After Wednesday’s post, I got into a conversation in the comments about representation of LGBTQ characters in fiction, and whether there’s enough of it. From an entirely objective perspective: there isn’t. From a seriously subjective and emotional perspective: hell no, there isn’t.
Now, just because I’ve come out doesn’t mean everything on this blog is going to be about LGBTQ issues. However, one of the main reasons I wrote that post was because I wanted to write this one and others like it and be honest within it, so for a little while I might be dwelling on these issues. They’ve been stewing in my mind for months and I only feel able to write about them now, so I just need to get them off my chest. I’ll be back to irregularly unscheduled posts soon enough.
I have an Excel spreadsheet called “Catalogue of Books” in which I keep a list of every book I own or have stolen from members of my family. The vast majority live in my room, but some have been relegated to shelves in the corridor, and a few are simply piled in corners surreptitiously. I also have a Kindle, but I don’t count e-books in this spreadsheet – mostly because if there’s ever a fire and I lose my books, which is one of my greatest fears, I’ll use the spreadsheet to rebuild my library, and that won’t be necessary for the Kindle items.
As a result of this spreadsheet, I can tell you that I own 326 books. Of course, there may be one or two more that I haven’t added to the list, perhaps recent acquisitions, and this doesn’t take into account the books that live in my room semi-permanently even though I don’t own them, such as The Iliad and The Aeneid, which belong to my school’s Classics department. But there are approximately 326 books of varying genres, ages, and lengths. Here are a few of them, on my appallingly messy shelves. The gap is where I removed books to research an essay.
I went through this spreadsheet and made a tally of how many books contained a canonically queer character – one where it is irrefutable fact rather than subtext or speculation. While those 326 include some non-fiction and some children’s books, they’re still a fairly decent example of the spread of genres and authors that I’ve read, and the percentage is probably fairly accurate.
I only counted novels where it’s actually mentioned or comes up: the author mentioning it an interview a few years later doesn’t count much for representation. These are characters where a reader who has no other information other than what’s on the page can say with absolute certainty, “This character is not straight.”
There were five. Five books out of 326, and it gets worse.
The books were as follows:
- Tithe, by Holly Black
- The Dream Thieves, by Maggie Stiefvater
- City of Lost Souls, by Cassandra Clare
- A Place Of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel
- The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath
I’ve mentioned all of these on my blog recently, and they’re all things I read or re-read in the past year, but let me tell you a little bit more about the representation within these novels. This might involve spoilers for The Dream Thieves, so I’m sorry about that. I mean, I guess it kind of involves spoilers for all of them, but that’s the only recent publication.
(1) Tithe was the first book I ever read with a gay character. I was twelve or thirteen, and I’d never seen one in fiction before. Cornelius isn’t the protagonist – he’s kind of the sidekick of the main character. He gets seduced by a sadistic fairy with a cloak lined in thorns at one point; no guessing where my influences for Death and Fairies come from. It was also my first introduction to ‘shipping’, given that his mother is a Star Trek obsessive who ships Spock/Kirk (and that was how he came out to her). Actually, that’s kind of a funny story, because I’d never seen Star Trek before and didn’t realise the relationship between them was speculation and interpretation, so when I saw it I was fully convinced they were a couple and it was only later I realised that wasn’t necessarily the case. I’m pretty sure Holly Black did that on purpose.
What annoys me a little, though, is that this book says Advisory: adult content on it, at least the edition that I read and own. But only that book in the series. Not Valiant, which involves teenagers getting hooked on a magical equivalent of heroin, interspecies romance, and a whole lot of violence. Nope, apparently hardcore drugs are fine for impressionable teens to read about. But a gay character? Hamlet forbid that should go without a warning!
(2) The Dream Thieves is the sequel to The Raven Boys, which I went on and on about with regards to its plot twists when I first read it. It’s a new release and honestly? I almost didn’t include it on this list. Because it’s subtle. I mean, anyone capable of thinking gets to the end of the book and realises, “Wow, Ronan’s gay.” There are a lot of hints earlier, too, if you go back and look for them, and Maggie Stiefvater’s confirmed it on Tumblr and Twitter. (Plus, she ships Ronan with Dean Winchester, having only seen Supernatural once.) But it’s not put in as many words, and for those in denial that queer characters exist, it would be possible to overlook it.
However, it’s a wonderful presentation of complex emotions and he’s a fascinating and three-dimensional character, plus it comes so late in his narrative that he’s not dominated or defined by it, so it’s pretty good, as those things go.
(3) City Of Lost Souls is a tricky one to write about because I read the entire series so quickly that the books blur into each other and I can’t remember exactly what point in the narrative we’re at by this stage. It’s the only one on the list because it’s the only one I own, even though I’ve read the earlier four – it was being sold off for 20p at my local library. But ‘The Mortal Instruments’ are important, because they’re a bestselling series with a huge audience where one of the major named characters, Alec, is gay.
And he gets a relationship! For a while. See, the other two were single, apart from Corny’s brief and fairly unhealthy encounter with Nephamael, but Alec gets to have a relationship. He’s happy. I mean, it doesn’t last, which is kind of his own fault (I’m not going to go into detail), but it happens. His story is handled sensitively, with all the complications that arise from coming out to family, and it’s wonderful. Oh, and it made me cry.
Then there’s Magnus, a ‘freewheeling bisexual’ warlock with a penchant for flamboyance, who kind of fits stereotypes while also being terrifying and, you know, a warlock. Plus, though I can’t remember which book it’s in, at some point in the series there are also background lesbians. A relationship! Girls! These things have been noticeably absent before now. They’re not exactly major characters, though. Click here for a passage that I have saved to my computer as ‘accurate rep of queer teenagers’.
(4) A Place Of Greater Safety is the first on this list that’s neither fantasy nor YA. It’s a historical novel set before and during the French Revolution, focusing on the revolutionaries themselves. One of them is Camille Desmoulins, a writer with a serious punctuation fetish who writes pamphlets and newspapers inciting people to rebellion. He became my favourite character / person. (It’s hard to know what to call characters who are based on real people.)
And he’s bisexual. I guess. You can’t call it that, because those terms didn’t come into use until the 19th century and this is the end of the 18th, so they never use it as an adjective, but it’s made perfectly clear that he plays both sides, much to the horror and distress of Robespierre. Camille gets a relationship (a wife), as well as numerous exploits of a more illicit nature (he was a bit of a player, it’d seem), and a deep, meaningful, potentially romantic bond with another male character (Danton, seemingly unrequited).
(5) The Bell Jar is a book I’ve alternated between loving and hating, mostly because I enjoyed it after reading it once but got thoroughly fed up the longer I studied it, especially after reading critical material that pointed out all the things that had bothered me but which I couldn’t put into words.
There’s a character, Joan, who is perceived as positive by Esther until it’s revealed that she’s a lesbian. After that, Esther reacts negatively to her, viewing her as something unnatural or unpleasant. Joan, like Esther, is suffering from mental illness and is in hospital, but she commits suicide.
In other words, the only novel on this list that had a queer female character portrays her as negative and then kills her off – and incidentally, it’s one of the few events of the novel that’s fictionalised rather than based on what really happened to Plath, which is rather telling.
Didn’t I tell you it gets worse? Of five novels:
- None of these characters were the sole focus or central protagonist of the novel. Ronan dominates The Dream Thieves (each book focuses on a different major character while continuing the story of all of them), so you could argue that he’s the protagonist, but that would only be an interpretation. Likewise, Camille is a major contributor to the Revolution, but he shares the novel with Robespierre and Danton and all the others involved, so can’t be called the protagonist.
- A single character in a novel, or a handful in City Of Lost Souls, means the percentage is still way down below 1%.
- The vast majority of queer characters in fiction I’ve read have been male and gay, meaning that anybody elsewhere on the spectrum is basically invisible, and female characters are grossly underrepresented in this more than any other aspect of fiction.
- Queer characters rarely get a relationship that lasts or a happy ending.
It’s impossible to know how many people in the world identify as LGBTQ. Some are closeted out of fear. Some are just private. You’re never going to survey absolutely everybody. But estimates suggest that around 10% of the population identifies as part of the LGBTQ community – and yet the fiction I’ve read would suggest that it’s more like 0.005%.
Yes, I’ve read other books where characters were queer. My 326 books don’t represent everything I’ve ever read, because I’m way too poor to buy everything. The library is a very good friend of mine, and I visit it often.
Yes, some of the characters even got relationships, and were happy. They’re very much the rarities, however. Many of the novels are actually about their sexual orientation, or the character’s arc is about coming out. Have I ever read a book where the main character, the protagonist, is queer, and that’s not the entirety of their story? Not as far as I can remember, other than in terms of interpretation. (
Hamlet, and that’s a play.)
So how long will it be before I read a book where the protagonist is female, queer, in a relationship, and not defined by her sexuality? I mean, I’m writing one at the moment which actually fulfils all of those criteria, but I’d very much like to have a few more on my shelf. I want so many of them that I need a new shelf. Admittedly, I probably need more shelves anyway…
By writing and publishing and stocking books that suggest only a tiny, tiny percentage of the population is queer and never giving that tiny percentage a voice or a story, we’re sending a very harmful message to all those kids and teenagers growing up and looking for role models in novels. If they never see themselves as the protagonist of a story, if they’re always relegated to the background or to angsty narratives about dealing with their sexuality and nothing else, then what are they going to believe?
They’re going to believe that people like them can never be a hero.
We need queer protagonists for the same reasons we need female protagonists – we need young LGBTQ readers to see that there are people like them who can have adventures, overcome difficulties, and be strong, well-rounded individuals. It’s a matter of representation.
I’ve reached a point where I start reading a book and I realise that it’s centred on a heterosexual love triangle and I stop reading. Because I’m bored. I’ve come across that story a hundred times and I know how it pans out every single time and yet nobody has ever given me a queer female protagonist. Not one person has bothered to make people like me anything other than a background character in somebody else’s story.
I mean, they probably exist. In this world, there are probably books that have queer female characters whose character arc isn’t focused on that particular aspect of their identity. Probably? Why probably? There’s nothing probably about this, not from what I’ve seen in the media. If there are books of that nature, then please for the love of Hamlet just recommend them to me. But in nearly eighteen years, I’ve not come across them.
The reason I keep on writing gay and bisexual and asexual and transgender characters is because I want to up that pathetically miniscule percentage. But even if every novel I write gets published, that fraction is still so small and the chances of teens who need those books the most actually coming across them is tiny. It’s not about queer authors writing characters who reflect them – it’s about straight authors remembering that we exist, and bothering to represent us in their novels. It’s about people doing research and portraying sympathetic, interesting and well-defined characters who aren’t stereotypes to show that they know they’re not the only people in this world.
Homophobes are afraid that the LGBTQ community wants to take over the media.
And yeah, they’re right. No. All we want, all I want, is to have the media reflect how many of us there are in this world, so that we can teach people they can be heroes regardless of how they identify.
Is that really so much to ask?
For another great post on why representation within mainstream media is important, head over to Musings From Neville’s Navel for her post on Rick Riordan’s The Heroes Of Olympus series.
Unusually, all hyperlinks in this post except the last one lead only to pictures, rather than to other posts. So if you didn’t click them because you don’t want to read anything, rest assured that it’s safe.