Identity and Representation in Queer YA
Recommended Books with Disabled Main Characters
Even as YA protagonists get more and more diverse, good representation can be hard to find. Usually the problem is that too many stories are told in ways that assume non-marginalized perspectives are the default. For example, the majority of disabled characters are treated not as human beings with complex personalities and goals but as sources of inspiration, burden, or growth for able-bodied people. It’s particularly difficult to find good intersectional representation – for example, I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read that have wonderfully complex queer characters but flat, stereotypical characters of color. The following list is a series of books that feature queer disabled protagonists with nuance, accuracy, and most importantly humanity. Many though not all of the writers are disabled in the same ways as their characters.
Best Books with Latinx Characters
Dr. Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez, PhD
There remains a great need for Latinx Gay YA. The list below is a compilation of texts that center and complicate these experiences. I’ve decided to make this list a space dedicated to stories written by self-identifying Latinx authors who have created gay Latinx protagonists. There are certainly other books with gay Latinx minor characters and books with gay Latinx characters written by non-Latinx. Many of the protagonists in the novels listed below express a feeling of isolation when they come out or at simply existing as a gay Latinx person. This isolation stems from a lack of familiarity with gay Latinx history and cultural productions, from an assumption that they are the only gay Latinx in their family, community, or school, and from the misconception that gay identity and Latinx identity cannot be one in the same. These are very real concerns that LGBTQI Latinx youth reading these novels might have and while it is important that they see themselves represented in fictional characters they must also see themselves reflected in the people that write these stories.
Many of the novels below deal with coming out as gay and the violence that one might experience because of it. Many of the protagonists are marginalized by their family and friends and many must literally fight for their lives. For example, in Charles Rice-Gonzalez’s Chulito, a 16 year-old gang member, is physically accosted by the gang leader after learning that Chulito is gay. Altercations with the quintessential hypermasculine character also occur in The Mariposa Club, Rainbow High, Aristotle and Dante, and More Happy Than Not. The depictions of violence in these novels signal that as a community we need to work harder to create safe spaces for queer Latinx youth to come out. Creating safe spaces includes challenging rigid gender roles, challenging trans and homophobia, and challenging white supremacy.
A common critique of gay YA novels is often their focus on coming out narratives. Clearly, gay youth are more than their coming out experiences and there is certainly a need to see gay characters live lives that represent that. However, these stories continue to be extremely valuable for Latinx communities. Consider for a minute that there aren’t many YA novels written by Latinx authors that center Latina lesbian and queer experiences. While the coming out narrative may feel overdone in stories that center dominant and white experiences, this is not the case for many underrepresented communities. Mayra Lazara Dole’s Young Adult novel Down to the Bone and Gabby Rivera’s more recent New Adult novel Juliet Takes a Breath are the only novels written by Latinx authors that center Latinx gay experiences that I know about. E.E. Charlton-Trujillo’s award winning Fat Angie is written by a Latinx author, Charlton-Trujillo identifies as a “Wexican” or the whitest Mexican-American, but there aren’t any cultural signifiers that indicate that Angie is a Latinx character. It is also dangerous to assume that Angie is a white Latinx just because that’s how the author identifies. In any case, we need more novels that center Latinx lesbian and queer experiences.
There is also a lack of trans Latinx characters. Rigoberto Gonzalez’s The Mariposa Club introduces readers to Trinidad Ramos, a trans Latina. There’s also a minor trans character in Chulito, Puti. Trinidad and Puti experience the most violence in these novels. Trini is beat up by the school jocks and needs to transfer schools, her father burns her with cigarettes, and is ostracized by many of her schoolmates. From the little we get to know about Puti it is clear that she also experienced most violence and that her family does not respect her. However, in the face of adversity Trini, and even Puti, remains resilient.
The turbulent and painful moments in these novels are countered with yet more powerful and beautiful scenes. The parent figures in Aristotle and Dante, More Happy Than Not, and The Mariposa Club are supportive of their gay Latinx child. The tension that might exists between the gay protagonist and their parent often times has more to do with other issues not necessarily tied to the characters’ queer identity. For example, in Aristotle and Dante Aristotle has a strained relationship with his father because of his father’s war experiences and because of Ari’s older brother’s imprisonment. Despite these complications, it is Ari’s father that helps him realize he is in love with Dante. In More Happy Than Not, Aaron’s mom knows he’s gay and gives him the space to figure it out and come out on his own terms. Their relationship is complicated by the father’s suicide and the memory-erasing procedures offered by the Leteo Institute. Mauricio’s dad in The Mariposa Club is also very nurturing. He provides support not just for Maui but for all the fierce mariposas. Mauricio’s dad has a difficult time connecting to his son because he doubts his own parent skills, especially since his wife passed away.
The romantic relationships in these novels are tender and complex. At the beginning of Rainbow Boys Jason is dating the head cheerleader but later develops a crush for Kyle, who is being crushed on by Nelson. Aristotle and Dante’s relationship is sweet, quirky, and everything you want love to be. Heartbreak is way too real in these novels. Aaron from More Happy than Not and Juliet from Juliet Takes a Breath get their hearts broken and these scenes will bring readers to angry-filled, hot tears.
At the bottom of the list I’ve added Latinx YA novels that include a secondary gay/queer character. From what I’ve seen, for the most part those characters are always the same. The queer character is always the victim of violence at home or of bullying at school or from the community. The only exception to this is Daniel Jose Older’s Shadowshaper and Shadowhouse Fall. In the future, I’d like to see gay/queer secondary characters be as complex as main characters. It is important to always highlight the oppression that gay Latinx people experience but it is just as important to portray the joy, the love, and the empowerment, even if the characters are side characters.
The books listed here are only the beginning. I can’t say I’ve read every gay YA book in search of Latinx characters. Hopefully this list will serve as a catalyst to find gay Latinx characters and Latinx authors in the literature we read.
Best Books Featuring Queer, Black Characters
The Lack of Queer Black People in Young Adult Novels
Finding young adult novels including queer, Black characters is a challenge that should not exist. Finding main characters is an even more difficult task. And queer Black characters written by queer, Black individuals? The hardest mission of all. This scarcity isn’t due to a lack of individuals. According to Gallup Daily Tracking, 4.6% of Black people living in the United States identify as LGBTQIAAP+ (Gates, “In U.S., More Adults Identifying as LGBT”). That number is pulled from the approximately 46,778,674 Black people living United States in total (U.S. Census Bureau). This equates to at least 2,151,819 LGBTQIAAP+ Black people in the United States population, leaving plenty of people able to write about their experiences. And though this piece is from a United States perspective, there are even more queer, Black individuals around the world. After all, the United States only accounts for 4.3% of the world’s population (U.S. Census Bureau).
If there is such a wide potential audience and pool of writers for these stories, why does publishing only seldom acknowledge us? When intersections of an identity exist and are highlighted, they are more likely to be pushed aside in favor of the same stories that have a track record of success. Namely, non-diverse books, as the industry-wide push toward diverse publishing is still fairly recent (though, many women of color have been fighting for a long time). Are those narratives bad? Not inherently, unless they’re explicitly problematic.
The largest problem with narratives that highlight white, heterosexual, and cisgender characters is that they don’t accurately reflect our diverse world. Even in deeply red states, there are still queer people of color surviving and thriving. It’s not difficult to find Black, queer people, because we are everywhere. However, publishing eschews diverse stories every chance they get. Not because readers can’t relate to them—the smash hit The Hate U Give is living proof that the stories of Black people are universal, if we’re only given the chance to succeed. No, because of factors like unconscious bias, a lack of data re: the success of Black, queer books, and a lack of diverse hiring lead to an unwillingness to publish diverse narratives.
A vicious cycle is publishing’s tendency to select more marketable stories and authors. If Black, queer books don’t have a strong sales history, how can the rest of those stories break in? If Black, queer people are not placed in positions of power within publishing houses and literary agencies, how can we advocate for ourselves at the highest levels? Lee & Low’s 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey revealed that only 4% of the publishing industry is made up of Black people. Those statistics are just as abysmal for other non-white, nondisabled, and non-queer people.
This isn’t meant to bash the publishing industry. There are certainly publishers, agents, editors, authors, publicists, and booksellers doing excellent work to break through the walls around us. The #OwnVoices movement is encouraging our stories. However, there is a lot more work to be done. Hopefully, as more books by Black people succeed, the book industry will get the message that readers want and need these books. Books are how we see ourselves, and Black and queer readers deserve that chance as much as everybody else.
What Makes a Good Portrayal?
Queer, Black teens should be approached like any other underrepresented group, albeit with extra care. We face stigma from all sides due to increased risk of intracommunity homophobia (can mostly be attributed to strong religious belief), hate crimes, implicit and explicit discrimination, and the double whammy of being two minorities that are only accepted on a surface level in society. These are broad generalizations and can’t account for every experience; for example, my parents are both religious and accept my bisexuality without question. But no matter what, being Black and queer is an uphill battle. This doesn’t mean our stories should be all doom and gloom and pain. Though people of color are more likely to experience trauma in our lifetimes, there’s also a lot of joy in our lives, which needs to be expressed through literature.
Being a queer, Black teen shouldn’t be the focal point of the narrative. Admittedly, there can be a fine line between overemphasis and erasure. A good way to think of it is making sure that the reader knows the teen is queer and Black, but not having their entire existence wrapped around their identities. If a character is only there to fill a diversity checklist, that’s easy to see and is a heartbreaking experience for readers.
How do you find these good portrayals? Research, research, research! Resources like We Need Diverse Books, particularly their OurStory app, are a good start. Another way to search for good portrayals of these books is by making attempts to find diverse book reviewers, especially those who review the books using their own experiences. These readers can often be found on independent blogs or on review aggregate websites like Goodreads.
No matter how good the initial writing and research is, writing our stories requires critique from the community. This critique can often come in the form of sensitivity readers, paid readers who spot problematic elements in novels. Writing in The Margins, a resource curated by young adult author Justina Ireland, curates a database of potential sensitivity readers. The readers aren’t vetted, so it takes a combination of personal research, discussion with the individual, and checking with references to find the best reader.
Gates, Gary J. “In U.S., More Adults Identifying as LGBT.” Gallup News, Gallup, Inc., 11 January 2017, http://news.gallup.com/poll/201731/lgbt-identification-rises.aspx.
Low, Jason, et al. “2015 Diversity Baseline Survey.” Lee & Low Publishers. 26 January 2016. http://blog.leeandlow.com/2016/01/26/where-is-the-diversity-in-publishing-the-2015-diversity-baseline-survey-results/
U.S. Census Bureau. “Annual Estimates of the Resident Population by Sex, Single Year of Age, Race Alone or in Combination, and Hispanic Origin for the United States: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2016.” U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division, June 2017, https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?pid=PEP_2016_PEPALL5N&prodType=table.
U.S. Census Bureau. “U.S. and World Population Clock.” U.S. Census Bureau, 15 December 2017, https://www.census.gov/popclock/world.
Best Books with Trans/NB/Gender Non-Conforming/Genderqueer Characters
By Kyle Lukoff
It’s hard to say what makes trans representation “good” in a young adult or middle-grade novel. Authorship is important; the best stories often come from trans authors, or writers with deep ties to trans community beyond a single friend or family member (though I also don’t believe in hard and fast rules). Avoidance of tropes, cliché, and reductive stereotypes is also important. The titles selected here all go beyond cis-centered ideas of what a trans life can look like, beyond just struggling to come out, which will hopefully influence the trend moving forward.
Best Books with Queer Joy and Happy Endings
Happy endings, resistance, finding your people, dreaming of future worlds, solving the mystery of self. and getting a swoony kiss with your love interest: queer readers of YA deserve to experience these moments and see mirrors of their lives in the fiction they read. While there is always a place for stories that tell the truth about the difficulties queer teens face, there is also a place for the fact that queer lives can be filled with joy, love, connection, and happiness. These are stories that give queer teens happy endings they deserve.