I didn’t read any queer YA until I was an adult.
When I was a teenager, I googled “lesbian books” in secret while my parents were out, only to be discouraged when the few books I could find might as well have not existed at all. In my small, conservative New Zealand hometown, there was no way I could order in Oranges are Not the Only Fruit or Annie on My Mind without raising a few eyebrows (and certainly not without it getting back to my parents).
I understand why. A quick perusal of the online library catalogue in my hometown shows only seven books under the keyword “lesbian”, all but one of which were released after I left home. One book was listed under “bisexual”, and there were six under “gay”. That’s a long way to come in five years, and I’m grateful for the progress. But in a catalogue of over 2000 books, fourteen books for queer kids isn’t enough. When you make up at least 10% of the population, you should get more than 0.75% of the representation.
When you make up at least 10% of the population, you should get more than 0.75% of the representation.
The books the library does have are awesome. A.S King’s Ask the Passengers is one of my all-time favourite LGBT books. I wish I could have read it when I was in high school. Unfortunately, great as these books are, they’re all about coming out.
And there’s life beyond coming out, even as a young adult. Let me assure you, if I’d developed magic powers at sixteen, my fifteen-year-old coming out story would have paled in comparison. But if you’re gay, you don’t get to have magic powers. You don’t get to solve murders. You don’t get to overthrow corrupt dystopian governments. You get to, well, be gay.
When I was twenty, I started dating my girlfriend, Snow. She’s helping me write this article, and her story is a hell of a lot more important than mine. My girlfriend is a transgender lesbian.
Recently, trans advocates like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock have been massively influential in bringing to light wider recognition of trans issues, and we’re starting to see progress. I can count on one hand the number of YA books with trans characters, even as stories about gay, lesbian, and bisexual teenagers become more and more mainstream.
Despite the fact that only 23% of trans women are attracted solely to men, while over 60% of trans women identify as lesbian, bisexual, or queer, and despite the fact that Snow knows several other trans women in lesbian relationships, neither of us can think of a single YA book that portrays a relationship like ours, especially not one with a happy ending
…only 23% of trans women are attracted solely to men, while over 60% of trans women identify as lesbian, bisexual, or queer…
Snow has told me that, growing up, the only representations of trans women she saw was what was on TV or in the news. Trans women were portrayed as freaks, as prostitutes, and as drug addicts. It scared her into silence. She kept the fact that she was trans hidden for 20 years. It wasn’t until she looked online and found forums full of trans women talking about how they were just trying to be happy and live their lives like everyone else that she realised she didn’t have to be defined by what the media said.
The stereotype that trans women are “men in dresses” or beaten down, abused, tragic characters is so prevalent that most people don’t bother to question it.
Books can a powerful source of hope when they give us the chance to escape into a world other than our own, but most of the books my girlfriend has found about people like her are novels about how terrible it is to be transgender. Snow knows how hard her life can be. She experiences levels of discrimination that cis people like myself can never fully comprehend. But she will be the first to say that being trans is not a tragedy.
“I didn’t come out till I was 24,” she told me, “If I had been able to read books about people like me when I was younger, about trans girls taking on the world and kicking arse, then I would have come out earlier. Our lives shouldn’t be seen as hopeless.”
Our lives shouldn’t be seen as hopeless.
Books about LGBT people so often become books about sexuality or gender expression that when we want to read books that aren’t about being queer or trans, we have to read about straight, cis people.
There are some fantastic exceptions to this rule. The books that immediately spring to mind are Ash by Malinda Lo and Proxy by Alex London, although there are more (many of which can be found on DiversifYA and many more of which I’m sure will be uncovered during the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign). But most, if not all, of these books are about cisgender characters. As far as LGB books have come, the T, as ever, has been left behind.
Snow reads fantasy novels and I read murder mysteries. No matter what some people might say about us or our relationship, we’re like any other couple, crappy webcam selfies and all. We don’t just need diverse books, we need diverse stories.