When was the last time you read a book with an LGBTQIA+ protagonist whose identity wasn’t defined by their romantic relationships to other people? Or what about a book with a disabled protagonist who was single — and not absolutely miserable?
It’s difficult for marginalized people to find themselves in literature, and because there are so few examples, it’s even harder to find someone whose romantic life matches their own: Single and happy, dating multiple people, polyamorous, completely aromantic, actively looking for a partner, engaged but not married, and so on.
Contemporary books with LGBTQIA+ characters have a history of absence and tragedy to reckon with. Many early queer books ended with death and ostracization, and LGBTQIA+ characters’ stories were focused around violence and the constant weight of systemic oppression. As a counter to the same sad stories, in the 1970s, lesbian romance novels provided the opposite to their readers; finally, readers could see a queer happy ending.
Characters with disabilities are similarly absent in books, a trend that hasn’t reversed at the same pace as LGBTQIA+ stories have. Kati Gardner, the author of the forthcoming young adult novel Brave Enough, says that she hasn’t seen many disabled characters in books. “Another reason I wrote Brave Enough was because I wanted a one-legged girl to get kissed,” she tells Bustle. “I never saw that in books when I was a teenager. I wanted her to be kissed and fall in love.”
There are so few disabled characters in literature that it’s even tough to categorize what tropes and stereotypes exist surrounding relationship status, but the Disabled Love Interest, according to TV Tropes, is often a temporary love interest who serves an inspirational purpose. Gardner says, “If a female-identifying person is the one with the disability, she never has a love interest. If it’s a male-identifying person then, for some reason, it’s easier for them to find love. I’m not sure what that says about how women are perceived.” And according to Kelly Davio, a poet, editor, and author, “We don’t usually know what person’s disability is—only how other characters perceive them or how they can be used as a metaphor or plot device.”
"Another reason I wrote Brave Enough was because I wanted a one-legged girl to get kissed. I never saw that in books when I was a teenager."
Both disabled and LGBTQIA+ characters are so often defined by their visibility and their perceived difference from their non-disabled, cisgender heterosexual counterparts. “Most books featuring queer women and non-binary people seem to be focused around them either in a relationship or the start of a relationship,” Mackenzi Lee, author of The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue and the forthcoming The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, tells Bustle. “I think this is because we’re often guilty of erasing queer identities unless there is the performative component of a relationship to validate it.”
Characters are often assumed straight and cisgender until proven otherwise and in the context of a story, coming out, or pursuing a romantic relationship are common plots that reveal that identity. Trish Bendix, managing editor of INTO, an LGBTQ+ digital magazine, says that most books with queer characters start with a protagonist who is single. “If they are the central character or narrator, they generally end up with a love interest by the book’s end, as all-too-frequently queer fiction is decided by the presence of two non-heteronormative people finding love or a relationship to one another.”
"Most books featuring queer women and non-binary people seem to be focused around them either in a relationship or the start of a relationship."
Christine Jenkins, LGBTQ+ YA researcher and associate professor at University of Illinois, says that queer girls in young adult fiction are less likely to be single than queer boys, and books with queer girl characters are more likely to have romance as a key theme. Young adult fiction as a genre often has romance at the forefront of character’s stories, even when the main plot of the book isn’t the romance. “Too many LGBTQIA+ women and non-binary characters in young adult novels are defined by their romantic relationships, or quest for one. They are rarely shown as being part of queer culture or social circles, or even experiencing the world as an LGBTQIA+ person,” says E.M. Kokie, author of the young adult novel Radical, which features a butch lesbian survivalist.
There’s something comforting about LGBTQIA+ and disabled characters having happy endings and exciting romantic relationships, though, particularly since so many stories completely ignore our communities or relegate us to the background. Helen Hoang, author of The Kiss Quotient, tells Bustle: “While I was writing The Kiss Quotient, it never occurred to me that it was unusual for an autistic protagonist to pursue a romantic relationship. I’m autistic, and I’m happily married with two kids and a pet fish."
"Too many LGBTQIA+ women and non-binary characters in young adult novels are defined by their romantic relationships, or quest for one."
Disabled people are often desexualized, assumed to be completely nonsexual, when in reality, the disability community is varied and diverse, encompassing gender identities and sexual orientations across the spectrum. “I want to see greater diversity in the way we portray disabled women, and yes, that includes disabled women who are happily single, who are in open relationships, who enjoy having casual sex, who are in long-term relationships,” says Wendy Lu, a reporter and former Bustle fellow who regularly covers disability issues and sex and relationships. “The point is that disabled people are multi-faceted human beings with their own individual romantic desires, sexual preferences, and lifestyles.”
“I want to see greater diversity in the way we portray disabled women, and yes, that includes disabled women who are happily single."
Stories about disability and LGBTQIA+ communities are also lacking in multiply marginalized characters, like those who are both LGBTQIA+ and disabled, characters of color, or religious minorities. “I would like to see multi-faceted portrayals. More people of color, especially in terms of romantic relationships. We deserve to be desired too. We aren’t just our pain and hardships that come with disability,” says Keah Brown, a journalist and author of the forthcoming essay collection The Pretty One. The Ripped Bodice, a romance bookstore, produced a report about racial diversity in the romance genre and found that for every 100 books published by leading romance publishers in 2016, only 7.8 were written by authors of color.
When multiply marginalized characters are introduced, their portrayal needs to be authentic. They should feel like characters, not a diversity checklist. "My goal in writing is not to draw specific attention (which can be tokenizing, distracting, and unnatural) to a character being multiply marginalized, but to have it so that multiply marginalized people are named, visible, and cast in all types of roles and personalities," says Lydia X. Z. Brown, writer and organizer. "I want to see disabled women and non-binary people portrayed as having full agency and the full range of sexual and asexual, romantic and aromantic, experiences."
Characters in the LGBTQIA+ community still tend to be overwhelmingly gay or lesbian, with far fewer portrayals of bisexual, queer, transgender, non-binary, intersex, asexual, or aromantic characters. Masculine-of-center women are also missing, especially as main characters telling their own stories, as Trish Bendix points out.
"I want to see disabled women and non-binary people portrayed as having full agency and the full range of sexual and asexual, romantic and aromantic, experiences."
When asexuality is discussed in fiction, it’s generally seen as an obstacle; asexual characters have to contend with the assumption that all romantic relationships need to include sex and with their love interest, who is not asexual, accepting them for who they are. And since there are so few asexual characters, it’s impossible to see the full spectrum of asexual and aromantic experiences on the page. “There’s not going to be one unifying experience. Some people want relationships, some people don’t. I think what the book world needs is the full range, all of it. Everyone deserves to see what could be possible,” says Claire Kann, author of the young adult romance Let’s Talk About Love. She also notices that “publishers are slow to take on stories that don’t end in happily ever afters,” which is a more prominent issue in genres that more often than not rely on that kind of ending, like romance or young adult.
“Portraying a variety of experiences within the asexual experience is important because it will lead to an increased normalization of the variation that is possible within the asexual and aromantic experience,” agrees Mackenzi Lee. Lee took a similar approach to writing Felicity, the protagonist of The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, as she did with Monty’s bisexuality in Gentleman's Guide: Using Felicity’s self-awareness to allow her to express her sexuality, even though modern terms like asexual and bisexual didn’t exist during the historic period the two books are set in.
For disabled characters, there’s a long way to go before readers see a wealth of authentic portrayals, including characters who are happily in romantic relationships and those who aren’t. Jane Eaton Hamilton, the queer disabled author of nine novels, recommends that we create a disability-centric version of the Bechdel test, asking questions like: “Did the disabled person engage with at least two people not about their disability? Did the disabled person have a vivid life outside of disability?”
"Portraying a variety of experiences within the asexual experience is important because it will lead to an increased normalization of the variation that is possible within the asexual and aromantic experience."
Stefani Chaney, author of the novel Midnight, believes that narratives about being single and disabled are necessary because that’s part of the reality of many disabled people’s experiences. “Reading about happily-ever-afters and love-at-first-sight is just so wearisome when you've lost people due to your health or not being able to be mobile,” she explains. “A lot of disabled people can relate to the burn-out that occurs when it comes to bringing new people in to your life, and anticipating how long before they get fed up with you.” In order to create an authentic, nuanced publishing landscape, there need to be books about what it’s like to be disabled and single, whether it’s an active choice or the character is looking to find a relationship.
There are trends toward a more inclusive literary canon, but book publishing is a business and decision makers often look to past successes to make predictions about what kinds of books will sell. Marketing and publicity play a huge role in what books perform well, which is why so many stories about disability are portrayed as overwhelmingly inspirational. And as Stefani Deoul, author of the young adult mystery On A Larp, explains, many of the radically inclusive, authentic books are being published by smaller independent presses, which doesn’t do much to increase mainstream visibility and encourage larger publishers to take risks on stories about marginalized characters, particularly ones that don’t fit a conventional mold.
For disabled and LGBTQIA+ readers, the way forward is publishing more stories — those that focus on romantic relationships with happy endings, and those that don’t. The happily ever after that fiction needs is a canon landscape that offers enough stories so that everyone can see themselves in a book.