The Steampunk genre is open to many interpretations of the industrial era. I am writing a Steampunk YA novel, with a female protagonist. In the Victorian era, a respectable woman was restricted to wearing dresses, and layers of cloth and whalebone between her skin and the fresh air. My Alice conforms when she is out in public, but in the privacy of her own estates she wears ‘masculine’ clothing. It is more comfortable, and much safer, when she is working in her laboratory. In this era, the wearing of masculine clothes is considered quite shocking.
So, what do you do when you have a character that doesn’t conform to societies expectations of gender and sexuality?
Don’t make a big song and dance about it.
We live in an era that is trying to achieve a culture of equality and tolerance. The best way we can achieve that is not to define a character by her (or his) gender or sexuality. If a woman (or a man) wants to wear unconventional clothing, may have someone comment on it the once, and leave it at that – unless of course the manner of dress is the point of the scene. Just like you wouldn’t harp on someone’s age or ethnicity or religious beliefs, you shouldn’t harp on their sexuality or gender. A person is just a person, and not a jigsaw puzzle made of parts. Your character should be seen as a whole and well-rounded personality, or they may be defined by the stereotypes linked to certain traits.
The same strategy works best when a character doesn’t fit the heteronormative ideals of gender stereotypes. It is lazy writing to construct a character using any sort of stereotype, and you need to keep an eye out for ones you may not even realise are stereotypes. The butch lesbian. The effeminate homosexual. The flamboyant transsexual. People are complex, and if you don’t understand (or don’t want to understand) someone who doesn’t conform to a heteronormative lifestyle, don’t write about them.
However, if you want to warmly embrace the concept of a full spectrum of human genders and sexualities, don’t feel that a Steampunk setting will restrict you. Quite the opposite, in fact! Because you are working in an alternative timeline, you can write about a Industrial Age with teeming with tolerance and understanding. You can make a world of your own!