Jul 11, 2013

LGBTQ representation in YA lit.

I've been thinking a lot lately about LGBTQ representation in YA lit. And not just LGBTQ, but all of the various initials arranged in ways that I can't remember - QUILTBAG and LGBTQIA and all combinations of sorts.

YA literature is fairly good at representing LGBTQ in YA lit. Goodreads has several different lists of YA books that have LGBTQ characters as main or side characters: LGBTQ YA (Young Adult) Literature, YA Fantasy/Sci-Fi Novels wit Major LGBTQ Characters, Booklist for Trans Youth, Historical Children's and YA with LGBTQ Characters, Lesbian Historical YA, Trans* Young Adult Books.

Despite these lists, there are heavy overlaps in each, and the most popular YA books often don't make the list. And that's not to include the narrowness of what's represented in YA lit.

The most popular and well-known of the two initials, L and G - are the most often represented. (And yes, hang in there; I am going to break down all the different sexualities that we have initials for, and then rant angrily about how even then it doesn't fit everybody.) Lesbians and gays are the most popular representative sexual identities outside of straight, cisgendered people.

Straight and cisgendered means that they are attracted to the opposite sex while simultaneously identifying with the gender they assigned at birth. Lesbian references a woman being attracted to a woman. Gay references a man being attracted to a man, but could also be used to refer to homosexuals as a whole.

Bisexuals (the B) are not as well represented as I'd like them to be. Bisexual refers to people who are attracted to two genders (not necessarily man and woman, but woman and tran*woman, etc). Like in real life, they tend to be washed away in fiction to be replaced with those who are clearly gay or clearly straight.

Transgender (the T) refers to those who are not cisgender. They identify with a gender other than those assigned to them at birth.

Then there's the initials and sexualities that usually don't appear in literature at all - Q, which can stand for queer (meaning you don't identify as straight or any other sexual orientation) or questioning. I myself identify as demisexual, which means I'm not sexually attracted to somebody until I'm in love with them. There's asexual, which means that a person is not sexually attracted to anybody, or interested in sex at all.

And there's plenty of other sexualities - intersex, polysexual, pansexual - and that's not including that sexuality is flexible and can change as time goes on.

Nevermind people who are demisexual and bi-romantic (those who can fall in love with more than one gender), etc., etc.

While a good chunk of my friends identify as heterosexual, I'd say about 30% of them identify as something else - gay or lesbian or bisexual or demisexual or asexual. It's very normal in my life to talk to people who don't fit 'the norm.'

Yet so much of YA is about 'the norm' - almost all romances are heterosexual; most characters are heterosexual; and if they're gay, it's either their defining trait or completely swept under the rug once it's mentioned.

"If we can’t write diversity into sci-fi, then what’s the point? You don’t create new worlds to give them all the same limits of the old ones."

The quote from Jane Espenson is one that I like to apply to YA lit. We have a vary wide variety of genres and stories in YA lit, and YA is also one of the most open fields in terms of representing various sexualities.

But, for some reason, they're not as widely represented as they could be. And when they are, they're often killed off.

Being treated like possessions in our common history is true for women; it’s true for people of color, and it’s true for LGBTQ people. Our society can’t bury us under the achievements of straight white men, though, because we are too much a part of history. We need to include ourselves in mainstream fiction and in speculative fiction, because we have always been here, all of us, all of us holding different, important roles. Don’t let them ignore us anymore.

That's Tamora Pierce on how history isn't straight white men, and how literature shouldn't be straight white men either.

And there's Sarah Diemer on relatability in terms of LGBTQ literature:
I’ve had people tell me that they don’t feel that they could read a book with a lesbian main character because they don’t believe that they could relate to it. The difference between you walking out of a book store, frustrated at not being able to find a story that you could relate to, and straight people telling me they’re not certain if they could relate to a lesbian main character, however, are two vastly different things. It’s a straight world—almost every story in existence is straight, every myth and fairy tale we’ve been told, growing up, is straight, every movie, every commercial we see (or that gets any play or notoriety) is straight. When people tell me, “I don’t think I could relate” for ONE book, they’re not understanding the fact that we have to not relate ALL the time if we want to read anything. Obviously, there are wonderful straight stories that we both love, but we don’t have the luxury of being able to say “meh, it’s straight, don’t think I can relate to it!

And there are plenty of quotes on LGBTQ representation in YA literature on the LGBTQ tag on our Fuck Yeah! Young Adult Lit Tumblr.

There's not really a point to this post other than to point out the variety of sexualities - not just those in the LBGTQ initialisms - and to say that I'd like there to be more. That it is possible.

And that I really, really like diversity in YA lit.

What do you think of LGBTQ representation in YA lit? What are some of your favorite LBGTQ characters?


  1. I'm looking forward to the day when LGBT literature isn't a separate category or genre, when YA starring a QUILTBAG protagonist is just as accepted/normal as a straight MC is now, when reviewers no longer put 'warning: LGBT content' at the top of reviews.

    Some of my favourite LGBT characters from fiction include Doctor Who's Captain Jack Harkness and Emma Trevayne's Anthem from her novel CODA.

  2. Honestly, as the years go on I'm getting more disappointed with YA lit's amount of LGBTQ/QUILTBAG/etc. characters. More authors are putting them in secondary positions, but we repeatedly turn to the same two or three types of representations for books with them as main characters. And authors, for that matter, are often recycled. We see so many new debut authors that write heterosexual female perspectives, yet a debut author with something out of the norm on a gender and/or sexual field (and I consider a cisgender male POV the norm in this case) is almost impossible to find these days.

    I think it's stagnant. An overwhelming majority of these YA characters fall under the G categorization. There are certainly a decent amount of L representations, but I myself find them harder to find and often less talked about. I've frankly read a lot of great YA books with those representations that should have been picked up by publishing on the whole that haven't been - and even a few books targeted at NA that haven't gotten much attention because of the diversity. Your post will certainly help people who need to learn about the different aspects, but I think YA lit on the whole is also stuck in the "teaching" literature phase when it comes to different genders and sexualities.

    Malinda Lo has brilliant statistics and stuff on the subject. Frankly, it makes YA look as bad as it should in regards to its levels of diversity. When I looked at those numbers, I realized just how little representation YA lit actually had.

  3. Nice article, it is my first time here. I write young adult books through QueerTeen Press and my focus is on all kinds of diversity. I really believe/hope that main characters outside the "norm" is a trend that will continue to grow!

  4. Totally agree with Suzanne (although we fortunately haven't seen any warnings on reviews!).

    And we agree with you that there needs to be wider representation of the queer community -- everything under that umbrella, regardless of the labels (which, at the end of the day, simply can't do justice to the nuances of human nature).

  5. Hmm...never really thought about how BTQ characters (and others) are kind of neglected.

    My main problem, I think, with gay characters in YA fiction, is that it becomes their defining characteristic, that's the ONLY thing that's developed about them, that they're gay. But in reality, obviously like everyone else, their sexual orientation is just one aspect of who they are. It happened in Will Grayson, Will Grayson, it happened in Every Day.

    Also, it's true that the majority of people are straight, and I feel like in certain books there are way too many gay characters to be realistic. In WG, WG, for example.

    I would like to see LGBTQ people _better_ represented, and more variety in who is represented. But perhaps not MORE in a single book.

    1. "in certain books there are way too many gay characters to be realistic"

      I think this is interesting, because while you are right that in society as a whole a majority of people are straight (or choose to represent themselves that way, anyway), but there are also situations and groups within society where being LGBTQ is much more normal.

      Take the LGBT Literature class I took last semester as an example. Out of the students who were in a relationship, I was the only one in a traditional straight one, and yet I still consider myself bisexual. Out of 25 students, five of the guys were openly gay, three of the girls were openly lesbian, two girls were openly bisexual, and two students were genderqueer. If I was to write a novel that largely used that class as a setting, I am sure there are people who would find it "unrealistic," no matter how much it was based on truth.

      I guess what I'm trying to say is that I think it's interesting that one can ever see a novel as having "too many gay characters to be realistic," when no one ever questions how realistic it is to have a large cast of characters where no one identifies as something else than straight, even if that is far more unlikely.

    2. True, but in a LGBT class, I suppose you might expect that. (even though that's kind of a stereotype). But Will Grayson, Will Grayson and Every Day are both set in high schools, and I thought there was too much focus. You definitely make an excellent point though. It totally depends on the situation.

  6. Me too! This is a big interest of mine, and I've already started searching for YA lit with LGBTQ characters (main or support) to read. I'm hoping one day I can come up with a list or something like that explaining which books are recommended and why and which aren't. I've sometimes come across LGBTQ characters who are just stereotypes and unrealistic. It's not even just about LGBTQ main characters. I'd like to see more LGBTQ supporting characters. How many of us who identify as straight have LGBTQ friends? It's not a correct that so many of the characters in YA hang out with people who are exactly like them.

    As far as reading a book with a LGBTQ main character, I have no problem relating to them. I don't relate to their situations, but I relate to the character. One of the best books I've read that I really identified with was Ask the Passengers. I'm not a lesbian, but like Astrid, I don't understand why we have to create these little boxes and stuff ourselves into them.

  7. I think that looking at the way the acronym is ordered gives some interesting insight into this situation...the first two, L and G, are the most commonly found in books, and the easiest for straight people to understand. I think there's a connection there.

    Then you get to the B, and straight AND gay people often say, "Why can't you just pick one?" or worse, "so you're half gay?" or EVEN worse, "Bisexuals always cheat -- twice the temptation." It's a little less easy for people who gravitate towards one or the other to understand bisexuals. When B is represented, it's often as the "slutty" or "playboy" bisexual, because that's the stereotype. A lot of people think that bisexuals are two horny to "just pick" whether they're gay or straight. I still remember a critical review I read of 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' (not YA, I know, but still, this isn't just a YA problem) that claimed the author must have made the MC bi just for sex appeal.

    And then we get to T -- and transgendered people have a long history of straight, gay, and bi people thinking they're freaks. Historically, even prominent gay rights groups have been unfair to the T group, favoring "we'll come back to your rights later" and "LGB only" bills because they believed it was less "extreme" and more likely to pass. Trans men and women may also be attracted to men and women, just men, or just women regardless of their gender identification. It's complicated, and it's definitely common for people to reject a trans man or woman once their birth gender is revealed. Or for the gay community to reject a trans person based on their birth gender.

    It's like the further you go down the acronym, the less people who don't belong to that letter understand it. People say "write what you know," but meanwhile they're ignoring the value of researching the complexities and issues that go with each sexuality. Sure, it'll be more work for a straight person to write a non-straight character. But the stuff you learn in the process makes it worth it. I don't see "I can't relate" being used to get out of any other kind of writer research.

  8. This is a great blog post. We just did a chat on this last night (on Twitter and google hangout) for #NAlitchat because it's still a complex topic to write about as characters grow from Young Adult to New Adult. The more it gets talked about the less of an "issue" it becomes.

  9. I'm so glad you wrote this post! Not many people understand the fluidity and flexibility of sexual identity and sexualities. People require labels and still see things very black and white (gay or straight, boy or girl, etc). Transgendered and transexual characters don't really make an appearance at all because I don't think people understand it like they do gay-lesbian.

    Again, great post :)

  10. This is great. I'm an asexual author, and intend to one day include an asexual protagonist in something besides a short story. I have written short stories featuring gay women protagonists, gay teen girl protagonists, and a trans* girl protagonist, and one of my book series that I don't intend to publish features a protagonist who is asexual (though I'm not sure if she's romantic, and neither is she). I read a ton of queer lit and I think it's really important, but I'd also really like if we could have queer characters whose stories aren't simply about their queerness or the related issues. I can't wait until we can have representation in mainstream media without having that representation be so front and center that there's no story left.


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