LGBTQ+ Diversity In YA Novels Is Getting Better, But Queer Girls Are Still Being Left Behind
If you search "queer women young adult books" on Google, the top result is a book list compiled by Autostraddle. When I was a queer teenager, lists like these barely existed and when they did, they usually weren't in highly visible magazines and websites, they were on blogs and forums. If I wanted to find books about queer girls, I had to rely on word of mouth, book jacket and flap descriptions, and trusted local booksellers and librarians. Looking at inclusive book roundups and the success of Love, Simon and its YA book counterpart, it's sensible to assume that queer girls today might have an easier time finding stories about themselves in literature — but they don't.
For a genre that has arguably only existed and become popular as its own marketing category within the last hundred years, young adult often comes up at the forefront of diversity discussions. In many ways, the YA community is leading the push for intersectional representation, and diversity seems especially important when the stories are aimed at kids and teens.
As early as the 1980s, young adult books like Annie on My Mind and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit have featured queer women. Since then, the number of queer YA novels has only continued to grow — though the growth has historically favored stories about cisgender male characters. According to author Malinda Lo’s statistics about LGBTQ+ representation in YA between 2003 and 2013, over the last decade publishers have come out with significantly more books featuring queer characters in the last decade or so. However, of these books, 45 percent featured a cisgender male main characters, while just 33 percent featured cisgender female main characters, and only six percent featured transgender main characters (and 2015 was the first year where a YA book with a nonbinary protagonist was published). Stats are even more grim for queer books that are diverse in other ways, like featuring characters of color or characters with disabilities. Librarian Edith Campbell recently published research about Black girls’ representation in young adult literature, and among the books traditionally published over a three-year period, only one (Little and Lion by Brandy Colbert) had any LGBTQ+ content.
Teens still feel there aren't enough queer girl books. “Despite the recent increase in the number of books published, the fact remains that every single time I speak to a group of teen readers, they tell me that they never see queer characters in books,” Robin Talley, the author of several YA books including Our Own Private Universe, tells Bustle. If there are so many more books about queer characters in the last decade, why aren't they reaching the young adults who are looking for them? Talley believes the publishing industry needs to prioritize this issue and find ways to ensure that the teens who are craving these books know how to find them, especially teens who aren’t as plugged into the YA social media bubble and who only know about the heavily marketed titles and bestsellers that everyone is talking about.
"...the fact remains that every single time I speak to a group of teen readers, they tell me that they never see queer characters in books."
This circular issue is commonplace in publishing industry conversations around all types of diversity. “There's definitely no shortage of agents who want to push [queer women’s stories] just as much as authors do. And no shortage of editors, either. The problem is, everyone's always nodding at the people above them and saying, 'I'd love to do it, but unfortunately it's not up to me,'" Hannah Moskowitz, the author of Bisexual Book of the Year Not Otherwise Specified and Stonewall Honor book Gone, Gone, Gone, tells Bustle.
As Kayla Whaley, essayist and senior editor of Disability in KidLit, tells Bustle, the framing of these conversations needs to change. Instead of asking about a lack of queer girls in young adult fiction, it’s more productive to talk about which queer girls are currently being represented, which authors are being published, and the extent to which publishers market those books. “Most queer girls in YA have historically been white, abled, and cis, so I think addressing that needs to be a major priority,” she says, “while focusing in on specifics, like the extreme paucity of traditionally published Black authors and the ways anti-Blackness operates in YA generally and queer YA.”
"Most queer girls in YA have historically been white, abled, and cis, so I think addressing that needs to be a major priority..."
When Patrice Caldwell, an associate editor at Disney-Hyperion, a YA fantasy writer, and the founder of People of Color in Publishing, posted on Twitter encouraging writers to write queer stories, she got dozens of responses from people sharing their stories and challenges being published and promoted in the form of tweets, emails, and direct messages. “It’s sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy though as because they’re not being published, they’re also not being written because writers fear they won’t get published because they barely see any being published,” Caldwell tells Bustle. “Especially if you’re a queer woman and you want to write about queer women in YA don’t stop yourself before you’ve tried—we need your stories. I—so many of us in this industry—want to publish these stories.”
Literary agents like Rebecca Podos, who is also a young adult author, are actively seeking these stories. “The role I personally want to play as a literary agent (and a queer one) is to pay close attention to [queer women’s] YA and MG books, particularly by queer women,” Podos tells Bustle, “to put these stories in front of the editors most likely to recognize and champion them, and to make sure that they’re treated respectfully by publishers, trade reviewers, retail outlets.” Podos champions her authors through every step of the publishing process, watching out for problematic or reductive wording in their cover copy or marketing materials, seeing if their books are being submitted for reviews in mainstream media, and reading reviews to make sure they aren’t reductive or harmful in the way they treat queer content.
Libraries and bookstores are both central to getting books into the hands of teen readers. “It's not enough for libraries to have diverse books, including queer women's books, on our shelves,” Lisa Jenn Bigelow, a youth services librarian and the author of the upcoming queer middle grade novel Drum Roll, Please, explains to Bustle. “They should be included in our readers advisory: displays, book talks, bibliographies.” Like many others, Bigelow’s library favors professional reviews as a deciding factor in which books to add to their collection. The problem, she says, is that many books featuring queer teen girls or romantic relationships between girls are published by independent presses or are self-published, and this makes them less likely to be reviewed. Gatekeepers are selling young readers short by assuming what they will or won’t read, and as a result, these books don’t make it into many libraries.
"It's not enough for libraries to have diverse books, including queer women's books, on our shelves. They should be included in our readers advisory: displays, book talks, bibliographies."
Bookstores and booksellers are similarly integral to the process, explains Nicole Brinkley, an independent bookseller, blogger for Barnes & Noble Teen Blog, and founder of YA Interrobang. “Booksellers should read books about queer girls, and stock them in their stories, and promote them,” she says, “not just as books about queer girls, but as fantasy books or rom-coms or books that made them laugh. Ignore your presumptions about what does or doesn't sell. Give books a chance to succeed.” Independent bookstores have more flexibility and choice about what goes on their shelves, how the books are placed, and what events they host, but chains also have a responsibility—especially in parts of the country known as ‘book deserts,’ where it’s harder for young people to access books and the only store around might be a Barnes & Noble or a Target with a book section.
Social media and multimedia review outlets are another great way to get teen readers familiar with existing or upcoming queer girl books, and Brinkley says that book sites (not just professional reviewers like Kirkus Reviews or Publishers Weekly, but also blogs and YouTubers) need to feature books about queer girls in their content, and not only segregated into lists specific to LGBTQ+ content or diversity. “Those lists are incredibly important for girls looking for stories about people like them, but limiting those stories to only being about a character with a specific character or sexuality puts them in a box where they don't belong,” Brinkley says.
With so many avenues for potential success, why do books about queer girls seem so nonexistent? Tess Sharpe, an author of both young adult and adult novels, believes that young adult is one of more queer-friendly categories in trade publishing, but mainstream publishers need to step it up. “Small presses and self-publishers are doing an incredible job at providing stories that the gatekeepers of the larger publishers dismiss—but it’s time for the big, mainstream publishers to start walking the walk. We desperately need intersectional stories published by big, mainstream publishers,” Sharpe tells Bustle.
Saundra Mitchell, an author and editor of young adult fiction and the editor of the anthology All Out, which features 17 diverse stories from queer YA authors about queer teens through history, thinks that the issue is tied to a larger societal problem: That women’s and girl’s stories aren’t seen as important. “I feel like our culture and our society in general is trying to shrink all of the spaces that women fit in, and queer women (especially queer women of color) are taking the brunt of it,” Mitchell tells Bustle. “Can't we see girls and femmes on tour, in power, magical or chosen one, contemporarily solving murders and surviving the wilds?”
“I feel like our culture and our society in general is trying to shrink all of the spaces that women fit in, and queer women (especially queer women of color) are taking the brunt of it."
Offline and online, spaces for queer women such as lesbian bars are shrinking in numbers. At a glance, it might sound like a phenomenon that suggests society has moved past homophobia and that queer women are included and welcomed everywhere, so there’s no need for the safe spaces of the past. But that just isn’t true, and advertisers and for-profit companies have long viewed queer women as a niche market without a lot of buying power— a sentiment that extends to book publishing and all other media. It’s even more complicated when it comes to books and media for teen girls, who are often mocked and disdained for their passions and interests. At those intersections, it’s no wonder queer teen girls have a hard time seeing themselves on the page.
“Any time you see a community underrepresented in media, that underrepresentation doesn’t exist in isolation,” Anna-Marie McLemore, author of several YA books including the forthcoming Blanca & Roja, tells Bustle. “It’s usually a symptom and a cause of underrepresentation in other industries and in positions of power.”
It doesn’t help that young adult literature has no media to turn to that leads by example. There hasn’t been a teen equivalent of the most well-known TV show with queer women at the center, The L Word, or even another mainstream adult show like The L Word since it ended. Faking It, a teen show on MTV with a queer-and-sorta-questioning teenage girl as the main character and a well-developed intersex mean girl, was cancelled after three seasons. Queer women and girls often seem like an afterthought; if a premise succeeds with queer men, then maybe queer women will get to have their version. So much of what exists for queer women’s media is created from tropes and stereotypes, to titillate and appease straight men, or as a replica of heterosexual relationships and heteronormative lifestyles except with women as protagonists.
"Any time you see a community underrepresented in media, that underrepresentation doesn’t exist in isolation. It’s usually a symptom and a cause of underrepresentation in other industries and in positions of power."
Young adult literature is getting there, but there's still much to be done. And although there are statistically more stories about queer men, there are still problems with that representation, too. “A lot of the gay male fiction that is seen as mainstream is simply fetishized fantasy,” Vee Signorelli, the administrator of YA Pride, tells Bustle. “That is not true across the board, of course, and gay boys are often valued much more than gay girls. But just because gay male stories are more mainstream doesn't mean that they are affirming for gay male readers.” Gay boys’ stories are seen as more marketable to teen readers, who are often presumed to be girls, for the same reason that love triangles and bad boys are: So these readers have characters they can romanticize and swoon over.
"But just because gay male stories are more mainstream doesn't mean that they are affirming for gay male readers.”
“To be honest, I would love more YA books without such heavy romantic plotlines — it’s not all I thought about as a teen,” Patrice Caldwell says. “I love how innocent Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is because that was me as a teen. I want more books like that for queer girls in YA and in middle grade — as well as for younger readers, because I knew I was ‘different’ in middle school.” Jen Petro-Roy’s recent book P.S. I Miss You faced controversy for being a queer-themed middle grade novel, and both middle grade and young adult queer books have to contend with being banned from schools and libraries, segregated into LGBTQ+ sections, or labeled as ‘age-inappropriate’ by reviewers just because they include a queer or trans character.
Mitchell suggests that all book review outlets examine their guidelines and make sure their reviewers are educated on LGBTQ+ issues and the community. Review publishers need to consider who they’re hiring to write these reviews, she says, so they don’t become complicit in pre-censoring queer books, “before they even have the chance to get to the teens who want and need them.”
So are there enough queer girl YA books? It’s time to move past that diversity 101 conversation and make space for real change.