The YA twittersphere was alight yet again today thanks to a Publisher’s Weekly article written by Sherwood Smith & Rachel M. Brown, in which they discussed an agent who offered to represent their new book on the condition that they “make the gay character straight, or else remove his viewpoint and all references to his sexual orientation.” This sparked a barrage of support from YA authors, agents and readers alike for the authors as well as the portrayal of LGBTQ characters in YA and the culture’s attitudes towards them.
Honestly, I wish I could say I was surprised about this revelation but I’m honestly not. While diversity in YA has made leaps and bounds over the past few years as young adult fiction becomes more prominent, sometimes it does feel like a case of two steps forward and one step back. As LGBTQ content in YA becomes more common, it’s still incredibly rare to find protagonists for whom their sexuality is merely incidental (and I do believe, despite dissenting opinions, that it is possible to have characters who just happen to be gay/bi/trans/etc and aren’t defined solely by their sexuality.) Even within LGBTQ content, bisexual and transgender characters are much rarer, while asexual characters are practically non-existent. Putting sexuality aside, characters of colour are also sidelined in mainstream YA. Let’s not forget how common white-washing of covers is, although the right amount of outrage and publicity can work wonders on that front. Even with our celebrations of diversity in YA, the status quo is still a top seller. How many of the bestselling YA romances of the past few years had LGBTQ romances, or a romantic lead who wasn’t white? That’s not to say it doesn’t happen, but it certainly doesn’t get the massive amount of publicity and hype that the default mode books get.
Tokenism is all too common as well – the squealing sassy gay friend of the pretty straight female lead appears more often than I’d like it too. Diversity and queer representation is so important in YA but we can’t give tokenism and the perpetuation of damaging stereotypes a free pass on the basis that it’s some form of representation. Still, it’s all too depressing to realise how little belief editors and publishers have in the representation of anything other than the default mode in YA. A stable gay relationship is nigh-on un-publishable while the misogynistic depiction of rape culture in a relationship being the romantic ideal becomes national bestselling material. There’s more to this issue than what the editors want; it’s an entire culture and way of life that needs examining. In tough economic times, one almost can’t blame publishers, who are surviving by the skin of their teeth, for playing it safe.
However, it’s not a good enough excuse. The perpetuation of minorities as token characters, or the complete removal of them from the narrative, is definitely not playing it safe. At a time when gay teen suicides are in the headlines, it’s crucial that YA, like all good forms of entertainment, reflect the world we live in and show it for the vibrant, diverse, beautiful, ugly place it is. As important as it is for writers, editors and publishers to create these stories, it’s more important that we as readers support diversity with our hearts, minds and wallets. Money talks and if these books make a profit, publishers will want more of them. It’s a depressing system but that’s capitalism for you. Support is important but so is appropriate critique – call out the harmful representations you see in YA as well as the rest of the world, make sure people get the message that they’re wrong. Education is key. Get the word out, readers, because publishers sure as hell won’t do it for you.