Tuesday 22 February 2022

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They're Here, They're Queer, & They're Unequivocally Valid

A purple blog graphic with the words They're Here, They're Queer, & They're Unequivocally Valid in black, surrounded by illustrations of open and closed books in various shades of purple.

They're Here, They're Queer, & They're Unequivocally Valid

As regular readers will know, I'm passionate about queer YA. There are a few things I've seen online recently surrounding problematic attitudes to queer books and authors, and a few other things I've been thinking about myself. There's discourse that needs commenting on, and areas where I've found I'm somewhat at fault myself.

Authors Don't Owe Us Their Queer Identities

Very recently, unagented author Elizabeth Holden tweeted about a rejection from an agent for her f/f YA derby YA. The reason for the rejection? Because the agent had discovered she's married to a man. This agent acknowledged the possibility that the author may be bi, but as a buisness decision, it just wouldn't work. At it's best, this is completely ridiculous; can only authors in relationships - specifically in relationships that match the relationship they're writing about - write romance? Do authors not get to write romance if they're single? Idiotic. At it's worst, it's biphobia. It implies that when a bi person is in a m/f relationship, they are in a straight relationship. Wrong. A bi person is never in a straight relationship, even when they're in a m/f relationship, because they are not straight. Their relationship is queer because they are.

This attitude also leads to the idea that queer books can only be written by queer authors, and the pressure of forcing authors out of the closet. It's obviously brilliant to know that certain queer books are written by openly queer authors, to know that the rep is accurate and authentic. And it's perfectly fine for readers to only want to read queer books by authors they know are queer. But it's not ok to imply that only queer authors should write queer rep. We all know of the various reasons it may be unsafe for someone to be out publicly - those reasons don't disappear just because you're an author. On top of that, is it really any of our business? No. I'll say that again, no. The fact an author has written a queer books doesn't give readers the right to demand answers around their sexual orientation or gender. You want to make sure you're reading accurate, authentic rep? You can choose to stick to just the authors who are openly queer. But you don't get to force authors to disclose information about themselves that they would prefer to keep private, for whatever reason.

YA Described as Queer, or That Has No Label

Author of queer SFF Tasha Suri had very similar things to say on Twitter as I've mentioned above. But her very first tweet, about how she identifies as queer because the details of her sexuality are none of our business, reminded me of where I have not been great recently - though regarding fictional characters as opposed to real people. Even so, it's not great.

As you may know, I am a Children's Bookseller, and last summer, I put in a permanent LGBTQ+ YA section. When considering why certain books from our Pride display didn't do quite as well, I thought it could possibly be down to those books not stating in the blurb what the rep was. Because they weren't romances or coming out stories, the queer rep was incidental to the plot of the story, so didn't need to be mentioned. But if we want queer teens to find the rep they're looking for, they have to know about it. This was one of the reasons I put in my LGBTQ+ YA section, and shelve the books by identity.

But when I'm doing research to improve the range, I have become increasingly frustrated with books that are simply labelled "queer" or "LGBTQ+," and mention that it's m/m or sapphic / f/f. I would spend ages going from site to site, scouring multiple reviews to try and find something more specific about the rep. Because, depending on the rep, a book featuring an m/m or sapphic relationship could go in one of three sections; the Gay/Lesbian, Bisexual, or Pansexual sections. I have no issue with people identifying as queer whatsoever, but as "queer" is an umbrella term that holds so many different identities, we can't have a section for characters who identify as queer; it's not specific enough when one of the purposes of the LGBTQ+ YA section is for teens to find the specific rep they're looking for.

As I said, I'd get really frustrated, wishing publishers would be clearer, or authors would state the specific rep on their website, or something. I've been educated about this now, which I'll get into below, so I no longer get frustrated. But it's shown me that our LGBTQ+ YA section isn't perfect. It's not as accurate as it could be, because I don't have all the information, and I simply can't read every single book. After discussing it with the rest of the Children's Dept., and various queer members of staff, when I can't find anything more than that a book is m/m or sapphic, they go in the Gay or Lesbian sections - because those sections feature those specific relationships, where as Bisexual and Pansexual feature a broader range of relationships. We felt we'd be more forgiven for putting a bi or pan book in the Gay or Lesbian sections more than we would if we put a gay or lesbian book in the Bisexual or Pansexual sections. And we're open to being corrected by anyone who knows something is incorrectly shelved, and will shelve it in the correct section and update our spreadsheet. As I said, it's imperfect, but at least readers will have some idea of the relationships they're to expect.

Insisting Certain Labels/Identities are On-Page

Now to the educating. YA author of She Drives Me Crazy, Kelly Quindlen tweeted about how readers have been aggressively criticising her for not using the word "lesbian" in her book. It took reading her thread - especially when she said, "The point is I'm sapphic. I like women. My characters are sapphic too. They don't have to use YOUR preferred term for their identity to be valid. And neither do I." - to realise that, although I wasn't doing it publicly, I was doing something very similar when I struggled to find specifics about rep. I was further educated by Theresa of Sappho's Library when she tweeted about why someone might not use the word lesbian specifically.

Choosing what words or labels to use to describe your sexual orientation is fraught. I know this. I know that for some, it's not quite so simple as ticking a box and saying "That's me." Sexual orientation and gender are so complex and there are layers. Especially if you tick multiple boxes, or only partly some and partly others. I know this. It was ridiculous of me to then expect that characters in book should be neatly ticking a single book so I can put the books on specific shelves. Even with books that state specific identities, there's still overlap that mean the book could go on multiple shelves. It astounds me that I was able to forget all that for fictional characters, when I know how complicated it can be, and get frustrated. It was foolish of me, and I'm pretty embarrassed about it. But I'm more educated now than I was, and I'm trying to do better.

Queer Books Don't Need Romance to Be Queer

In Courtney Summers' recent newsletter, she mentions that her book Sadie was left out of Pride round-ups, she was told, because there was no romance in it.

This really wound me up. A queer person isn't defined solely by their queer identity, or - excuse me for repeating myself - who they are in a relationship with. Queer people are people outside of their identity. They do not only experience romance or coming out. Their lives are as full as anyone else's. We do not require books about cishet characters to only be romances, so why would we do the same for queer books? A book is still queer if it features a queer person in a thriller, or an high fantasy, or a sci-fi, or an otherwise contemporary novel. To suggest that a book can only be included on queer lists if it features romance is to suggest that a person's queerness and their personhood are only valid when in a relationship - and again, depending on what kind of relationship they're in. That any other aspect of their life is unimportant. They Are Queer, and that is all they will ever be. Or, at least, that's the only way we'll see them. Queer readers - especially teens - deserve to see themselves doing other things in fiction; living their lives, having adventures, fighting an enemy, saving the world, hurtling through space, ad infinitum. Not only do they deserve these stories, they should be able to discover them on queer lists, because those stories are queer.

Furthermore, the idea that a book that doesn't feature romance isn't queer is inherently ace- and arophobic. It erases and excludes aromantic and asexual people and their experiences. It implies they are not queer, or not the right kind of queer. It implies ace/aro people are not valid. It implies romantic relationships are the only relationships that matter, and in doing so, implies that there is something wrong with the aro/ace people who do not want or have not had a romantic relationship. It's just disgusting.


It doesn't matter what kind of relationship authors, characters, or readers are in, how they choose to identify, or if they do so publicly or not; they're here, they're queer, and they're all unequivocally valid.

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