By A.R. Capetta
Rainbow Boxes is a charitable initiative to connect LGBTQIA fiction with readers across the United States.
When Cori McCarthy and I did our research for Rainbow Boxes (AKA the most fun research–it mainly consisted of reading every LGBTQ YA book we could find), we were able to assemble a box of books that featured characters with a range of identities.
But if we’d tried to fill another box…it would have been much more difficult. And we were only looking for fifteen titles!
That was in 2015, and there are many exciting new additions to the list of titles this year, but this is one of the biggest places where LGBTQ YA needs to grow. The authors and LGBTQ YA advocates I interviewed seemed to be on the same page–almost every single one mentioned it.
“Most of all, I really, really want to see more intersectionality – more queer kids of color and more disabled queer kids. The numbers on these are still really sadly low.”
Her book, Under the Lights: A Daylight Falls Novel (Spencer Hill, 2015), features a Korean-American lesbian main character, and is one of a small number of f/f books that fall in the category of delightful fluffy reads featuring queer girls.
“More intersectional stories! I’m excited to see all stories with respectful representation of LGBTQ characters, but especially ones that have queer characters who are also of color, who also have disabilities, and so many more intersecting identities.”
When I asked her about the exciting parts and the challenges of writing LGBTQ YA, Anna-Marie said:
“My agent, editor, and publishing house have been tremendously supportive of me writing When the Moon Was Ours. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t scared to write queer and transgender main characters. I was already writing characters of color, and I felt like I wasn’t allowed to do both.
“I’m queer, and I’m married to a transguy, but I felt like I had to keep that part of my identity off the page.
“But I’m glad I had people around me who encouraged me to write the story that was in me, to write characters who are of color and also LGBTQ.
“I have heard authors talk about pressure to limit themselves to one marginalization per character. Hopefully that is changing, but wherever it remains the case, it creates a situation where queer characters must always be white, neurotypical, and able-bodied, among other things.
“It also limits the potential for multiple LGBTQIA identities (eg queer intersex people, gay or bisexual people on the asexuality spectrum.)
“This is not a question of ‘checking boxes’ when it comes to diversity, but rather reflecting a wider range of lived experience.”
As author Tristina Wright puts it:
“Someone can be Black, bisexual, have anxiety, and come from a single parent home.
“Someone can be Muslim, gay, OCD, and a twin.
“Someone can be Latinx, genderfluid, depressed, and stutter.
“Someone can be Biracial, pansexual, use a wheelchair, and Deaf.
“There are intersections upon intersections and when people protest this point, they reinforce the idea that there’s a default setting of white/straight/cisgender/abled and anything away from that is Other.”
Tristina’s debut novel, 27 Hours, coming Fall 2017 from Entangled Teen, features characters of many backgrounds and identities. Here’s how Tristina describes the intersectional identities of her characters:
4 alternating POVs
1. Male, biracial (Indian/Nigerian), bisexual, PTSD
2. Female, biracial (Cuban/Greek), pansexual, Deaf
3. Male, white, gay, adopted
4. Male, white, asexual, has two moms
+ 2 ensemble characters
5. Female, transgender, Latinx, bisexual
6. Male, gay, Caribbean, missing two fingers (from birth)
Sometimes, in the case of fantasy and sci-fi novels, intersections don’t have exact real-world correlation.
“Huntress is set in a Chinese-inspired world, so the characters are both non-white and queer. I wouldn’t describe them as Chinese, because it’s a secondary fantasy world. ‘Non-white’ is probably best.”
“Nolan is Mexican-American and disabled. Amara is bisexual, disabled, and a woman of color. As she lives in a fantasy world, the bisexuality is unlabeled and her ethnicity has no real-world analog.”
Recent titles that include main characters with intersectional identities are More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera (Soho Teen, 2015), which features a gay male Puerto Rican main character, Far From You by Tess Sharpe (Disney-Hyperion, 2015), which has a disabled bisexual girl protagonist, Proxy by Alex London (Philomel, 2013), with a gay male person-of-color protagonist, Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee (Duet) with Chinese-Vietnamese American bisexual girl protagonist, and Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova (Sourcebooks, 2016) about a bisexual Latina protagonist.
“I didn’t make a big point about identity in 37 Things I Love, but I pictured the cast of that book as relatively diverse.
“Ellis is biracial (black dad/white mom) and Cara is also biracial (white/Asian). Ellis will likely identify as bisexual when she is older, though at the moment she is at the beginning of her journey to discover her sexual self. Cara identifies as a lesbian and is more secure in her identity on a lot of levels.
“The text contains a couple of hints toward Ellis’s racial identity, but fewer to indicate Cara’s, and while it’s clear from the novel action that the girls are interested in each other romantically, they don’t fully name their respective identities.
“For me as a writer, the important thing at the time was to write a story that included a biracial, bisexual protagonist without drawing too much attention to the fact. I hoped that leaving it less clearly defined would allow space for readers to draw the characters however they see fit.
“I’m not sure if I would make the same choices about representing the identities in that book if I was writing and publishing it today. [37 Things was sold in 2010 and published in 2012.]
“I’ve changed as a writer, and the industry has evolved in what it is ready to accept.
“At the time, I felt a little bit subversive in sliding this book out, and it flew largely under the radar.
“People had come to expect ‘black’ books from me, based on my previous work, so to write a ‘gay’ book felt a bit sneaky. Which, I suppose, parallels my interest in being more subtle about the characters’ identities too.
“On the one hand, maybe I could’ve served the need for ‘diverse YA’ better if I had landed harder on those descriptions. On the other hand, it didn’t feel as germane to the story I was trying to tell at the time, and in the long run don’t want any book to have to stand alone as one or the other (‘black’ vs. ‘gay’).
“Just as much, I don’t want my book to be labeled as even more narrowly as a ‘black LGBTQ’ book, either. I would like to be able to stop pressing the point that it’s okay for a single book to cover lots of identity territory without being pigeonholed or assumed to be directed to a limited audience.”
It’s extremely important that books that deal with characters of intersecting identities are treated as part of YA literature as a whole, and not a special interest category.
These books are part of what makes YA exciting, truthful, and worthwhile to readers whose real lives encompass so many identities.
“There’s this amazing energy about LGBTQIA+ right now. I don’t know how else to explain it. It’s really new and current and vibrant. Like… it’s really beginning to feel like anything is possible.
“That said, we have a long way to go, especially in terms of intersectional representation.
“Sometimes it’s easy to think we’ve come super far, only to get a tumblr ask for an autistic queer character, or a black gay teen, or a trans girl who ends up in a happy relationship with another girl, and you’re like… that… doesn’t exist.”
As writers, readers, publishers, booksellers, educators, librarians, and lovers of books, let’s all do what we can so that in a few years, we can look back and see a vast improvement in the number of intersectional books–so many that we can’t possibly list all of the titles, so many that no book request goes unfilled.
Check out Diversity in YA from Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon. Peek: “We celebrate young adult books about all kinds of diversity, from race to sexual orientation to gender identity and disability. Our goal is to bring attention to books and authors that might fall outside the mainstream, and to bring the margin to the center.”
A.R. Capetta is the author of three YA novels:
Entangled and Unmade, a space duet (out now from HMH), and Echo After
Echo, a queer love story wrapped in a murder mystery and set on Broadway
(coming in 2017 from Candlewick).
She is on the writing team for the
second season of Remade, a YA sci-fi thriller from SerialBox, and works with writers on their novels through Yellow Bird Editors (with a special interest in genre fiction and LGBTQ fiction of all kinds!)
A.R. lives and writes in Michigan with her girlfriend Cori McCarthy, who is also a YA author, and their five-year-old, who wants to be a wizard.