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Queer YA 101: Things to keep in mind when talking about books with queer characters (Part I)

There are a series of questions that come up, implicitly or explicitly, pretty often when talking, thinking, and writing about books (and other media) with queer characters:

What’s the best way to talk about books with queer characters?

How can you be inclusive without erasing characters’ identities or making unfair or damaging assumptions about their sexual orientations?

And how can you mention a book’s queer representation without being too wordy or othering a book?

Tl;dr There’s no easy answer, but here are some suggestions:

  • Be clear about who and what a book is about.
  • Beware of oversimplifying characters (and books) by only focusing on their queerness.

 I should say that I’m talking here about the way we talk about books with queer characters in general—the way books are classified and categorized, the way they’re discussed online, and the overarching way we (readers, writers, and gatekeepers like publishers) think and talk about books. And of course, this is just one queer person’s opinion.

Things to keep in mind when talking about books with queer characters

Whenever possible, be clear and specific when talking about a book.

This seems basic, but it’s worth saying: If the characters are [choose one or more: gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, asexual/aromantic, non-binary, pansexual, intersex, etc.], call the book “a book with [choose one or more: gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, asexual/aromantic, non-binary, pansexual, intersex, etc.], characters.”

If the characters have various or nonbinary queer identities, call the book “a book with queer characters” or “a book with LGBTQ characters.”

Try not to say LGBTQ when you’re really just talking about one identity.

Also, it’s best to avoid using the LGBTQ umbrella term for a book that’s really just about characters from one queer identity. It can be misleading.

Like I said before, it’s best to be as clear and transparent as possible. For example, it’s best not to call a romance between two cisgender lesbian girls “a LGBTQ love story.” You’re probably safe calling it “a lesbian love story.” (And the same concept applies when talking about a story about characters from any particular binary LGBT identity.)

But if I was describing a book about two girls in love where it was unclear whether they were both lesbian-identifying, I’d probably end up calling it “a love story about two girls.”

Or if during the course of the story, one character comes out as nonbinary and stops using she/her pronouns, I’d probably describe it as a “queer love story.”

Sometimes it’s hard to be clear, but focus on being inclusive and respectful.

Of course, calling out the specific identity of the main characters in a book gets clunky really fast. And, ideally, the media you’re talking about is about a group of people with overlapping/intersecting identities, so then it gets more complex.

I’ve sat through plenty of conversations where people have stumbled over long acronyms like LGBTQ, GLBT, LGBTQ+, QUILTBAG, or LGBTQIA. And I’ve been the person talking about a book and tripping over nomenclature. So I tend to default to “queer” when describing the characters in a book, unless I know everyone in the book identifies as a certain queer identity.

However, I notice that, unless I’m with other people who identify as queer (or as a LGBTQ+ identity), I’m often the only person in the room using the word “queer.” Not everyone is comfortable using the word “queer,” and that’s OK. (More about the term “queer” in a future blog post.)

But for a bit more about the use of the word “queer,” Malinda Lo, the author of Ash, Huntress, Adaptation, and Inheritance, has a great piece about avoiding LGBTQ stereotypes in YA fiction, and in it, she talks some about the use of the word “queer” as a shorthand. Though her blog post is about writing YA fiction with LGBTQ characters, it’s also a great resource for talking and thinking about books with queer characters.

For a great example of being respectful and inclusive, Dahlia Adler, author of Just Visiting and many other YA and NA novels, has an awesome list of LGBTQIAP+ Books By and About People who Identify as LGBTQIAP+. You should check it out because 1) it’s a great example of how to communicate information about books with queer characters without being a jerk and 2) there are some great books on that list.

Avoid making assumptions about a character’s sexual orientation based on their current romantic partner.

On Twitter, folks often describe books as being m/m (featuring a romance between two men) or f/f (featuring romance between two women).

The nice thing about describing a book that way is you’re being specific about the romance in the book while also not making assumptions about a character’s sexual orientation.

Bi erasure (assuming that a bisexual person is straight or gay based on their current partner) and biphobia (judging bisexual people based on stereotypes) are real and they’re harmful.

There are a lot of caveats to what I just said. And everyone makes mistakes sometimes. That’s OK, especially because there are no easy answers. 

 I’d love to hear more thoughts and questions about talking about books with queer characters, and it’d be great to see what resources are helpful to everyone—let us know in the comments!

Look out for Part II of this post for more thoughts about thinking and talking about YA with queer characters.

For more information about diversity in YA, especially intersectional diversity (which I didn’t really focus on much in this post, but which is important), check out past blog posts:

Why It's Important to Do Research When Writing Diverse Books

Six Reasons Why We Need Diverse Books

Reading and Writing Diverse YA: Some Wisdom from Twitter (Part I)

Reading and Writing Diverse YA: Some Wisdom from Twitter (Part II)

Diversity Writing Toolkit

Ask an Editor: What's on Your #MSWL?

There are a lot of great resources online that help when talking about, writing, and reading books and other media with queer characters. Here are just a few of them:

Gay YA 

LGBTQ topic on Book Riot

Lee Wind’s Blog / I’m here. I’m Queer. What the hell do I read?

Dahlia Adler’s master list of LGBTQIAP+ Books By and About People who Identify as LGBTQIAP+

Everyday Feminism (they have a whole tag for LGBTQIA articles)

GLAAD media guide

Author spotlight

Christine Barcellona

Editor / I blog and edit for Swoon Reads, plus I'm the editor for our paperback line, Square Fish. Find ...

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