Writer / Reader / Fandom Extraordinaire
Chiara / August 25, 2015 , Tue / lgbtqia, writing

I have seen quite a few posts around the blogosphere as of late about diverse books. Mainly, the fact that we need ones that aren’t just focussed on said diversity. Where said diversity doesn’t rule the plot. Where said diversity doesn’t play a huge role in the life of the diverse character.

What. A. Load. Of. Shit.

I’m going to talk about a few topics I’ve seen around because I have a lot of feelings about this. (There will mainly be a focus on LGBTQIA+ fiction, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, really.)

we need books that aren’t just about “coming out”

Do you even read LGBTQIA+ fiction? Seriously? There are a number of LGBTQIA+ YA books out there that are not about coming out. Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz. I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson. Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan. All of which took me about three seconds to think of. In fact, there’s an entire Goodreads list about LGBTQIA+ YA books that aren’t about coming out.

But beyond that – coming out isn’t a universal experience. Just because there are books out there about LGBTQIA+ teens coming out to friends and family does not mean that that’s it – we don’t need them anymore. Because it is different for every single queer teen. There is no universal coming out experience, or process, or response. So to ask for LGBTQIA+ books not about coming out is ignorant because queer kids have to face the decision of whether or not to come out (and what will happen because of that decision) every freaking day.

we need characters that “just happen to be gay”

Oh dear lord. OH DEAR LORD.

Can I even respond to this at all? There are a range of posts on the internet by authors (notably, Robin Talley) about why we need characters who do NOT “just happen to be gay” because … LGBTQIA+ teens don’t “just happen to be LGBTQIA+”.

Yes, you can ‘just happen to be straight’, because even though it’s ridiculous, straight and cisgender are still the defaults. Until someone is told otherwise, everyone is cishet in a lot of people’s minds. And ‘just happening to be straight’ is exactly how it is. Someone is straight. End of story. They don’t have to come out to anyone, they don’t get bullied for being straight, they don’t get physically and sexually assaulted for being straight, they don’t get denied service for being straight, they’re not discriminated for being straight, it’s not illegal to be straight, they can marry their partners… The list goes on, and on. (And to ward off comments, straight people can experience assault and bullying and discrimination but not for BEING STRAIGHT.)

LGBTQIA+ teens face all of this. ALL. OF. IT. So to say that queer characters should ‘just happen to be queer’ is asking for something outside of reality. Because this is a part of life for queer kids. LGBTQIA+ young adults have to make decisions (like coming out), and are faced with difference (like having feelings for someone their best friend never would), and fear, and discrimination, and that (sadly and ridiculously and fucked-up-ly) is a part of life. “Just happening to be queer” just doesn’t exist, so to ask for it really shows ignorance about what life is like outside of the cishet scope.

this book is diverse because the MC’s bestie is gay

The gay best friend trope has never been adequate representation of the LGBTQIA+ community. EVER. But for the longest time, that was all the representation there was.

And even though that has never been enough, it is even less enough (yes, this does make sense) now. The gay best friend does not a diverse novel make. And when “the MC’s brother is gay and it’s good because it wasn’t made into a big thing” … why would it be? Unless the MC is a raging homophobe, the fact that their brother likes guys ISN’T a big deal. For them. This is a big deal for the brother. It is not “good” when being queer “isn’t a big deal” because that’s just playing right into the hands of people who want characters to “just happen to be gay” (in other words – a queer book that isn’t really queer because the queerness of the character is not touched on at all).

The gay best friend is not diversity. Any LGBTQIA+ side character is not diversity. They don’t fill some diversity quota by being included.

so glad this wasn’t an “issue” book

Firstly, what the fuck is an “issue” book exactly? A book that deals with something that someone perceives as an “issue”? Being queer isn’t an “issue”. Reading a book about a teen’s experience being queer is not an “issue” book. It’s a book about a kid being queer. This goes the same for mental health books, and any that diverge from the white, able-bodied, mentally sound, cisgender, heterosexual, middle class, religiously ambiguous main character.

So people are glad that books aren’t providing a message, or information, or something ~important~? Because, god forbid, that might make it an issue book, and we certainly don’t need those. We have all the books we need on what life is like for people who fall outside our own experiences.

Of course, how could I have been so ignorant?

I am pretty shocked when I see some of these things floating around, because I feel like a lot of them are demeaning the need for diverse books. Like we need diverse books where the diversity is all but ignored. Which is the absolute opposite of what we need. We need diverse books because they are diverse, not because they’re the same as undiverse books, with one nod to diversity that is never mentioned again.

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13 Responses to diversity for diversity’s sake: we actually do need it

  1. Rebecca says:

    This post is everything! YES.

    I’ve never had these thoughts, but I have seen others who have. I’ve never had an issue with issue books and I’ve never categorised a book as one, but again, I see it happen quite a bit. I’ve seen people talk about wanting less diverse issue books and while I don’t think that’s a problem per se, I think there lies issues to be had if what people are really asking for is diversity to be side-lined so the story or character can “just be” – because that is so not going to work. The main problem I see arising is this: who they are, what makes them *them* is apart of their lives, their day in day out, how they live and breath and no, it’s isn’t all they are, but it it’s an important part of who they are. People of minorities and diverse backgrounds experience slander, discrimination, bullying, inequality and that is just apart of their every day, unfortunately. So maybe a book about a zombie apocalypse with a POC gay guy isn’t off the table…as long as his diversity is given the page time it deserves and doesn’t become something to be written off. I hope that makes sense? I hope your rant cleared things off your chest. Always look forward to your posts about diversity, LGBTQIA+ and whatever else you’ve got to say, because you are a goddess when it comes to talking about this stuff. You’re eloquent and make me think and MORE, please.

    • Chiara says:

      That definitely makes sense. When I see people asking for these ‘less diverse diverse books’ I’m kind of like … then you’re asking for a ‘diverse’ book that doesn’t talk about the character’s diversity at all? Like diversity is just something that’s there but doesn’t have an affect on the life of that person. That worries me to no end, because that’s a form of erasure.

      Writing off diversity is a scary thing, because whilst it doesn’t have to be the sole focus of a book, it can’t just be mentioned in fleeting and have no influence in the character’s life. It just doesn’t work that way.

      Ah, thank you so much, lovely! It means the world to me that you enjoy my rants <3 And it definitely got a lot of stuff off my chest, which was great!

  2. Alyssa says:

    *offers you cake because I’m actually flinching (in a good way) from the passion in this post* I’m gonna have to say that I can’t speak for this a lot, because I don’t read contemporary much, currently the spearhead of the diverse books movement, and I read fantasy, where diverse experiences tend to be subplots instead. And I don’t think diversity in subplots or setting isn’t good enough — because while of course they cannot “just happen” to be (insert diverse experience), their experience should not be the only part of their life. It’ll definitely shape their choices and their life, but they can totally go and slay dragons too.

    My point being — a book doesn’t only have one message. A book can include characters struggling to be accepted because they’re LGBT+ or they’re Asian or they’re disabled, but it can also include magic and mayhem. So long as the matter is treated respectfully, and it does affect the characters/the plot in some way, there’s no need for all diverse books to be solely or mainly about said diverse experience.

    • Chiara says:

      *accepts cake* :D

      OH GOSH YES. That is actually a whole other post I have planned. Because this one was mainly about contemporary novels which deal with the real life goings on in the character’s lives.

      But I 100% agree with you that in non-contemporary novels there needs to be a space for diverse characters, too. And it actually opens the door for even more exploration of coming out and other diverse experiences. What about dystopian future where homosexuality is the norm, and being straight is weird? Or a magical land where people have both a husband and wife? Or where gender doesn’t exist? Or ANYTHING.

      There is so much room for diversity in non-contemporary novels, and I don’t think it’s being utilised enough at the moment. I would love to be reading about diverse characters slaying dragons and assassinating people. GIVE IT TO ME, PLEASE.

  3. Beth W says:

    I’m all for diverse casts of characters in every possible function- I think (especially if they’re contemporary) they should reflect the same diversity you encounter in the world: all colors, creeds, sexual identities, genders….showing that whole “not everything is binary” spray of reality. I won’t quibble if the best friend is a lesbian, because at least there’s a lesbian in there somewhere. But I don’t understand folks complaining like…what? we have too many diverse MCs? I don’t think there IS such a thing, but also….seriously? We have too much vampire fic, but that’s still getting published and written and read and enjoyed; compared to characters who are not white and cishet, we’ve got more vampires in fiction than representation. So how on earth does anyone figure there’s too many diverse characters in books? I can’t wrap my head around it.

    And I don’t like “issue” books myself, if they’re in the after-school-special vein, where the issue is that a character doesn’t know how to come out, and then they do and discover that everything in life is happy warm fuzzies. Because that’s not reality. But also, because the primary point of tension and growth in anyone’s life is NOT telling an uncomfortable truth to loved ones. That can be very challenging, but there’s stuff that happens after that which can be more challenging and defining. And in my experience “issue books” (or what I consider issue books, anyway) focus solely around that one, comparatively shallow issue. I’d prefer to see the same complexity and growth given to diverse characters as given to white cishet characters because, for me, seeing diversity in lit is about seeing representation in lit.

    • Chiara says:

      I don’t think that the gay best friend is a bad thing, necessarily. I am (most of the time) glad when there is at least one character that is diverse in a novel, but I don’t think that they are enough, or accurate representation of diversity.

      And I completely get what you mean about people complaining about diverse books. That makes absolutely no sense, especially when you bring up things like vampire fiction. And magical fantasy fiction? Magic doesn’t exist and readers don’t think there’s a limit to how many books about magic exist … but books about people that are actually living do have a limit? Double standards of the worst kind.

      I think everyone’s definition of an “issue” book is different, which is why I included it in this discussion. I definitely don’t like the kind of after school special books that you’re talking about, where the character has little depth to them except for their “issue”. But I’ve seen general LGBTQIA+ books described as issue books, or described as non-issue books because they didn’t have a huge focus on their sexuality or gender identity. It’s when comments like these are thrown around that gets me worried.

  4. Romi says:

    The gay best friend trope really, really bugs me. Real or not, the fact it’s used to make books have a diverse element, which is what it feels like in so many ways (and almost always it seems the best friend is a cardboard cutout of what “gay” should represent- also: lesbian best friend? Transgender best friend? Where have all the asexuals gone?)- it’s just not enough. And so often it’s just “oh, yup, they’re gay and they come up with the funny comments that keep the humor rolling” but there isn’t interaction between the characters about them friend being gay. It’s just so token-ified.

    With “coming out” books it’s so interesting because there needs to be such a wide range of comings out represented. I haven’t read nearly so many LGBT+ books as I should, but the ones I have that deal with coming out stick to a familiar line, and I want more than that. I want it to be difficult and not resolved. I want it to be bitter, tear friendships and families apart, all the while the character sticking to their true self. I want them to be accepted. I want them to not even feel the need to come out because they are LGBT and it’s not something they need to announce. I personally feel very much like Simon in the Homo Sapiens Agenda does- why should everyone be straight until otherwise proved? I have never come out (BAM! DOING IT NOW APPARENTLY!) because my sexuality shouldn’t be a subject people need to have clarification on unless I want to offer it up or am in a relationship with them. I’m human. I identify. I support. I’m passionate. I like guys and woman both. And yet because I’m a woman and haven’t said “hello I am bisexual” it’s just assumed that a. I want to marry a nice man (heck, anyone consider that the “bad boys” are the swooniest? Example: Jared Lynburn and Han Solo) and b. the fact I’m training in childcare means I’m getting some good training for the future. Because those assumptions are appropriate and worth any of my time.

    We need books that showcase things other than what we know. We need books that are diverse and give us truths we have within ourselves but have never had the chance to see expressed before. We need to see a wider range than we’re seeing. We need conversations like THIS.
    xx

    • Chiara says:

      YES. Using the gay best friend as a kind of diversity quota fulfiller is the WORST. And like you said, what about any other kind of LGBTQIA+ best friend? And the character is always over cliched, and bordering on offensive because they’re so interchangeable, and used only for certain things.

      A lot of the coming out stories do stick to the same kind of script, which is just even more reason for there to be more of them. A lot of the time it uses the “oh we’re weirded out but we get used to it and support you eventually” trope. What about the “we love you and support you instantly” scenarios? Or the “we will never understand” scenarios? And every scenario in between. We need all of them, because coming out is not a universal experience. It doesn’t just go one way.

      Assumptions regarding sexuality and gender are EVERYWHERE, and it’s painful. Being straight and cis is what a lot of people expect from practically everyone they meet. Unless the person they’re meeting asserts themselves as otherwise, which they shouldn’t have to do unless they want to.

      The fact that you shared that aspect of yourself with me means the world, Romi <3

      • Romi says:

        The fact that you answered with those words, Chiara, means more. I mean, I have totally not said it to anyone before, although perhaps hinted at some people, so… you were the first? Yup! And I know how supportive you are and how ridiculously amazing, but hey, I bluster my way through nervousness! And your response is heartwarming and grin inducing. xx

        • Chiara says:

          Romiiiiiiiiiiiii GAH! You are literally my favourite ever <3 I am so honoured and humbled that I am the first person you shared this with, and I am a little speechless too (in the best way). I am always (ALWAYS) here for you if you ever need me <3

  5. Oh man, the “gay best friend” trope bugs the hell out of me. (Actually, in one of my WIPs, all of the named characters are on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum except the best friend of one of the MCs, who is cishet. It’s my way of poking a little fun at that. ;)) It’s always seemed to be the original token diverse character in a long – and incredibly tiresome – tradition of them; diversity exists on so many more levels than just as a running gag.

    Also, I’m going to second what Romi said – I do wish there was a more creative storyline than the original “Mom, I’m gay!” *mother gasps* *birds squawk* *thunder crashes* *children scream* … five weeks later, “Honey, don’t worry, we still love you!”.

    The truth of the matter is, there needs to be diversity WITHIN diversity. It’s not enough to include a gay character – I want multifaceted, dynamic, original characters with their own fears and hopes and dreams and personalities that include being part of the queer community. Coming out is just one example of that – there are so many stories that have been done time and time again, and so many others that are waiting to be explored, if only authors take the time to do so.

    • Chiara says:

      I love your little poke at the gay best friend trope, by having the cishet one *applauds you* I hope I can read this WIP one day, Topaz! I LOVE LGBTQIA+ books that don’t just centre around the one queer main character :D

      Totally! What about instant acceptance? If I ever had children, and one came out to me, there would be instant acceptance. And there’s also the parents who don’t ever accept their children (which is horrible, but also true to life). So yes. Definitely more realism when it comes to the different reactions.

      YES YES YES TO THAT LAST PARAGRAPH. I DON’T EVEN HAVE ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD <3

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