Representation of 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.