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
How can you be inclusive without erasing characters’
identities or making unfair or damaging assumptions about their sexual
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
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
Try not to say LGBTQ when you’re really just talking about
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
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
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:
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: