LGBTQ+ Stories Should Not Gloss Over Real LGBTQ+ Experiences

Today is the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, & Biphobia.

Today, I’d like to talk to you about homophobia and… you guessed it, books. I’M SO PREDICTABLE THAT WAY. This post was inspired not only by this occasion, but also by a lovely post on Barnes & Noble’s teen blog that I read a few days ago.

I’m not going to go into a HUGE amount of detail about that post because A) you should go read it and see for yourself how awesome it is and B) there is enough awesomeness in that post that I might very well talk about its ideas some MORE in another blog post of my own.

simon vs. the homo sapiens agendaThe post was written by Becky Albertalli, who recently published the YA LGBTQ+ novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda – which sounds AWESOME, by the way. I’ve heard so many good things about it and can’t wait to find a copy at my library!

Anyway, the post in question is about how readers (…mostly straight ones, in my experience) want – demand – no more stories about coming out. (“We’ve had enough!”) And more characters who “just happen” to be queer.

And then Ms. Albertalli goes on to say how much she disagrees with that attitude, and OMG I ADORE HER FOR STEPPING UP AND PROTESTING AGAINST THAT ATTITUDE. Because it makes me super uncomfortable as well, and I’m tired of seeing it, and she gave a very eloquent rebuttal of the “don’t make your gay stories too gay” argument.

Simply put, we need stories where being gay (or bi or trans or ace or anything else) IS a major factor in the story. Because like it or not, being LGBTQ+ does affect one’s life in many, many ways. I wish being a lesbian didn’t cause people to see and treat me differently, but you know what? It does. And ignoring that reality, pretending it’s Not A Thing, does absolutely freaking NOTHING to improve that situation. I would go so far as to say that all it does is breed ignorance about how one’s LGBTQ+ identity affects so many different aspects of one’s life.

Stories about coming out are still relevant. Stories about homophobia are still relevant. Characters who spend a lot of time thinking and talking about being queer are super super super important because that is something many queer teens do daily, especially if they’re struggling to determine their identity or trying to come to terms with who they are in a world that still sees/treats people differently for being queer.ash

THAT’S why I’m so frustrated with this attitude of “characters should ‘just happen’ to be queer.” This attitude of “I don’t want to read about LGBTQ+ characters dealing with situations that are relevant to LGBTQ+ people in real life.”

And Becky Albertalli understands that perfectly. I’ve heard that Oreos play a major role in Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, so here is a huge stack of Oreos for your insight, Ms. Albertalli.

I don’t mind if some LGBTQ+ stories (YA or otherwise) aren’t about coming and homophobia and stuff like that. I have a BIG problem with people saying they don’t want to read coming-out stories, or stories about homophobia, or any type of story in which being queer is an Issue.

I have only read one story where being queer was a non-issue.

The story in question is Ash by Malinda Lo, and it quickly became one of my favorite novels EVER (my overall favorite from last year, in fact!) for its high fantasy setting and gorgeous prose and a RIDICULOUSLY adorable girl/girl romance between Ash and a girl who works for the royal family. (Plus, it’s a retelling of “Cinderella”!)

In Ash’s world, there is no such thing as homophobia, and no one needs to come out: Being queer is accepted by all. (And none of the characters made assumptions about who Ash had a crush on, either! Whoo! Yay!) One of the fairy tales mentioned in this story featured a girl/girl romance, and there are references to women kissing. (In public!) OMG YAY!)

…it was really, really good escapism.

Escapism is good. We need escapism. I think a moderate dose of escapism is key, though, because sometimes you need to face reality. I ADORED Ash – heck, I stayed up all night reading it. It was just THAT good. I fell asleep that night dreaming about princesses and fairies and girls kissing girls in in fairy-tale-ish worlds.

And then a few weeks later I split up with a homophobic friend (now ex-friend) after a HORRIBLE fight that occurred when I came out to her, and had a nasty reminder that life is not all sunshine and roses and super-gay, super-sweet fairy tales. That homophobia does affect my life, and that I can’t ignore real life. That I can’t just pretend I live in Ash’s world, because that’s not how my world really is.

adaptationI struggle with my desire to have a bit of escapism in LGBTQ+ stories (books, movies, TV shows, et cetera), but not too much. Because I think us LGBTQ+ teens need a little cheering up, but we also want to see ourselves accurately reflected in stories. And one of the best ways to do this is by actually acknowledging that coming out and homophobia and Other Big Important Queer Issues make up a large part of our lives.

One way we can experience some of that escapism is by reading stories in which Big Important Queer Issues – such as homophobia – have no bearing on the plot.

But another way we can experience that – and what I consider the better way – is by requesting stories in which Big Important Queer Issues are prevalent, but are not allowed to make the story too sad/angsty/et cetera.

I spent like half this post talking about one of Malinda Lo’s books, and now I’m going to end by talking about two of her other books. Her science fiction duology, comprised of Adaptation and Inheritance, is about a bisexual girl named Reese who meets aliens and discovers government conspiracies and falls in love.

And she deals with biphobia. She deals with the awkwardness of coming out. I loved those two novels because they felt so REAL. I could relate: I’ve dealt with homophobia, and I’ve come out. The novels actually talked about Big Important Issues That Affect The Day-to-Day Lives of Queer Teens.inheritance

But they also talked about adventures. And great friendships. And cute romances with even cuter people. And intrigue. And ALIENS.

There was escapism… and frank discussion of some of the issues real-life LGBTQ+ teens face each day. AND I LOVED THIS. It was basically like, “Hey, sometimes being a queer kid sucks, but it’s not all bad – here are some fun adventures! And great friendships!”

LGBTQ+ novels need not be entirely about coming out, homophobia, et cetera, but I think they should acknowledge that such things vastly impact the lives of queer people. For every one LGBTQ+ novel that doesn’t make mention of Big Important Queer Issues we need, like, ten that do discuss these things, because that grounds those stories in reality and helps us find ourselves accurately reflected in stories.

And that’s why I disagree with wanting LOTS AND LOTS of stories with characters who “just happen” to be LGBTQ+, whose identities have no real bearing on the plot. I want to see a lot more LGBTQ+ stories being published in days to come, and I hope that many of those novels will devote at least a few pages to the discussion of things that actually affect the lives of queer teens – things that affect MY life.

I DO want to read books that talk about homophobia, even though it’s an unsavory topic. I DO want to read coming-out stories, even if they bore straight people. I DO want to read a lot of stories about heternormativity and transitioning and being closeted and a thousand other LGBTQ+ topics, because THIS THINGS ARE STILL A HUGE DEAL.

Until homophobia and coming out (and whatnot) cease to affect us, such topics will continue to be relevant in the stories about our lives.

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10 Responses to LGBTQ+ Stories Should Not Gloss Over Real LGBTQ+ Experiences

  1. HAVE I TOLD YOU BEFORE HOW MUCH I ADORE YOUR BLOG POSTS BECAUSE UGH, THEY ARE AMAZING. Especially for us straight people who haven’t got a clue, lol. But yeah, I have been guilty of this in the past. I go to a school where pretty much everyone is really accepting and tolerant and stuff (mostly because we’re all nerds) and I forget that a world exists outside that. So yeah, I think both things are really important. It’s a balance, like it is with all stories.

    Like I said, amazing post ❤ ❤ ❤

    • nevillegirl says:

      HAVE I TOLD YOU BEFORE THAT SUPER-EXUBERANT COMPLIMENT-Y COMMENTS MAKE ME BLUSH BECAUSE I AM BLUSHING SO HARD RIGHT NOW. Thank you so much! ❤ ❤ ❤

      Yes yes yes, you are absolutely correct: It's a balance. Real queer people are so much more than their queer identity, but at the same time, their queer identity is a valid part of them and affects their lives in so many ways, and I want stories that acknowledge this. I want escapism with lesbian princesses and bi magicians and trans rebels who overthrow the government in dystopian YA, and I want them to have adventures that aren’t related to being queer, but at the same time I don’t want the authors to completely ignore that aspect of their identity. 🙂

  2. Miriam Joy says:

    I agree that LGBTQ stories should have relevant and significant relationships, not just tangential mentions. But I don’t think they should necessarily be focused on coming out. Of course, that depends a bit on the audience. The average age for coming out, I read, is 17. So if characters are in their mid teens, it’s going to be a big concern for them. But if they’re university students or whatever, they may well be already ‘out’ and therefore the story should focus on other aspects of their lives. I want my queer characters to be defined by more than just their identity. I want them to be heroes and space travellers and fairies and knights. Yeah, some people they encounter are going to react badly, perhaps. But they should catch a break occasionally. Like, I struggle with my identity at times, but not because I encounter homophobia on a daily basis. Nearly all my friends are queer. So it wouldn’t make sense to me to write a story about an isolated university student who doesn’t know anyone else who identifies as LGBTQ. What makes sense is a student with queer friends who support and understand her, you know? And maybe the character will run into negative attitudes, particularly online, but that’s not the all-pervasive daily experience that she goes through. So yeah. I think variation is important.

    • nevillegirl says:

      Well, coming out is just ONE example. I mean, honestly, I don’t think *all* stories about Being Gay need to be about coming out – they can be about other “big important queer issues” as well. (Which is what I talked about in the last paragraph of my post: “I want to read stories about a thousand other LGBTQ+ topics.”) I am all for stories about “a student with queer friends who support and understand her.” Happy queer stories, basically, but stories where being queer IS given a lot of weight. Whether we have sad stories (about homophobia) or happy stories (about queer friendships), I do want the stories to actually address being queer… and people are arguing against that, saying it’s not necessary to talk about this so much. That stories should hardly mention queerness at all to show how “normal” the author considers it.

      Like, I would LOVE more stories about queer kids and their friendships with other queer kids. We need MORE of those stories because if there’s just the lone queer character it makes it super easy to ignore that identity, whereas with a group of queer friends it will probably come up in conversation from time to time?? And again, not necessarily in angsty ways, but also in happy ways, such as “omg I have a crush on a cute boy AND a crush on a cute girl fdjgfgkdfkghdsg what do I do sO MUCH CUTENESS DKGJHDKG” which is basically a major plot in Adaptation & Inheritance.

      “…therefore the story should focus on other aspects of their lives. I want my queer characters to be defined by more than just their identity. I want them to be heroes and space travellers and fairies and knights.” Yeah, same. I want queer characters who are more than just queer – I want escapism and queer knights and queer heroes ❤ – but I also think there's a delicate balance between writing a queer character who is also [fill in the blank], and spending so much time on [fill in the blank] that their queer identity is hardly mentioned at all. I hate this idea of "the author didn't consider queerness a big deal, so they threw in a miniscule reference to it!" No. That's not how you do representation. Ignoring someone’s identity and never mentioning it / being very coy when you do mention it isn’t the right way to show your acceptance.

      Aaaand this comment is now SUPER LONG, but basically I talked about how we /can/ have some stories where being queer doesn't really affect the character either positively or negatively (like in Ash ), but we do need a /lot/ more stories where a queer character doesn’t “just happen” and the story actually talks about it – the character’s identity affects them because [insert something here]. Maybe it affects the secrets they keep (ayyyyyy Ronan Lynch) or their group of close friends, or their relationships with their parents, or WHATEVER.

      I don’t know, I hope it didn’t sound as if my post was calling for only stories about Bad/Awkward Things like homophobia and coming out – because that’s not what it was about, or at least I didn’t intend for it to come across that way. I just used that as a jumping-off point for talking about my desire to see more stories that deal with the reality of being a queer teen (…of which some, but by no means ALL, are Bad Things), and that don’t just gloss over it in an attempt to show how “OK” straight authors are with being queer. IDK. I’m just rambling now. thay’s comment (below) might explain it better?? IDK.

      (EDIT: Like, to me it’s just very reminiscent of this whole idea of “Be yourself, but not if it makes other people uncomfortable.” Be gay, but not too gay. Be gay, but don’t mention it because no one wants to hear about that ! IDK, I’ve seen far too many comments around the Internet about how some reader somewhere thought that a character didn’t need to make innocuous, happy, off-hand comments about who they were currently crushing on, because “it doesn’t matter and we’re all just human!!!!!111!!! SAME LOVE LOL!” Like, so many straight people don’t seem to want to read even happy LGBTQ+ stories in which queerness is mentioned with the frequency real-life queer people talk about it, just off-hand comments and the like. And that really bothers me. They want gayness, but not /too much/ gayness.)

      • Miriam Joy says:

        Right, yeah, that makes sense. I sort of read the post as wanting more focus on the negative stuff, which seemed a bit :/ to me. I seem incapable of keeping any of my characters straight, so I do like varying how they feel about their identity and stuff to make them more unique. (I have Ani, who is totally 100% cool with being queer and doesn’t care who knows it, but I also have Peter, who is closeted and scared and full of self-hatred and makes bad life choices. Etc.)

    • nevillegirl says:

      Oh god, no, not necessarily. 🙂 I mean, I don’t mind reading a few stories about homophobia (especially if they’re well-written) but I just used homophobia as the starting point for discussing my interest in stories that realistically address the lives/concerns/etc of queer teens… happy stories, sad stories, or somewhere in between.

      Yep, same! Like one of my high fantasy stories (…that I am beginning to seriously doubt will ever be finished because I keep getting new ideas for things to add to it) has two queer girls as the main characters, and one of them is very self-assured about it and the other isn’t and… IDK, it’s just fun to write about them and come up with reasons for their differences. (Unsupportive/ignorant parents, in the case of the one who’s still struggling with being queer.)

      Thanks for reading and commenting! 😀

  3. thay says:

    I think the wanting stories about folks who “just happen” to be queer is a misfire of wanting queerness normalized. Because I get the sentiment- sometimes it feels like the only books about queer people are about Queer People, whose only attribute is to be Queer and to help the reader Learn A Lesson. So I think it’s really important to have stories that go beyond coming out- that show queerness in other facets, that show kids that you can be queer and still be you (that if you’re someone who lives in an awful place, you get hope that you won’t always have to live like that).
    But. I think people have taken the sentiment WAY TOO FAR. It reminds me a bit of when people say “but you shouldn’t come out- straight people don’t come out, so gay people shouldn’t do it either.” Lovely thought, but I don’t live in ignorant-straight-person world, I live in the real world where ignorant straight people will hurt me and misgender me and generally be awful unless I ward them off at the pass. It’s like the queer version of “all lives matter” or “I don’t believe in feminism, I believe in equality.”
    Coming out stories are so important. Stories about homophobia are so important. Stories about intersectionality are so important. Stories about queer people who do things other than just be queer are so important. Stories about queer people are important, period, and if you (general you, not Nevillie-you) think that someone shouldn’t get to read a story they identify with because you’re sick of it, you need to go re-evaluate your priorities pronto (and probably get away from me because I don’t want to be around someone like that).

    • nevillegirl says:

      OH MY GOSH *throws glitter* I WANT TO HUG YOUR COMMENT AND THEN MARRY IT BECAUSE IT’S JUST THAT AWESOME.

      Thank you for reading and commenting! 😀 Nevillie-me appreciated it very much. ^_^

      “A misfire of wanting queerness normalized” is an EXCELLENT way to phrase it!

      Yes yes yes. Yes to everything you said in that paragraph. It’s like… if I don’t come out, people will automatically assume I’m straight. Straight people’s assumptions built a world in which everyone is presumed straight until proven otherwise (and even then, queer people’s identities are often questioned, but I digress) so yes, coming out is still a reality.

      I’m tired of people saying they want fewer stories in which being queer is a big deal. STOP IGNORING AN INTEGRAL PART OF OUR IDENTITIES. One comment I remember particularly vividly was on a Goodreads review & it talked about how the writer of that comment “totally supported gay people” but could have done without all the references to the main character’s crushes. And that really, really bothered me. Because straight people make comments like that all the time in both real life and fiction, and no one gets all up in arms about how annoyingly, obviously straight they are. But when queer people doing that it’s “pushing an agenda” and “no one wants to read a story that’s so political and controversial like that.”

      It’s like readers want to read about gay characters so they feel all warm and fuzzy and supportive inside, but they don’t want those stories to be /too gay./ A literary “no homo” perhaps? 😛

      OH MY GOD YES SAME. Like I said, most (all?) of these comments come from straight readers, and that makes me super uncomfortable. Because yes, straight people are welcome to read these stories and write these stories and fangirl about these stories and learn from them, but ultimately? These stories are most important for QUEER READERS who need and want to see themselves and their concerns addressed in stories, and straight readers need to BUTT OUT of that conversation if they’re going to keep demanding that a genre about A GROUP TO WHICH THEY DO NOT BELONG make special concessions to them because they just can’t handle reading something gay.

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