We Need To Talk About Why 'Under The Gaydar' Novels Are So Important

by Meaghan O'Brien

Being a teenager is hard. Being an LGBTQ teen is even harder, especially if you're a POC or another marginalization. Although LGBTQ teens (and the community at large) have more acceptance legally and socially than ever before, there is still a significant portion of queer youth being left behind. According to data collected by the Human Rights Campaign, 42 percent of LGBTQ youth in America reported that they live in communities that are unaccepting of their sexualities. Although many people are out and proud in the United States, there are some for whom openness is a luxury they can’t afford. Flying under the radar — or, more appropriately, "under the gaydar" — is essential for many teens.

As Mackenzi Lee, author of the Stonewall Honor book The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, puts it, it's the "golden age of queer YA." She’s right. Since 2012, young adult author Malinda Lo has tracked the output of LGBTQ young-adult lit in the American publishing industry on her blog. From 2013 to 2016, major publishers (Lo cited Disney Book Group, Hachette, HarperCollins, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Scholastic, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster) increased their publication of LGBTQ YA books from about 15 in total per year to 60 in total.

Author Alex London tells Bustle that when his first book — so called "under the gaydar" novel Proxy was published in 2013, that keeping his book "under the gaydar" didn't factor in conversation about jacket copy, art, and marketing. His team was primarily focused on what would make the book sell. "None of us knew if queer representation would be a help or a hindrance to the book finding its way onto shelves," he says. "So it was the publisher who decided not to mention the queer aspect, to market it like every other sci-fi thriller at the time. We didn't realize that that was, in fact, a selling point and an important one."

Proxy by Alex London, $8, Amazon

But where does this leave the outliers? The teens who are as queer as the day is long, but can’t tell anyone? The teens who feel threatened in their communities or just like they don’t have anyone to talk to? The teens who can’t risk being seen with books that declare queerness on the cover?

Under the gaydar books can be found, as long as you know where to look. Dahlia Adler, a young-adult author and the blogger behind LGBTQ Reads, ran a regular recommendations column of under the gaydar reads on her blog and on a B&N Teen Blog post as well. Adler is the most frequent and oldest user of the term that I could find, but other bloggers, reviewers, and book recommenders (the “blogosqueer”) have begun using the word and curating their own lists of "under the gaydar" young adult books. But the perennial book publicity issue applies here as well: word-of-mouth is still the best — and most unpredictable — publicity a book can get. Adler referred to the under the gaydar word-of-mouth as "a rec whisper chain." She usually find out about under the gaydar books from other people who have read them first. As you can imagine, this system can often be slow and ineffectual.

But what about the books themselves? Surely there must be certain hints or calling cards on book covers and jacket copy, like secret passwords or coded door knocks? That isn't too far from the truth. Because the point is to go undetected, authors get creative, but that doesn't mean there aren't patterns. Mackenzi Lee notes that older "under the gaydar" books typically used phrases like “a special bond” or “inexplicably drawn” to hint at homosexual relationships.

Adler suggests that author blurbs on the cover copy can be a key to cracking the code. "For instance, if I blurb a book that isn't queer, I usually tag it 'Dahlia Adler, author of Just Visiting,' which is my most recent YA book," she says. “But if I blurb a book that is, I use 'Dahlia Adler, author of Under the Lights,' which is my queer YA." She also notes that certain authors — like Malinda Lo, Robin Talley, or Adam Silvera — can generally be relied upon to have queerness in their books, even if nothing on the cover or in the book’s promotional copy mentions it.

The problem is that, for the most part, it seems that publishers aren't aren't knowingly creating and coding under the gaydar fiction. Adler and Lee, based on their work with their publishers, noticed that attention is still very much focused on creating out and proud LGBTQ content. This is not a bad thing. It’s a beautiful thing. But the point stands that a significant proportion of YA’s target demographic is not being as well served as the other. "We need books that can be really easily found, books that show that queerness is present and great and that queer characters get stories too, and we also need books that are safe for queer kids under hateful scrutiny to bring home," Adler says.

But the solution isn't as simple as not mentioning a book’s queerness are the cover, because simple omission doesn’t help get under the gaydar books into the hands of readers that need them. "Personally, I think the true (and impossible) ideal would be to package queer books both ways—two blurbs and covers per book," Adler says, adding that she believes that publishers should pitch the book to queer sites for reviews and coverage. Lee posits that it is possible to acknowledge both sides simultaneously, and that we will likely see the trend pendulum swing back to where queer representation will be thoughtfully considered from both perspectives.

"I get requests for recommendations for books that aren't obviously queer from the cover or blurb All. The. Time." Adler says. "I run a Tumblr for LGBTQReads that allows people to anonymously ask for recommendations, and I think that might be the number one. It's often preceded by 'I know this is a weird question, but..." and there's something in that alone that breaks my heart: Not only can't these kids safely read queer books, but they think they're the only ones in that position. So, not only are under the gaydar books incredibly helpful, but I think spreading the word of there being a need for them is, too.”