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#HowTo include underrepresented sexual identities in your YA novel


Credits: Pexels (Karolina Grabowska)

In the end, the girl kisses the boy and both are happy to have found each other. This is how many young adult (YA) novels with female protagonists end. But what about the characters who do not identify as straight? While the lack of books about or featuring the LGBTQ+ community is slowly becoming a thing of the past, with more and more inclusive titles being published, the literary landscape still has a long way to go before it is fully diverse.


YA books that are categorized under the heading of LGBTQ+ predominantly feature portrayals of lesbian and gay characters. As a result, other sexualities are still underrepresented. For reference, the first novel about a bisexual teenager was published in 1997, the first about a transgender teen not until 2004, and the first intersex character in a YA book appeared in 2014.


More recently there has been an increase in YA novels with underrepresented sexual identities. This indicates a positive change; certain titles can even serve as examples for writers and publishers who are aiming for more LGBTQ+ visibility in their books. To aid this process, we have selected three books with queer girl protagonists that we deem interesting examples and curated a list of recommendations that can help you to create similar stories.


The first book is Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating (2021) by Adiba Jaigirdar. It tells the story of two Bengali girls, Hani and Ishu, who start a fake relationship. Their plan is to encourage Hani’s friends to accept her bisexuality and to help Ishu climb the social ladder. What they do not expect is that they will actually develop feelings for each other. All the same, love is messy and not everybody approves of the (fake) couple.


Secondly, we would like to introduce you to Heartstopper-author Alice Oseman’s novel Loveless (2020). Its protagonist Georgia is eighteen and still hasn’t had her first kiss. She has never been in love nor even had a crush. On anyone. But she is passionate about everything romantic: weddings, love stories and happily ever afters. Mr Right will eventually come along, won’t he? Or Ms Right? Someday… But what if he doesn’t? Georgia’s first year at university is full of events, new friends, and surprising discoveries. She is eventually introduced to aromanticism and asexuality and realises that having a significant other might not be the key to happiness after all.


The third book is Miss Meteor (2020) by Tehlor Kay Mejia and Anna-Marie McLemore. Teenage girls Lita and Chicky participate in the Miss Meteor beauty pageant. Both are unlikely candidates, and winning seems an unreachable goal. On top of that, Lita is unsure where she belongs and who she wants to be with, while Chicky struggles with her identity and a fear of coming out as pansexual. As the contest progresses, however, Chicky and Lita learn that fitting in and hiding who they are might not be what Miss Meteor is about…

Recommendations:


1. Show realistic situations that readers can relate to or become aware of

With different sexualities come certain prejudices and stereotypes. Addressing negative connotations with your writing can help to diminish them. For example, in Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating, Hani’s friends question her bisexuality. One of them asks: ‘Have you even kissed a girl?’ The misconception that people who identify as bisexual have to have romantic or sexual experiences with both boys and girls is not unusual. By including it in her book, Jaigirdar highlights how undermining such thinking is. Hani’s inner reaction is communicated through the first-person perspective, so readers see that she is hurt by the comment. This creates a chance for bisexual readers to reflect and may foster understanding in other readers.


2. Be authentic in your writing

Many queer stereotypes originate from the fact that authors lack essential knowledge of the experiences they write about. It is therefore important that your stories are authentic. This can be achieved by relaying your own experience or talking with others. Alice Oseman, for instance, ‘draw[s] on a lot of experiences’ in her novel Loveless, as she puts it in an interview with The Guardian. Like her protagonist Georgia, the author identifies as asexual and aromantic. One passage describes how Georgia takes an online quiz to figure out where she is located on the Kinsey scale, which ranges from 0 to 6 and indicates a person’s sexuality, but her result is an x. This happened to Oseman herself.


If you want to include in your books characters with sexualities that you don’t identify as, it’s a good idea to engage in conversations with people who do. After finishing your draft, we recommend that sensitivity readers look it over. Their job is to proofread manuscripts with sensitive topics (read more about that in our article on sensitivity readers). It means you can still be inclusive but avoid falling into the trap of writing about unrealistic experiences.


3. Avoid tokenism

Tokenism is the practice of including people from minorities in order to appear inclusive. An example would be books that feature one gay supporting character who lacks a personality and an elaborate storyline. To avoid tokenism in your writing, it could be a good idea to incorporate one or more queer characters and give them plenty of space in your story. Loveless does this by describing a group of friends around its protagonist, made up of people with different sexualities and gender identities. While Georgia is asexual, her friends are straight, pansexual, lesbian, gay and non-binary. They are all part of the main narrative and portrayed in multidimensional ways. Miss Meteor and Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating feature at least one queer protagonist who narrates the story from their personal point of view. The reader therefore gets deep insights into their thinking and feelings, rather than encountering them only on a superficial level.


4. Create characters who are complex and more than tropes

As the previous recommendation pointed out, it’s not enough merely to include queer characters in fiction; sexual orientations are no substitute for personalities. You risk reproducing limiting tropes. Tropes are ‘common or overused themes or devices’, as the Merriam Webster Dictionary puts it, and could also be described as clichés. One example that often appears in books and movies is the gay best friend of the protagonist who is obsessed with fashion and gossip.


Tehlor Kay Mejia counters this, for instance, when she writes Chicky’s side of the story in Miss Meteor. The protagonist identifies as pansexual, which is integral to her identity but not her only trait. Chicky sticks up for herself when she’s confronted with racist comments that target her Mexican heritage, she feels inferior to her older sisters, likes to dress as a tomboy and finds it difficult to talk about her feelings. Her personality is therefore multilayered and does not coincide with a trope.


5. Queer characters deserve Happy Endings!

Have you heard of the Bury Your Gays trope? It describes a common storyline in books, series and films that ends with the queer characters being killed off. The effect of such narratives is that its audience automatically starts to connect queer people with suffering. It’s true that members of the LGBTQ+ community often struggle with their identity or with the way the heteronormative world perceives them, but assigning representative characters predominantly tragic endings reduces them to a single storyline. Luckily, books like Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating, Loveless, and Miss Meteor counteract this by featuring positive representations. Spoiler alert: they all have happy endings – and your characters deserve the same.

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