I am Not a Secondary Character: Queer Kids in YA, and Why We Need to Do Better

I was interviewed by Hugh of the Way of the Buffalo this past week, as part of the series he is doing on my novel, The Dark Wife, my YA, lesbian retelling of the Persephone and Hades myth–an interview that will go live next week, along with the first chapter of the book, as read by the fabulous voice actress, Veronica Giguere. Suffice it to say that I am vibrating with joy, and can’t wait to share it with you. :D Vibrations of joy aside, during the interview, there were many points that I touched on that I realized needed to be expanded into blog posts. So here we are!

It’s no secret that there are pitifully few YA books that contain queer protagonists. It’s insulting and frustrating. Insulting, because there are lots of queer kids out there, I promise you, and frustrating because we aren’t doing better by them. We have absolutely no problem writing about zombies feasting on flesh or end of the world scenarios involving cannibals, but the thought of two girls creating a lasting relationship is an impossibility in YA literature? Really? Really?

I want to know why. I want to know why this is such a difficult concept for us to grasp, why our gay youth not only have no choices in the literature they read, they’re expected to read the straight ones. Like: gosh, they won’t mind! They’re not stupid. They know the world caters to the straight population, because it has for so long and it keeps on spinning–why throw off that center of gravity? (Said with the ultimate of sarcasm.) But I can tell you, absolutely, without a doubt, that they are desperately looking for people like them in literature and finding hardly anything to read.

I’m not a secondary character in my own life. I’m the protagonist, just like every queer kid on the planet is the protagonist in the story of their own lives. Yet, we seem to think it’s okay to throw gay secondary characters at them. Not only that, but most gay secondary characters have the misfortune of unrequited love. Not because they have to live on different worlds or because the dimensional portal is closing or there are renegade unicorn stampedes–but because they’re gay (It won’t work out! Maybe I’m not really gay! Maybe I was experimenting with you! Maybe I’m going to leave you for a boy BECAUSE THAT’S TOTALLY NEVER BEEN DONE BEFORE IN LITERATURE).

If you’re a writer, writing gay characters, you can not write them based on the fact that they are gay and that would be a totally awesome tragic angle in your story. When you’re writing gay characters in a YA book, you must–let me underline that one for you–must ask yourself why you are writing this character as gay.

Good Reasons:

- Because you’re gay, you knew what it was like growing up with absolutely no positive reflections (or, hell, ANY reflections) in media, and you want those stories desperately so you’ll just write them yourself.
- You’re an advocate who is passionate about gay rights and gay kids and know that they need stories.
- You know that gay kids need stories, and you want to do your best by them.

Terrible Reasons:

- It would give your secondary plot a TWIST and be TOTALLY TRAGIC if the secondary character couldn’t be with the girl of her dreams because they’re GAY and that’s always REALLY SAD, RIGHT?
- You want to tell a tragic story, and–guess what?–gay people are always totally tragic!
- You can’t think of any other reason that your character would have conflict. (Please don’t do this. For the love of the gods, don’t do this. “Gay as conflict” can be done well, but if you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing [or just doing it for the hell of it] or can’t think of any other reason for conflict, FOR THE LOVE OF THE GODS DO NOT DO THIS. Also, by the way, most gay YA books contain this, so let’s try to move away from that, shall we?)

Gay kids aren’t a “plot point” that you can play with. Gay kids are real, actual kids, teenagers, growing up into awesome adults, and they don’t have the books they need to reflect that. Growing up, my nose was constantly stuck in a book. Growing up as a lesbian, I was told over and over and over by the lack of gayness in said books that I did not exist. That I wasn’t important enough to tell stories about. That I was invisible.

Why are we telling our kids this? Why are we telling them that they’re a minority, and they don’t deserve the same rights as straights, that they’re going to grow up in a world that despises them, that the intolerance of humanity will never change, that they’re worthless.

It’s not true. It’s so fucking far from the truth that it’s laughable.

But, every Tuesday, YA books come out with straight heroines and heroes, and–every Tuesday–gay kids comb the stacks with a hunger unrivaled, desperately seeking out any heroine or hero like them. That hunger’s not going to go away. It’s not going to stop. It’s never going to stop until we wake up and realize that they need these books.

I will never stop writing queer books. I will never stop putting out queer stories in the world. I know I’m not the only one.

Authors–we need to do better. We need to tell these kids that they’re just as important as their straight friends. We need to tell their stories, we need to give them hope, we need to give them stories that end happily, because I’m a writer and I understand, better than anything else, that stories change lives, and gay kids need good stories.

And to the queer kids–please never stop combing those stacks. Please don’t stop believing that we’ll do better by you. Every day, there are queer books being written, there are authors trying to get them into the world, stories for you, stories where you are not a secondary character or a plot point.

They’re coming. I promise.

About Sarah Diemer

Author and faerie artist. I write about heroic, magical girls who love girls and the magic of simplicity. I drink a lot of coffee. Follow me at http://twitter.com/sarahdiemer or find out more about my work at http://www.oceanid.org
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23 Responses to I am Not a Secondary Character: Queer Kids in YA, and Why We Need to Do Better

  1. Raardvarks says:

    I never read YA novels growing up for that exact reason. I found “adult” books to be more complex: in terms of relationships and life in general. (Queer people are not often the protagonists in “adult” books either, but there are slimmer pickin’s in YA for sure). How sad that I avoided an entire genre because of its lack of diversity!

    Like

    • Sarah says:

      Seriously! That’s the truly sad part–the lack of diversity across most genres is frustrating beyond belief.

      Agents and book publishers say: no one will buy queer books. I am in the business of turning that on its head. There ARE people and kids out there who want and need these books desperately. If we can change their perceptions that they won’t sell, these books will be picked up, and PEOPLE WILL THEN BUY THEM.

      It is a grand plan, to be sure. :) Voices of dissent are important! Thank you, Natalie~ :)

      Like

  2. Nonny says:

    We definitely need to do better.

    I don’t really write YA myself. I deal with too many adult concepts, and honestly, I don’t end up coming up with ideas that really work within the limitations of age. That and focusing on epublishing doesn’t really work as well, since most teens don’t have access due to requiring a credit card for purchase. I really can’t deal with NY with my health issues. :(

    I do think my work is YA accessible in the same way that Mercedes Lackey is. And Misty is a large part of why I didn’t fucking loathe myself as a teen when I realized I was bi (though I use the term pansexual now as I feel it’s more accurate). If not for her and her attitude toward “alternative” relationships (as they were called at the time), I don’t think I would have had nearly as healthy an attitude. And I still had some amount of hell being homeschooled in a family that thinks homosexuality/bisexuality is wrong.

    But at the same time, there really isn’t much gblt literature even in adult fiction. The book I’m working on rewriting right now involves a whole ton of gblt characters. My protagonist and her love interest are bi/lesbian, and I have a bi/gay male side character (who is mostly gay but makes the occasional exception) and a bi female side character. And I have seen all of one urban fantasy that has gay/bi characters, and that’s Black Blade Blues by JA Pitts. Which I didn’t care for because of the sheer amount of internalized homophobia on the part of the first person narrating character. I want to read a book where it’s tangental that the characters are gblt, not a Huge Fucking Issue.

    And that’s the thing, there are so few books where it is not a Gay Issue book. It always has to be Gay As Conflict, and I hate that, because it’s just who I am, it’s not something I’m in constant conflict about, and that’s generally not represented.

    So apparently if I want to read it, I’m going to have to write it myself. :P

    Like

    • Sarah says:

      That’s why I do both YA and my not-YA-fantasy-and-science-fiction-and-paranormal-romance-shenanigans.

      I agree, totally. We are vastly underrepresented everywhere–I also agree that if we want these things, we have to write them ourselves! *laughing*

      You know we’re part twin, right? I was homeschooled K-12. :D *LOVE*

      Like

  3. Tara says:

    Literature on the whole doesn’t have a lot of minorities at the forefront. Part of it is the school of thought that “you write what you know”. There are people who say that a “white person” can’t write about a “black person” (or vice versa), that a heterosexual can’t write about a homosexual (or vice versa), etc. Sadly, asexuals are also underrepresented, especially in YA, where it seems like the goal is to find out “who the protagonist will end up with”. There are so many different types of people, and sadly not the same amount of readily available stories to match.

    Like

    • Sarah says:

      I think that the industry is also afraid. They need to bet on a sure thing, but the thing I think they do NOT realize is that queer YA (or any minority of YA) is a SURE THING. There are HUGE groups of people who would do ANYTHING for a book that reflects them. I think a sea change is coming, but it can’t come until people are more vocal about the fact that we need these books, and we need them yesterday.

      /soapbox. :) <3

      Like

  4. Robert Sloan says:

    This is beautiful! Thank you for writing this. Your call to action is inspiring.

    Your rant made a fourth Good Reason blazingly clear to me.

    GBLT YA stories are an underserved niche market. That’s a great way for any non-homophobic writer to get a solid readership who will be panting after every new story, whether that’s in series or not. They can be romances, horror, fantasy, science fiction, mainstream, humor, anything… but if the protagonist is gay or lesbian the kids will pass the book around by word of mouth. The better it is and the truer to life it is, the more they’ll love it.

    I know that sounds like a mercenary answer. But for a liberal writer who’s looking for a lucrative niche, that is an awful lot of kids. They’d also be hooked and interested in your writing at an age when they’re going to grow up with you as a favorite writer if you also do adult GBLT fiction. Hook them young and they’ll hang on all their lives. Isaac Asimov once said “The Golden Age of Science Fiction is fourteen.”

    Also in science fiction or fantasy, it’s easy to set up conditions where it’s not necessarily a homophobic society. They may be facing other conflicts. It could be a romance with romantic conflict. It could be humor and have more to do with a different issue. It could be fantasy where my main character’s “Red headed, left handed, gay and born on the full moon” as the reason he’s a wizard.

    I think there’s something to be said for throwing GBLT protagonists into other sorts of books where the main conflict is one of any of the classics – if only for that subtle point of validation. They can be goofy comic protagonists. They can deal with bullying or relationship issues. They can deal with authority conflicts, independence conflicts, person against nature conflicts, anything at all… depending on setting they may also face homophobia but it need not be the primary conflict.

    Anyway, that’s my thought on it. I like your Dark Wife concept and got it on my Kindle, just need to find time to read it since I just moved.

    Like

    • Robert Sloan says:

      PS – the cold mercenary reason of “Underserved Niche Market” hit me hard because I’ve spent way too many years afraid to write YA or children’s books at all – because I had this impression that the markets were screaming conservative and I’d never be able to sell it.

      Your post reminded me that an indie book can become a hit, a lot of GBLT kids do have accepting parents and for all I know, there are liberal publishers begging for this material.

      You just made me see the glass as half full. Write what I think is cool and want to read, that’ll create its own market.

      Like

    • Sarah says:

      Good point! I hadn’t thought of that one, but it’s true–mercenary, totally! :P–but true. Publishers, please take notes! ;D

      Like

  5. Lara says:

    Thankyou for this… it does give me hope and your Dark Wife was the first story which I had read which I felt actually reflected my feelings. I am maybe a little more extreme than some but “straight fiction” sometimes makes me so upset and it’s so hard to avoid. On a funny note, as a teenager I’d read novels from the male’s point of view because then they’d be focusing on the girl :)
    I really really do look forward to the day when books with lesbian or similar characters are everywhere and you don’t have to look for weeks to find one.

    Like

    • Sarah says:

      Hi Lara! Thank you so much for your comment. :)

      (I know what you mean! I totally read male protagonist books in the same way! I thought I was the only one who did that~ :))

      I’m so glad you enjoyed The Dark Wife!

      Me too. I believe that day is coming!

      Like

  6. Denny says:

    This was an excellent piece and I linked to it on my LJ and my official blog. Thank you for writing this.

    “Why are we telling our kids this? Why are we telling them that they’re a minority, and they don’t deserve the same rights as straights, that they’re going to grow up in a world that despises them, that the intolerance of humanity will never change, that they’re worthless.”

    I think the answer is obvious. We’ve seen this with the Verday situation as well as the Orson Scott Card kerflfuffle. It’s the same reason why novel covers featuring POC lead protagonists are regularly whitewashed. Unfortunately this is still a very bigoted industry. And while many tout themselves as “allies” or down for the cause, few actually do anything about it.

    But posts like this and quality LGBTQ fiction is how things get better. And even if we don’t improve the industry itself. If that book reaches one soul and inspires them like say Perry Moore’s Hero inspired me, then as storytellers we’ve done our job.

    Like

    • Sarah says:

      Thanks so much for linking it, Denny–I appreciate it. :)

      I think that if one soul is inspired, that is improving the industry–I believe that with my whole heart.

      Thank you so much for your support. :) And I still haven’t read Hero! I really need to get on that…

      Like

  7. Sparky says:

    Agreed to so much of this.

    So many of the gay “characters” in books are not characters – they’re plot points, stereotypes, excuses for more tension and conflict (usually pining after a straight person) and they’re never the protag

    They’re the friend, the villain, they’re the magical advisor, they’re the victim who needs rescuing, part of the scooby-gang, side-kick, the random passer by – and ultimately, a supporting strut to the straight person’s story.

    Like

  8. DPB says:

    Hey,

    I’m gay, and 21. I grew up without books about gay people, but I don’t feel let down, or ignored, or invisible. Books are escapism, books are stories about people you don’t know, and will never be. Kids having feelings of love, requited or otherwise, are the same whether they want a girl or a boy or a bloody vampire. We do too much of this seperation for gays, we’ll only feel normal when everyone starts treating us as normal, us included.

    You can make the same argument about fat kids, or albino kids, or disabled kids. There aren’t books for them either. Can’t we all just look around and see real life, see the real stories of love and happiness and the creation of futures? Can’t we all be the same, be ‘normal’?

    Like

    • Sarah says:

      I understand what you’re saying, but we’re never going to be seen as normal if we’re not seen. You want to be seen as normal–I want to be seen as normal. But since we’re so infrequently in literature, we’re still a minority. We’re not going to get to normal unless our stories are told as normal, unless our stories are actually in books.

      You think that there’s too much of a separation between gay and straight and we should close that–but there’s a huge separation in the fact that there are so many people who want to see gay stories, and the fact that there aren’t any. If we close the gap of separation with gay stories, the separation will no longer exist. :)

      Like

  9. Jamila Jamison says:

    I’m so grateful to you for writing this article. Growing up straight, I actually think I would’ve benefitted from reading LGBT lit. As it is, it wasn’t until I was in college that I had my first experiences with open gays and lesbians, and I had a lot of relearning to do. It helped that I studied sociology as an undergraduate and had professors who challenged me to take a much more broad-minded view of the world, but I do believe that growing up in a society hyper-focused on straight people limited me.

    I think the argument that you make is one that can also be applied to literature about people of color, and others who are marginalized. One thing that pushed me into writing was the fact that I grew up with books that didn’t reflect my experience as a biracial woman (unless, of course, we’re talking about the tragic mulatto, and that business makes me want to vomit). That invisibility rankled, stung, and made me angry, and as a result, almost all of my protagonists are women of color.

    Some of the reasons I’ve been hearing from straight authors is that they’re afraid to write LGBT lit, partly from the possibility of coming off as insensitive, partly out of fear that their work will be pigeon-holed as ‘queer only,’ and partly from lack of experience. I’ve heard similar arguments from white authors talking about writing characters of color, and male authors talking about writing about women. If we don’t learn how to overcome those fears, either by doing some darn good research (because it’s useless to have the books if people are just going to reproduce the same tired tropes, as you mention), we end up reproducing the status quo. [insert your marginalized folks here] remain invisible and devalued, stereotypes and misperceptions are never challenged, and things continue to suck.

    Anyway, thank you again for writing this, and I will spread it around via Twitter and my blog. Also, I’ll definitely check out The Dark Lady. The Persephone and Hades tale is one of my favorites, and I’m excited to see how you’ve reinterpreted it.

    Like

  10. Rainbow Fish says:

    I agree with your list of good and bad reasons except for one thing. The list of good reasons you have mainly consists of seeing a lack of LBG characters in literature and wanting to fill that gap. I am a queer person who often writes things with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and whatever characters often because that aspect just came to me. For example, while I’m milling around, thinking about this story that I’m working on and about the protagonist, then something pops in my head about that character being with someone of the same sex and as I do more thinking, I see more of the partner and the partner becomes more fully rounded. So from that point on I start thinking of that character as gay or bisexual or whatever they identify as.

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  11. Pingback: Writing Gay Characters In Young Adult Fiction | My Sex Professor: Sexuality Education

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