From coming of age narratives to personal memoirs, literature has been exploring themes of sexuality for as long as people have been publishing stories. We often call this queer lit (though it’s important to note that some take offense at that term) or gay lit, umbrella terms to identify any type of narrative that features LGBTQIA characters. But in a culture that has long been dominated by heteronormativity, stories exploring alternative sexualities have struggled to find a place in mainstream publishing. Instead, books about LGBTQIA characters have often been relegated to smaller presses or niche audiences. If mainstream books even featured LGBTQIA characters, they were usually treated as the funny or tragic sidekicks supporting the (straight) main character’s journey.
There have certainly been books or authors over the years who have managed to break down those stereotypical barriers and reach a wider audience – nonfiction humorist David Sedaris comes to mind, as does feminist author Jeanette Winterson. But for the most part, LGBTQIA fiction and nonfiction maintained a very specific place in publishing: that of the special interest story with a specific market, and one that was almost exclusively defined by its take on sexuality. Instead of seeing LBGTQIA characters having adventures or journeys that were separate from their sexual preferences, we became used to seeing LBGTQIA books. Narratives that were wholly focused on sexuality, on the process of coming out, or the confusion around discovering love outside of a heteronormative model.
Don’t get us wrong: these stories are important. Classic books like Maurice, by E.M. Forster, or Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin, feature complex characters struggling with the secret of their sexuality and how that informs their world. We can learn a lot from these books, about how society views sexuality in different eras and cultures, about how a personal experience can become disquietingly public. And we have no doubt that many young people over the years have found comfort and solace in stories like this as they’ve discovered that they’re not alone in their desires (or lack thereof).
But over the years, it has also made us wonder about where the non-sexuality focused LGBTQIA stories are. What about a popular sci-fi book that details terraforming Mars with a main character who just happens to be gay? What about the asexual protagonist of a mystery detective series focused on saving the world from a serial killer? Why must so many narratives featuring LGBTQIA characters be defined almost solely by their sexual preferences?
Thankfully, things are changing – both politically and culturally – and we’re starting to see that change trickle down into mainstream publishing. Not only are we seeing more LGBTQIA books being published in general, more and more are taking the emphasis solely off of sexuality and are exploring themes for their characters beyond their struggle with identity. Regardless, from romance to fantasy, there has been an impressive rise in LGBTQIA books, and that rise is slowly bringing non-heteronormative characters and narratives into the mainstream publishing world.
If we want to look at where this trend started, we have to first look at young adult fiction. When mainstream publishing was still only producing selective LGBTQIA reads, young adult fiction was already working it into its canon. Books like Boy Meets Boy, by David Levithan, and Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, by Becky Albertalli, became instant must-reads in the YA community, and that desire for more representational stories has only grown and grown. Now, it’s fairly common to find a YA book (especially a series) with at least one fully-developed LBGTQIA character, someone who defies the stereotype of the tragic or funny sidekick. Instead, we see complex characters confronting complex issues in their lives – issues that aren’t solely defined by who they choose to love.
2018 is already promising to be a banner year in YA queer lit, with highly-anticipated books like Before I Let Go, by Marieke Nijkamp, or Reign of the Fallen, by Sarah Glenn Marsh, already hitting bestseller lists. Before I Let Go is a contemporary story about friendship, love, mental illness, and mystery. It also has a main character grappling with her own sexuality, particularly around the loss of her best friend. Reign of the Fallen is a fantasy tale about a bisexual necromancer who must save her kingdom from an army of the dead. Both books deal with sexuality and what that means for their young heroines, but that’s not all they do. The characters are defined by so much more – their families, their friendships, their goals and their adventures. This is exactly the type of narrative we want to see more in mainstream publishing; LGTBQIA characters who are complex and realistic, and who have drives and personalities beyond their sexuality.
This rising trend isn’t just happening in YA fiction, either. From sci-fi to romance, we’re seeing so many more examples these days of what it means to be a fully-formed LGBTQIA character in literature. Take Beneath the Sugar Sky, by Seanan McGuire, the third book in her popular Wayward Children fantasy series, which features transgender characters and more. Or Chloe Benjamin’s highly praised The Immortalists, a literary fiction novel that deals with death, magical realism, and San Francisco in the ‘80s during the AIDS crisis.
In 2016, Out ran a piece titled We are Entering a Golden Era for Queer Fiction. Since then, our political landscape has completely changed, with a president and administration openly fighting to take away rights for LGBTQIA citizens. In some truly horrific ways, we’re seeing that hate bleed out onto the streets. In 2017 alone, there was an 86% increase in violent homicides against the LGBTQIA community. This political and cultural backlash is why representation matters more than ever. We’re nowhere near where we should be when it comes to making sure that all voices and groups are heard in mainstream publishing. But with every new book published by or about the LGBTQIA community, we’re at least getting one step closer.
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