In high school, I was a voracious reader. I devoured the books my friends lent me, and begged for bookstore trips, unable to resist setting one more book atop my massive to-be-read pile. I read a lot of books about me—a teenager who didn’t quite fit in social circles, who wanted an adventure and found it in words—but there was one part of my identity that was always missing.
I was 21 and dating my girlfriend when I first started to accept my identity as a queer person. I’d never read an LGBTQ novel. I hadn’t even heard of any novels with queer characters. If I had, I might have known about and been more willing to accept this part of myself sooner.
Diverse literature hardly seemed to exist when I was in school. If it was there, I didn’t know where to look for it. Since I graduated in 2010, I’ve seen the number of diverse books grow substantially. According to Malinda Lo, there were 108 young adult (YA) books featuring LGBTQ protagonists out of over 1,700 total YA books published by mainstream publishers in 2018.
This is great for high schoolers reading those YA books become adults in a very short time. They need material that grows with them. Yet in my own experience, as I get older, I have a harder time finding books with accurate LGBTQ representation that are meant for my age group.
Although more and more people are discovering their LGBTQ identities earlier in life, many others learn about this part of themselves in their 20s, 30s, and even 50s or later. According to Gallup, 4.5% of adults in the US identify as LGBTQ. It stands to reason we should have literature to reflect that.
When I look for LGBTQ lit aimed toward adults, I find books with a gay side character, an uncle or parent who doesn’t have a major role in the story. I find harmful tropes that have me scrolling past the title on Goodreads. I have to dig to find what I want because it doesn’t get the same attention and come in the same abundance as LBGTQ-focused books meant for younger audiences.
This past summer, I visited several bookstores in my area, from Barnes & Noble to smaller, local shops, and they had no LGBTQ lit section, or the one they had was tucked in a back corner and featured only YA or children’s books.
People don’t stop wanting to read about themselves when they grow up. As long as you love books, you want to find characters that embody your experiences, and escape to those worlds that don’t exist in your own reality.
Organizations like We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) promote diversity in literature, though their message is targeted toward younger audiences. Kids and teens desperately need diverse representation in books, and WNDB does important work by sending their message out to parents and teachers along with young readers. But what about adults? I want to read books about my experience coming out to my family when I was 26, exploring my sexuality years after many of my peers, and navigating the queer adult life. I’m tired of reading about straight cisgender romances as someone who is neither.
Adults struggle with accepting themselves and face discrimination for their sexual or gender identity, too. Many people who are still navigating their identities in adulthood would benefit from a wider selection of books they can relate to. “As an adult still trying to figure out their own identity, books about teenagers aren’t exactly what I’m looking for,” says Anna, a 31-year-old LGBTQ individual who started to understand her sexuality in her 20s.
Although Anna’s experience isn’t uncommon, that doesn’t mean there aren’t LGBTQ books for adults out there. Nate, a former coworker who identifies as transmasculine, shared with me some novels featuring LGBTQ adult characters. However, he also says, “[N]one of them have been distributed by major publishers—so I’m not sure if I would’ve been able to find them had they not been personally recommended.”
While websites like LGBTQ Reads do a fantastic job of putting together lists and resources for the community, major publishers don’t usually shout from the rooftops about LGBTQ lit that they’ve published.
Media representation has always been lacking for the LGBTQ community, and what has been present up to this point has often portrayed harmful and inaccurate stereotypes. One example is the “Bury Your Gays” trope, a symbol of homosexuality as a sin that leads to one character’s eventual death while the other realizes he wasn’t gay after all. Personally, that’s not the kind of thing that helps me accept myself.
Then there are the works with “homoerotic undertones,” as my English professors pointed out. Think Dracula and The Magic Mountain—in the latter, the main character goes on for several pages with the most erotic description of borrowing a pencil I’ve ever read. That said, these types of stories don’t explicitly state that the characters are anything but straight. It’s not really representation if it’s hidden so far within the story that you need an English degree to find it.
We need more novels that show our identities as unashamedly as they deserve to be shown. We need more characters like Alex Claremont-Diaz in Casey McQuiston’s recent romcom Red, White & Royal Blue. Alex is the 22-year-old First Son of the United States who learns he’s bisexual only once he realizes he’s falling for Prince Henry of Wales. His experience mirrors mine almost exactly (minus the dating a member of the royal family thing). Alex spent years telling himself he was straight and believing it despite many experiences that said otherwise. That was me, too. I spent high school and much of college telling myself that I was straight, but I was just really picky with boys.
For me, RWRB affirmed my identity. Alex wasn’t a teenager—he was on the verge of beginning a life and career beyond school. Casey McQuiston’s novel is part of an emerging New Adult genre, which features characters in their early to mid-twenties, an age group often neglected in fiction. To have a story that not only represents my age group but the LGBTQ community is a rarity and a win.
In GLAAD’s annual LGBTQ inclusion report, the organization found that in 2017, only 11 out of 109 films released by major studios included LGBTQ characters. That’s only 12% of films, and most of these characters (64%) were gay men, only representing a portion of the LGBTQ community.
By not promoting LGBTQ novels featuring adult main characters, we’re excluding an entire demographic that needs these stories. Diversity is relevant to all ages and backgrounds.
We exist—as a group and as individuals. LGBTQ adults make up at least 4.5% of the US population. Our experiences are just as valid as any other groups. It’s not just for people figuring themselves out. Even if we’re comfortable with our identities, we still want to see ourselves represented.
Opinion: Interesting topic with engaging and valid points to support it. Most of what I cut was information I found to be repetitive.
Sarah Wood is a freelance content marketing writer with her BA in English Writing. She writes about LGBTQ topics, mental health, dogs, and Japanese language and culture. She contributes to the Ikigai Connections blog, a Japanese career website, and she is a ghostwriter for many other sites. Sarah will pet any dog, and she lives with her partner and pup.