Toxic Romance: LGBTQ Representation

There are a lot of things about humans/life in general that I find confusing, but one of the things that confuses me most is the belief that LGBTQ persons are somehow…new? I’m not going to even delve into the depths of science or religion, but let’s just say since the beginning of humans themselves, LGBTQ people have existed and call it a damn day. 

According to the New York Public Library, the concept of modern romance novels as we know them have been kicking it since around the 18th or 19th century. Stories with LGBTQ themes have been around since the origins of Greek mythology, but in the year 2020 it is still hard to consider LGBTQ literature as truly part of the mainstream. Gay marriage was legalized in all 50 United States by a Supreme Court ruling in 2015. In that same year, the big five (Penguin Random, Hachette, Simon and Schuster, MacMillan, HarperCollins) released a cumulative 54 Young Adult LGBTQ novels. Compare that to a decade earlier where that number was closer to 10. Although it is difficult to establish exactly how many novels were published in any given year, it is safe to assume that LGBTQ stories were a very small percentage of them. 

For the LGBTQ centered books that do happen make it into bookstores, they can sometimes create a sort of dilemma for booksellers. As bookseller Ben Brock told Publisher’s Weekly in 2017, “if you put [a book] in its own section then the straight people aren’t going to read it…we need straight people to read these stories in order for this genre to thrive. But at the same time, [LGBTQ readers and books] also need a home.” The solution for Brock seems to be ordering more than one copy and shelving in multiple places. This seems to be a good meet in the middle solution, but the more LGBTQ stories that are published, the more it will become apparent that every bookstore should have a space dedicated exclusively to these books. 

Beyond bookstores, the place people have turned to to find LGBTQ stories more than any other is the internet. Good old, archiveofourown, and various fandom specific sites are chock full of fan written stories about virtually any character you can think of. Fun fact: fanfiction traces its origins to the 1960s, when fans were so zealous about Kirk and Spock of Star Trek fame, that they simply had to write their own, original stories about the pair. That’s right folks, it’s as we always suspected: fanfiction is inherently gay. In May 2019 tumblr user destinationtoast broke it all down for us and found that a whopping 49.7% of stories posted to Archive Of Our Own feature male/male pairings, while female/female pairings take up 8.3% (though the female/female pairings are on the rise compared to years past). Although culturally fanfiction is notorious for being written by writers whose talents may lay elsewhere (please remember with me for the millionth time that 50 Shades of Grey was originally Twilight fanfiction), there are always some diamonds in the rough. If you aren’t finding what you seek in published works, try out some fanfiction. 

One more point: even within the world of LGBTQ romance novels, there remains the need for more diverse representation. There are just so many people who might fall into the umbrella of LGBTQ+ but still aren’t seeing themselves represented: people of color, disabled persons, asexuals, just to name a few. Of course it isn’t bad to have stories about cis white gay men published, they just cannot and should not be the only ones readily available. 

It seems as time goes on that the rhetoric of ‘representation matters’ proves itself to be true over and over again. Like many people in the publishing industry, I have been a bookworm my entire life, but particularly when I was young. I learned all about history and cultures different to mine, in ways that really felt accessible; it’s interesting to think about what I might have learned if one of those books had featured a character that also happened to be gay. From poking around the industry, my conclusion is that things are getting better—albeit very, very slowly. 

While I have you here, a few LGBTQ romance recs: 

  • Him by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy
  • Red, White, & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
  • If I was Your Girl by Meredith Russo 
  • Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann
  • Love and Other Hot Beverages by Laurie Loft

Happy reading!