The Importance of LGBTQ+ Characters in YA Literature
Representation is an opportunity for all of you to be seen, and shown, and heard and recognised. It’s all of you; not just the asexual or queer or Black or femme parts of your identity, but you as a whole person, all nourished and vitalised.
By Ranait Flanagan (she/them) & Becca Hamilton (she/her)
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YA LGBTQ+ literature is flying into my recommendations left right and centre these days - and I’m super grateful for it. But it’s certainly not been this way until recently. An article about “The LGBT history you didn’t learn at school” popped onto my timeline - and, whilst a great read, there was a reason we didn’t learn it at school: only in 2019 did a ruling come into place to make inclusive relationship and sex education in the UK compulsory in schools. Schools don’t even have to start implementing that until this summer. It’s 2021, and kids aren’t even getting inclusive education yet! It’s no wonder I struggled to find inclusive literature when I was younger.
But as a white, cis-gendered female, my representation has, statistically, been better than others in literature and media. Case in point, as I found out, when I sat down to talk with my pal Ranait about all things LGBTQ+, representation, and the scary depths of fanfic archives...
Ranait: Hey there! As way of a little intro, I’m Asian-Irish and grew up in London and Singapore, where the rainbow flag doesn’t fly, and I’m a small queer non-binary magpie with a bit too much of a penchant for shiny objects.
Becca: Hi! Amazing intro. Thanks for chatting with me about this. I wanted other people’s voices to be heard whilst writing this, and figured there was no better gal than your magpie-like-self. We have similar-but-importantly-different growing up and coming out stories and exposure to representational literature, right?
Ranait: Yep. Growing up, finding representative LGBTQ+ literature was a relatively foreign concept. It was not until you asked me about LGBTQ+ representation in literature that I even realised that I didn’t grow up reading books to find representation.
Becca: Right? I had to do a really painful deep dive into the teenage years of my Goodreads account, trying to find what it was that fell under the umbrella of YA that I might have been reading back then. Like, I knew I’d read YA fiction, but it wasn’t the right kind of YA fiction, you know?
That’s not to say the literature I’d been reading was bad; I’d enjoyed reading things like Perks, Simon vs., Carry On growing up - but thinking about it now, they didn’t fully represent me. I think it's fair to say that the work being done to include LGBTQ+ characters is good, certainly better than in the past - but there also needs to be more of a shift towards representing the whole spectrum, and not just the white, cis gendered, male end. How about you, what was it like?
R: Oh, I found representation in movies, tv shows, manga - even fanfiction. Rarely books. But equally, I agree with what you say about the media I consumed, and characters, not fully representing me - the queer fanfiction I read when I was younger I loved, but it was also all MLM centred, so I never read it to searching to find something that mirrored my experience or to find representation.
B: My experience was pretty similar. There were LGBT books out there, but they were either “classics” - things like The Color Purple, or Orange is Not the Only Fruit - or cismale-centric LGBTQ+ YA books, Will Grayson, or something that had like, three pages of maaaaybe romance, but never fully confirmed.
Failing that, it was straight up pulp erotica. You know, those endless reams of books with mysterious dark blue covers, photoshopped shirtless white men on, called stuff like Wicked Desires, or Seduction and Snacks. I mean, I’d probably read the last one now for laughs, but also, certainly not what I was going to be checking out of the library at fourteen…
R: Only to expose myself slightly, I definitely had a couple of those pulp fiction novels bookmarked as eBooks online so that nary a soul would know I read them as a teen.
R: I don’t think my local library even stocked them! In some sense, those books held a similar place to LGBTQ+ literature as parts of my identity that I kept hidden and to myself. Now knowing that lesbian pulp fiction is out there and having queer friends who will also recommend and talk to me about this genre feels like a beautiful progression! But before pulp fiction, there was fanfiction.
B: Ahh yes, the hidden bookmarks, I remember those well. So many ridiculous fanfics hidden away in supposed “BBC Bitesize” folders. I also remember Tumblr awash with gifs of random TV shows that had WLW characters in, and watching these often terrible, terrible programmes only for those queer characters. And likewise with what you’re saying about fanfiction. It was either watching these terrible programmes for the snippets of queerness, or finding representation in mainstream media only because people had written fic about the “what if’s” - and usually only about straight characters. Fanfic gets a lot of flack, but I think it’s a testament to people’s desire to relate to others in mass media, and it also shows that what was already being shown to us on TV wasn’t enough for us, in one way or another.
R: Completely! I think there is also a beautiful intersection of fanfiction and fandoms as a female dominated space. In 2013, in AO3’s heyday, more users identified as genderqueer (6%) than male (4%). The ability of women to transform media whose target audience was not women into new worlds which represented their interests is extraordinary really - and I’ve read too many fanfics that went well past 100k words to know that!
B: I think... the first fanfic I read - I mean, it’s a bit painful to go this far back in my brain - was about two gay characters in Wicked, the book adaptation of the musical. Like, at the time, it wasn’t canon, but it is now (at least in the book world, I see you musical theatre fans coming at me), so I can justify that they were queer back then. Ish… And that was for sure over 100k words!
R: If we’re sharing fanfics, my most memorable ships were definitely John x Sherlock and Eren x Levi.
B: Johnlock! Yes!
R: Right now I find myself going through an almost second adolescence in which I am reading more and more queer literature and POC literature (particularly featuring AAPI characters) where I am finding representation and seeing myself. (Arguably this extends outside of YA and queer books with more prominent female Asian authors like Jenny Han for some beautiful and comfortingly predictable WOC-led YA romance, or Min Jin Lee for the days I’m leaning more “adult” than YA.) Over the pandemic, TikTok has been a game changer for finding literature that cuts across my identity fully. It’s become my new radar for LGBTQ+ POC led books like Last Night at the Telegraph Club or Priory of the Orange Tree. Have there been any books you’ve discovered during the last twelve months or so?
B: Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko was absolutely one of my standout reads of last year. I love that you’ve called it going through a “second adolescence” with what you’re reading, I need to do the same. I did read - and adored - One Last Stop, by Casey McQuinston, and have fully yelled about it to everyone who takes a passing interest. Felix Ever After was also great; beautiful YA about a transgender teen coming to terms with self-identity and falling in love. I spent some time over last summer living out my dream of being back in the States as a camp counsellor reading the Lumberjanes comic series by Noelle Stevenson, and they were wonderful. Many feels; I wish they’d have been around when I was younger.
I love your call for “predictable” YAs too: gal’s gotta have some trash reads to take on holiday, and if I read another about some London gal having a meltdown about an ex-boyfriend and ending up marrying her long-time dweeby highschool man-friend, I swear… London gal having a meltdown about ex-girlfriend for once? Yes. Please. I’ll take twenty of those.
R: Where do I sign to get that book list??
B: Right? There’s also been some recent studies done that say that trans, bisexual, and POC characters are lagging behind in terms of representation in mass media, literature included; how do you think we change this? Do you think we’re likely to see greater numbers of characters representing trans, POC, bisexual groups, but not greater quality in the content we see? Or is it enough just to see these characters, for now?
R: I want to say it’s already changing, and the change is not just quantity over quality. The new groundbreaking media like It’s a Sin or The L Word: Generation Q or Pose showcasing trans, queer and POC stories are worlds away from the TV shows I’d watch for 30 hours just to see a 30 second snippet of WLW representation.
In literature, I think there is a difference as the quality of the representation has always been there where it existed, for example Nightwood by Djuna Barnes or Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. The change here feels like we’re seeing more and more diverse authors have the microphone passed to them, like Morgan Rogers with Honey Girl or Kacen Callender with Felix Ever After. Where we have diverse authors being given a platform, that is where I am finding my representation and it makes me want to cry from joy. Plus with social media we also have our platforms to share these works of art easily and loudly. What I do fear is books that are not aimed at LGBTQ+ or POC audience tossing out token characters to tick a diversity box (*ahem* She Who Shall Not Be Named) - and if that’s the case, then the few quality representations are enough for me right now. I would rather wait to have fully fledged queer and POC characters be given their time in sunlight because we have full and nuanced lives that need to be met where represented. 30 seconds is not enough for me anymore! What about you?
B: 30 seconds is absolutely not enough! I do also worry the same as you about books flinging out the retrospective “Of course they were queer, how did you not see it?!” or ticking diversity boxes for the sake of it. Oh god, I’m also glad books, and I guess TV and movies especially, are moving away from the queerbaiting trickery that they used to pull. That was a classic tactic for getting 30 episodes deep or two and three-quarter books into the trilogy for a five second arm stroke or side glance that might one day be the start of something. Dear lord, so many hours wasted, so little gay obtained…
That said, I’m feeling absolutely more nourished by the content we have now than I used to feel. I also I think I’m missing seeing LGBTQ+ people shown who aren’t just what we expect to see from the community, does that make sense? I watched a video with Jamie Windust, and they were talking about this. They said something about how it sometimes felt like they only got modelling jobs because they looked like what the producers felt a queer person should look like. That kind of representation gives the the “general public” group of viewers or readers more LGBT+ inclusivity. What I’d love to see is more content - books, movies, TV shows - starting to move towards strengthening the representation outside of those “loudly” queer people. Exactly as you say, platforming the people in those underrepresented facets of the LGBTQ+ community, who haven’t been heard.
You’re only now finding people that represent you, showing you yourself in a mirror, through literature. Do you think, going forward, you’ll see more of yourself in YA literature, or in more ‘adult’ literature?
R: Wow, Jamie Windust, what an icon. Recently coming out as non-binary whilst still presenting very femme, I know some people almost expect me to start dressing in a more androgynous way or a way that marks me out as non-binary - which I also see in a lot of the trans representation that moves characters to fit neatly into those gender binary boxes of masc, andro or femme. There is no one way or right way to be trans or non-binary, and trans and non-binary people don’t need to match what people expect them to look like! So, especially with the recent UK government decision to not recognise non-binary as a legal gender identity, I hope I can find people representing unexpected queerness in literature and other medias.
And I think I will be able to see more of myself in YA literature. More people than ever identify as LGBTQIA+ in the UK, and the US too - and with it the volume of intersectional voices telling stories and experiences from multiple marginalised communities is getting louder. We want to hear stories about butch bisexuals and intersex people, asexuals and trans experiences and from all different ethnicities and racial experiences - and I know one day I’ll see more queer asian non-binary femme characters out there in literature because I’m not the only one with experience by those labels.
B: Part of representation, I guess, also makes me super keen to see more representation outside of characters too? I want openly queer authors, producers, TV runners, graphic designers - everything - all getting the limelight. Half joking (and half not) - I’m tired of having to Wikipedia every author that mentions LGBT characters to check if they’re One of Us...
R: Oh I can get from search engine to “Personal Life” in record time.
B: It is a true skill, one I’m glad we share. I want representation by this community, damnit!! It is getting better, but it’s the classic “write what you know”. The groups and communities online you mention are going to improve the LGBTQ+ representation for those who aren’t well represented because they represent it. Maybe that’s the next step, getting those boardrooms and publishing houses filled with the LGBTQ+ community, platforming more diverse authors for publication in the process? [Becca looks longingly into the distance, imagining the power suits and briefcase opportunities...] Moving out the usual (cough white straight male cough) suspects aside to strengthen the platforms for those who don’t normally get to speak, and by default strengthening the diversity of the literature that we get in return. Win win?
Representation is an opportunity for all of you to be seen, and shown, and heard and recognised. It’s all of you; not just the asexual or queer or Black or femme parts of your identity, but you as a whole person, all nourished and vitalised. There’s still work to be done in getting all of this right in the representation we get. LGBTQ+ representation - in YA literature, and outside of it - has never been more important.
Becca is from Queer Lit, Manchester's Independent Gay Bookshop, joined by her friend Ranait. Immerse into our extensive range of over 1500 Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans & Queer books at www.QueerLit.co.uk.
The graphic below was designed by artist Harry Woodgate, who you can follow on Instagram: @harrywoodgateart.