Always well-attended, the “LGBTQA Representation in YA” discussion panel filled the Young Adult Literature track room in Marriott A707 at 11:30AM on Friday. For those who need a quick primer, LGBTQA generally refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender/transsexual, queer/questioning, and asexual, though the spectrum also covers other gender and sexuality categories such as intersex, genderqueer, and undecided.
Panelists were librarian Christopher Elliott, Harmony Ink Press YA coordinator Nessa Warin, authors Cinda Williams Chima and Stephanie Perkins, and YA lit fan Casey Fiesler. They kicked things off by recommending favorite recent YA books with LGBTQA characters. Several that were mentioned were Proxy by Alex London, Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith, Everything Leads to You by Nina Lacour, and Two Boys Kissing by David Leviathan.
The panelists agreed that LGBTQA novels should be defined as featuring main characters who identify on the spectrum. At minimum, there should be major secondary characters. Warin said that books focused on LBGTQA issues such as coming out are also an option, but they don’t sell well.
“Readers want to see themselves in these books, but they’ve already been through the drama of coming out,” she said. “They want to read to escape.”
Chima said focusing on the story first and peopling it with diverse characters is the way to go.
“I think there are a lot of ways you can support, whether by writing a protagonist or a secondary character,” she said. “Either way, it’s important to have these characters as part of the cast in your stories.”
Warin, Chima, and Elliott all recommended following the work of Malinda Lo, who has spearheaded the Diversity in YA website and the use of the #DiversityinYA hashtag on Twitter and Tumblr to highlight books that feature characters who are sexually and racially diverse. Readers are looking for characters who are more like them, the panelists agreed.
“Most main characters are white gay males,” Elliott said. “We need more gender and racial diversity in YA.”
While stories featuring lesbian, bisexual, and transgender characters are becoming more common, one area the panelists—and several attendees—said they want to see more of is asexuality.
“In YA, it’s hard to find books that don’t have romance in them,” Fiesler noted. “That could be a reason that there are no asexual books.”
One challenge often faced for books with LGBTQA characters is that librarians and booksellers sometimes need to be convinced that the books will circulate with their readers. Show support by getting these books yourself, Warin said.
“If you find these books in your library, check them out, even if they’re not your thing,” she said. “Show libraries that these books do circulate, and they will buy more.”
Chima agreed. “When you hear about these books, buy them,” she said.
Even when LGBTQA books are in the library or bookstore, making them visible to the target audience can be particularly critical, the panelists acknowledged. Putting the books into a separate section from the wider YA book stock makes them easier to find, but readers whose sexuality may not be open could be discouraged from entering that area out of fear of being seen. On the other hand, shelving all books together can make it difficult to find specific kinds of titles.
“It’s important for adults, librarians, and teachers to be proactive,” Elliott said. “It’s hard for these kids to come forward and ask for these books.” The fear of a negative reaction can keep them from asking, he said.
The panelists recommended shelving all YA books together and then using special displays or small handouts like bookmarks to highlight LGBTQA titles. The internet also makes a great resource. A handout listed several websites as sources for book recommendations, including private reviewers I’m Here, I’m Queer, What the Hell Do I Read? and QueerYA. Other sources include the American Library Association’s Rainbow Book List and Stonewall Book Awards, plus the Lambda Literary Awards.
However, as Warin noted, for many books, mentioning the character’s sexuality isn’t necessary at all when making a recommendation.
“Unless sexuality is a major plot point, don’t say the character is gay,” she said. “You wouldn’t say when a character is straight.”