Dear Publishers: I Want to Read Stories With LGBTQ, “Colored,” and Minority Characters

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If you’ve been living under a rock today, then you might have missed this disturbing news from Publishers Weekly (the Genreville blog):

The agent offered to sign us on the condition that we make the gay character straight, or else remove his viewpoint and all references to his sexual orientation. 

Rachel replied, “Making a gay character straight is a line in the sand which I will not cross. That is a moral issue. I work with teenagers, and some of them are gay. They never get to read fantasy novels where people like them are the heroes, and that’s not right.” 

The agent suggested that perhaps, if the book was very popular and sequels were demanded, Yuki could be revealed to be gay in later books, when readers were already invested in the series.   

We knew this was a pie-in-the-sky offer—who knew if there would even be sequels?—and didn’t solve the moral issue. When you refuse to allow major characters in YA novels to be gay, you are telling gay teenagers that they are so utterly horrible that people like them can’t even be allowed to exist in fiction.

There’s much more at the link, but that little bit is the core of the problem (and not the only incidence where an agent or editor told someone to change a character from gay to straight, etc.).

But Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith didn’t set out to make agents look bad.  Rather,
they wrote that post in order to get us to speak up.  And that’s precisely what I’m going to do here.

I’m a reader, reviewer, writer, and academic.  All four of these deserve little sections of their own:

As an Academic:
I’m a postcolonial theorist, which means that much of what I am interested in academically are issues of representation.  In particular, I am focused on minority groups in the West, such as Caribbean peoples, Native Americans, and other peoples of color.  But I’m also generally fascinated by stories which look at issues of identity.  While such stories can be told without LGBTQ or other minorities, having such characters presents new perspectives — especially ones which have been marginalized by western civilization for one reason or another.  And if we need anything in academia, it’s more diversity — especially via YA books.

As a Writer:
Some of my fiction features women, gay, non-white, and other non-standard (straight white male) characters.  I enjoy writing these characters, in part because it’s different from writing people I identify with.  But Ms. Brown and Ms. Smith have pointed out that there are barriers for writers who want to present these characters in their fiction.  Those barriers need to go away.  If OSC can publish a rip-off of Shakespeare with heavy doses of homophobic drivel, then it seems only fitting that others can publish stories that fairly represent gay people, etc., even in the YA section.

As a Reviewer:
I don’t receive enough books with non-white, non-male characters as protagonists.  This surprises me because I read science fiction and fantasy, the community for which, at least until recently, seemed quite open to the idea of including new perspectives into the mix.  Outside of the various small, specialty presses, I have received few books which have a gay person, African American, non-American, woman, etc. as a protagonist.  I want to see those books at the big presses too.  You know why?  Because a lot of people who live in this country are gay, lesbian, African American, women, Native American, and so on and so forth.  And as much as I like reading about people who are like me (white, male, and straight), I also really enjoy reading about people who are not like me.

As a Reader:
Everything I could write here has already been said elsewhere.  I like reading about straight white males just fine, but I want new perspectives too.  And I want to read about people who are like my mom (lesbian and white) or like people I’ve yet to meet.  More importantly, when I was a kid, I didn’t spend a lot of time with people outside of my standard demographic (straight and white).  Why?  Because there weren’t a lot of non-straight or non-white people around, and I was an idiot anti-gay child who might have benefited from YA books about people who aren’t like me.  Diversity is good for us.  It really is.

But now I’m an adult and I love reading these kinds of stories.  What kinds of stuff have I read and enjoyed?  Wicked Gentlemen by Ginn Hale, One For Sorrow by Christopher Barzak, Carnival by Elizabeth BearParable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, Zoo City by Lauren Beukes, and many many others, from small and large presses (granted, most aren’t YA).  And I want more.  Lots more.  I want publishers sending them to me knowing I’m part of the target audience (i.e., folks who like reading about LGBTQ, “colored,” and minority characters).  But they also should know that I’m not part of such a small group after all.  More of us should be speaking up!

For those interested in stories that are already out there, Ms. Brown and Ms. Sherwood provided a few fantastic lists of books which feature minority characters:

So — Dear publishers:  give me these stories.  I want them!

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Florida studying science fiction, postcolonialism, posthumanism, and fantasy.

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