Rafe said “there is rep in the books and the show”, and alongside his response, he included both the gay flag emoji and the trans flag emoji. 

 

This was a very heartening response, in particular the inclusion of the trans flag.  As some of you may know if you watch my videos, I have long said that I think the show will need to include trans characters, not only because more diversity that reflects reality will only serve to deepen the world that Robert Jordan created, but I think the very nature of the magic system practically begs the question of where and how trans people fit into this world. 

 

But when I read Rafe’s response, I couldn’t help but think about the queer representation that exists in the book and how… lacking it is.  And I mean that more than numerically, although simply statistically speaking, the number of characters that are canonically queer is way lower than they should be if the story is actually reflecting reality.  And it is noteworthy that of the queer characters that Robert Jordan himself included, not a single male queer character exists.  The gay male characters were written in Brandon Sanderson’s final three books of the series. 

 

When people talk about queer characters in the books, the term “pillow friends” gets mentioned quite a bit.  But, for the most part, the pillow friends that Robert Jordan wrote about were not particularly queer. Their time of having romantic/sexual relationships with people of the same gender (again, exclusively between women) does not read to me as truly queer.  It reads to me as the “just a phase” that often gets thrown in the faces of queer people when we come out. These women have sexual encounters with each other during times when men are not available to them, but when they are once again able to interact with men, they naturally move away from their relationships with women to the more ‘mature’ relationships with the opposite sex.


In fact, it is rather explicitly hinted at in the narrative, that these ‘pillow friend’ relationships are an expression of an immature sexuality – something I can tell you from firsthand experience is a real thing that used to be said (perhaps still is).  That everyone goes through a homosexual phase of attraction, but you’re supposed to mature out of that. Gay people are supposedly stuck in that immaturity.  I do not know if Robert Jordan actually believed it, but he did include this very odd and inaccurate narrative about queer people in his books.

 

And this is not even speaking of the women who, in canon, are shown to be exclusively attracted to other women.  Recently, when discussing these women with a friend, I described it as “his representation of lesbians reads like a man who has heard tell of lesbians via legend and myth”, an analogy I was quite proud of, given the themes of myth and legend that run through these books.  The lesbians in these books are angry, cruel women who hate men and/or want to be just like men.  Their desires seem more focused on what they don’t like than what they like… it is lesbianism defined by its relationship to men, and how it is perceived by men.  I do not expect every queer woman in these books to be a paragon of virtue, far from it, but when every example of a specific group of people is painted with the same brush, it ceases to be a personality trait, and instead is a stereotype that should be examined.

 

And of course, this isn’t even touching on the “trans representation” that exists within the books.  I put that in quotes because whenever I bring this topic up, the character Halima is mentioned, but I feel that Halima is evidence that Robert Jordan was…ill-informed, to put it mildly, on the subject of the transgender experience.  I, myself, do not think I am an expert by any means, but it is easy to see how Halima is almost a personification of the very 90s (and probably decades earlier, but I remember this from the 90s) fear that straight men had that transgender women were going to somehow ‘trick’ them.  Halima’s whole plotline revolves around deception, and they revel in the knowledge that they are fooling people, despite the fact that being in a female body is a punishment for them.  Additionally, many things in Halima’s narrative indicate that Robert Jordan appeared to think he was describing the experience of a trans woman.  While there are many trans people who reject the ‘born into the wrong body’ narrative, the experience of being a female soul forced into a male body would be more akin to the experience of many trans men, not trans women; something I know from multiple conversations on this topic is a point of confusion among fans.   If, in fact, Halima was Robert Jordan’s attempt at trans inclusion, then, much like the lesbian representation, Halima is a character created by someone who seemed to not understand the group they were attempting to represent.  

 

All of this to say that yes, there is queer representation in the books, but I am hoping for more from the show.
But, beyond the queer characters in the books, I think that there are queer themes layered throughout the story.   I don’t think it is possible to know if these themes and moments are intentional, but I know that as a queer person reading this series, there are moments that likely resonate with me differently than they would a straight person. 

 

The first of these moments for me comes in Eye of the World.  Our party has been separated by Mashadar at Shadar Logoth, and Nynaeve has found herself joining with Moiraine and Lan.  And at this moment, Moiraine reveals that Nynaeve can channel. And here we get to see Nynaeve stripped of the mask that she wears to protect herself, and she is vulnerable for the first time.  Moiraine has exposed this truth that Nynaeve desperately wants to not be true.

That desperation that Nynaeve feels, the way she wrestles with it, sees the obvious truth in it, all while hating it and trying to deny it.   That moment feels so familiar to me. And when she quietly asks Moiraine to not tell anyone, my heart breaks for her.  The shame that Nynaeve feels in that moment, I know that feeling, I wore that feeling for so much of my life. 

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And then there is Egwene.  It never occurred to me to read a queer theme into Egwene’s storyline until I had a chance to interview Enn and Matt from the Cool Story Podcast (A Wheel of Time New Reader podcast), and Enn spoke of reading queerness in Egwene.  Egwene is, to me, the inverse of Nynaeve.   Nynaeve reflects my early journey, I was a person with a secret that was so deep, I sometimes was able to hide it from myself, and when it came to the surface, I tried so hard to suppress it.  I was prepared to live my entire life denying this part of who I was, or at least I thought I was prepared to do that. 

 

Egwene, on the other hand, her story reflects the story of the brave kids that know and accept who they are, and know that if people don’t accept them, that’s their problem.  Egwene does not know that she can channel until Moiraine reveals it to her, but from the moment we meet her, she knows that the Two Rivers is not enough for her, that she is destined for more.  It is the story of so many gay kids growing up in places where they not accepted, and they are eager to strike out on their own, move to ‘the big city’, where they can finally be their full and complete selves and come into their own. 

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In that same interview; Matt, the other host of the Cool Story Podcast, mentioned seeing queerness in Perrin’s storyline, something that feels so obvious to me now that I can’t believe I didn’t see it before.  One of the most frustrating things, to me, in Perrin’s character arc, is his indecisiveness when it comes to his relationship with the wolves.  He will accept them, and then block them out, and then embrace them, and then suppress them.  As a reader, I find myself so frustrated that he can’t commit to moving forward with this part of his identity.  But when Matt brought this up, I couldn’t help but look back on my own journey with accepting myself as a gay woman, and the multiple times I came out and then went back into the closet.  I imagine that if anyone had been reading my story as a narrative, they would have been equally frustrated. 

 

Now, when I think of this aspect of Perrin’s character arc, I identify with it.  It is realistic.  There are beats in there that are, once again, depressingly familiar.  When Perrin “comes out” to Ingtar, he expects rejection, or even to be accused of being a darkfriend.  Ingtar’s reaction is not rejection, but it is not full acceptance either.  He urges Perrin to pretend to be something other than his true self, because the others will not understand.  This is, almost verbatim, what I heard from several members of my family when I began to come out to them. 

 

There is also, for me, one of the biggest ways I see queerness in the story – the ability to channel itself.  Often, when talked about, the ability to channel is said to be akin to an addiction. I do think that this is an accurate analogy for channeling as described in the books, but I personally see it as more akin to sexuality.  I do not mean that in a salacious way at all, I am not likening channeling to the act of sex, but instead to sexuality as a part of one’s identity.

 

Part of this, I do feel, is very deliberate in the narrative. The way the ‘spark’ is discussed as happening earlier in women than men, the steady growth rate of ability in women versus the sporadic nature of the increase in strength in the power with men, it is an obvious parallel to physical puberty.  However, it is more than this parallel that strikes me with the ability to channel.  In fact, for me the aspect of channeling that most resembles sexuality is the fact that once you start channeling, you will continue to channel, it is inevitable.  This feels like a reflection of the truth that you cannot deny who you are.  As I mentioned previously, I came out multiple times before finally fully embracing who I was.  Each time I went back in the closet, I was determined to be straight.  I was certain that I could do it.  But it was impossible.  Experiencing even the briefest moments of being honest with myself and others made living in the closet impossible. 

 

There is also the way that people react to being gentled or stilled - they lose their will to live.  Again, this is a feeling I am well acquainted with.  When something so central to who we are as people is being buried, and you are expending so much energy lying to yourself and everyone around you, it is exhausting, and it can make it hard to see any beauty in the world.  So, when I read these books, and see Logain, walking around the Tower grounds, dejected and empty, I understand what he is feeling and it resonates with me. 

 

And finally, there is Rand.  I think it is impossible to talk about queer themes in these books and ignore this aspect of his storyline.  Rand, much like Perrin, has a part of himself that he wants to reject and hide.  But, unlike Perrin, Rand has no choice.  He cannot reject his ability to channel because he has ‘the spark’, and he cannot hide because he is the Dragon Reborn.  And he knows that men like him hurt and kill people around them, and if they aren’t stopped, they rot to death.  It is a horrible fate.

 

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This aspect of his story very much mirrors the experience of living through the AIDS epidemic, the stigma that people living with HIV/AIDS had at the time - and in many places still do.    The fear that just by existing, these men would cause harm to those around them, and eventually die in a very undignified way.  And unlike the previous moments or story arcs I mentioned, I feel fairly confident that this one is intentional.  Given when Robert Jordan started writing this series, the fact that the taint and its effects are very gender specific, and knowing that, at the time HIV/AIDS was thought to be a gay male disease, the parallel is almost too perfect to be accidental. 

 

Earlier, I criticized Robert Jordan’s portrayal of queer characters, but I do very much believe that his missteps were borne out of ignorance rather than malice.  I always want to acknowledge his good intent, and I do very much believe his intent was good.  And in this part of Rand’s story, and the story of male channelers in the Wheel of Time, I see this good intent.   I see Robert Jordan exploring the journey of a character who, through no fault of their own, finds themselves “infected” with something that everyone fears, and no one understands.  No one can help him, many won’t even try, and he has to figure it out on his own. And in light of this interpretation of this aspect of Rand’s story, I think it is beautiful and hopeful that part of his journey includes the cleansing of the taint, and the ultimate acceptance of men who can channel.

 

So, while the queer representation in the books may have fallen short for me, these are the moments where I was able to read queerness into this series and find my story and the story of those like me in this world that I love. 
Are there moments for you that resonate in a way that may not be common among the fandom?  Leave a comment and let me know!



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I agree that you need to "read in" the queer. The representation is there, but it is often presented as aberrant behavior in some way. 

 

One thing I'd add to the list of themes that are in line with the queer experience is the relationship between Rand and Mat. There's this scene in the Eye of the World where the two of them are traveling from village to village, alone and scared, huddled together in a barn somewhere as Mat deteriorates from Shadar Logoth. I kind of think back to their friendship in those very early days and then how badly it changed later. From the end of the EotW/beginning of TGH, Mat is doing all he can all the time to get away from Rand after finding out who and what Rand is. Mat doesn't ultimately succeed in physically avoiding Rand forever, but he doesn't ever really seem like he's friends with him again, not in the way that Rand and Perrin actually seem to be friends at the end. The last scene we get with Rand and Mat is in the Seanchan palace, which is not exactly the moment for an intimate chat. The early sense of intimacy and trust between them never seems to be restored. 

I get that there's a lot of situational humor in Mat's character, and much of that is in his proclaiming he won't do something, only to grudgingly do it (and often more).  But the friendship strain between Rand (the analogously queer character here) and Mat (the straight friend who can't deal with learning what his friend is) feels pretty familiar. This is not to imply an actual queer relationship between them, but I think it's another queer theme that can be "read in." 

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it is rather explicitly hinted at in the narrative, that these ‘pillow friend’ relationships are an expression of an immature sexuality

I do not see this. There are a few characters that explicitly refer to pillow friends as immature relationships, but characters expressing views is different from the narrative expressing views. Especially when those characters are as faulty as elaida.

Aes sedai associate those relationship to novices, so they consider them a sign of immaturity, but aes sedai are far from an authoritative source on healty living.

 

If i have to read anything out of them, is that people have sexual urges. lacking the appropriate target, they will redirect those urges to something else.

I mean, lock up a bunch of men in prison away from women, they will engage in sexual activities. lock up a bunch of women in a tower away from men, they will engage in sexual activities too.

especially because training is very hard, and those girls are very hard pressed, and they need some help, some support. they could use a lover to help them get through the dark moments. and so they promote their best friends to the task as a form of mutual support.

nothing strange, no representation of queer or anything, just (mostly) straight people making the best of a bad situation.

And i think robert jordan supported this interpretation when he said something along the lines of "you lock up a bunch of pubescent young girls away from men and you put them through great stress, what do you think is gonna happen?"

 

if nothing else, it shows how mentally unhealty the training in the tower is. the white tower is a machine to destroy people; it's no chance that most aes sedai, for all of their strenght and serenity, are deeply unbalanced on some fundamental level.

Edited by king of nowhere

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13 hours ago, king of nowhere said:

I do not see this. There are a few characters that explicitly refer to pillow friends as immature relationships, but characters expressing views is different from the narrative expressing views. Especially when those characters are as faulty as elaida.

Aes sedai associate those relationship to novices, so they consider them a sign of immaturity, but aes sedai are far from an authoritative source on healty living.

 

 

It is more than just characters saying it, he wrote it into the story with Siuan and Moiraine.  They were 'so in love' while they were novices and accepted, but the minute they leave the tower, their relationship ends.  Naturally.  And neither of them seem to care.  It's not explicit, but it has that flavor of "oh, that was just a phase, and we're over it now. Because we're adults."

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2 hours ago, Lezbi Nerdy said:

It is more than just characters saying it, he wrote it into the story with Siuan and Moiraine.  They were 'so in love' while they were novices and accepted, but the minute they leave the tower, their relationship ends.  Naturally.  And neither of them seem to care.  It's not explicit, but it has that flavor of "oh, that was just a phase, and we're over it now. Because we're adults."

I didn't think of that specific case. i guess you're right, then, the narrative supports that view.

kinda sad, that what's a reaction to immense stress and emotional pain is shrugged off as a "phase" that people "go through". I don't have experience with the queer angle, but I am an educator, and the way the white tower raises young girl is outright criminal.

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How is the Poly aspect so completely overlooked? Rand loves multiple women. The women know about each other. There is a general consent among them (albeit some personality abrasion here and there) that they all love him and he needs something different from all of them. It's the longest, single most glaring LGBTQ+ aspect of any relationship in the books.

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The relationship between Siuan Sanche and Moiraine did not end because of anything to do with their sexuality. And (though it's been a few years since I've read the early books) I do not recall any Sister looking down on their relationship because it was "pillow friend" in nature. And I don't recall either of them expressing the feeling that leaving that relationship behind was convenient because of its nature.  The cause was politics.

 

I recall Sisters remembering their relationship as a reason to be suspicious of their feigned distance since then. Moiraine and Siuane pretty much explicitly remembered this was a choice they made to protect the mission/knowledge they shared regarding the Dragon and the coming apocalypse from Gitara Moroso's foretelling. Leaving this part of their shared history out seems like reducing their relationship to one that is defined by their sexuality and not the incredible importance of the rest of their reality.

 

They purposely subdued their relationship -- which, in less horrifically political and world-ending circumstances might have gone in a different direction, we don't know -- to pursue larger ends. The circumstances overwhelm their gender/sexual identities, which is fine with me.

 

This is one of the best write ups here in a long time. I considered things about multiple characters I had not in a long time, from both the article and the comments!

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As someone who has been reading online theories for the WOT for twenty years, not once have I ever seen someone other than myself liken the taint to HIV/AIDS. I always saw it like that, and it seemed to be something that straight people glossed over because I think it was something that simply wasn’t present in their lives. The same can be said for a lot of these, but this one — being what the entire series is based on — to me, is the most important. 

 

Thank you for making it more public. 

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Elendir

Posted (edited)

I'd just like to comment on paragraph abou Halima. The character of each person is composed of thousands of pieces. Sexuality defines only a few of them. Halima may be transgender, but she is also the Forsaken. She, like all Forsakens, creates the worst picture of what she can be.

Just as Rahvin is an evil image of a heterosexual man and Lanfear is an evil image of a heterosexual woman, Halima can be nothing more than an evil image of transgender women.

Edited by Elendir

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Thank you for your insightful piece. I enjoy many of your videos about WoT! Without disclosing too many details, I am a bisexual fan and increasingly consider myself non-binary, although I am seen as male in my day-to-day life.

 

I agree that if there are issues, they are mostly due to omission rather than trying to say something horrible about LGBT+ people. I also do appreciate the moments of frankness. For instance, some rather explicit moments in my reread were when Ailil and Shalon were revealed to be having an affair, and the mention that sister-wives of the Aiel are considered married to each other. (I also appreciate the polyamory, though in most cases, it does not appear too explicitly LGBT+ if a man is with several women, etc.)

 

Now, for the bad. As mentioned above, there is an issue with Aran'gar. While there shouldn't be an issue with a "trans" (her experience is kind of unique) villain, it is an issue when in such an expansive world, there are no good trans people. What if a trans woman was a novice in Salidar, or there was a non-binary channeler who could use both saidin and saidar? This would balance out any issues with Aran'gar.

 

Also, Galina is one of the most openly lesbian characters and her presentation is a bit gross too: a misandrist Red, also Black Ajah, and her ex-lover rejects her for wanting to be pillow-friends as Aes Sedai. There's also Elaida's past with Meidani Eschede, and Juilane Madome being a loyalist. However, it's balanced out by some good (albeit minor) lesbians/bi women: Seonid, Arrela, Solain. Personally, I do see Siuan and Moiraine as bisexual. I am fine with them breaking up, but find them together to be more exciting than the men they end up with.

 

There also definitely must be gay or bisexual men. The Black Tower must have pillow friends from a lot of young men being in one place, right? Same as most armies, the male Aiel societies, and Green Warders are probably in love with each other as well as their Aes Sedai a lot. There's the whole "navy" stereotype after all.

 

In the end, I don't think about it so much, even as an LGBT+ reader, but it is always worth discussing. Personally, I like the escapism aspect in WoT a lot, and I think that LGBT+ characters are treated better in-universe than a lot of other major fantasy stories.

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On 4/4/2021 at 3:17 AM, Elendir said:

I'd just like to comment on paragraph abou Halima. The character of each person is composed of thousands of pieces. Sexuality defines only a few of them. Halima may be transgender, but she is also the Forsaken. She, like all Forsakens, creates the worst picture of what she can be.

 

Just as Rahvin is an evil image of a heterosexual man and Lanfear is an evil image of a heterosexual woman, Halima can be nothing more than an evil image of transgender women.

 

As I said in the article, Halima (if indeed, they are transgender) would be a transgender MAN, not a transgender woman. They have a male soul in a female body.  The body is not the important part, the soul is.  

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On 4/23/2021 at 8:58 PM, Lezbi Nerdy said:

As I said in the article, Halima (if indeed, they are transgender) would be a transgender MAN, not a transgender woman. They have a male soul in a female body.  The body is not the important part, the soul is.  

 

I labelled Halima base on sentence:

“I remember this from the 90s) fear that straight men had that transgender women were going to somehow ‘trick’ them.”

I don’t know enough about this problematic, to specify any name myself. I had to maybe avoid second word altogether.

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