How Publishing Is Failing LGBT Kids of Color
I solemnly swear to make the world less hellish for gay and bisexual black boys. Boys too sensitive to meet a masculinity standard thrust on them by their own communities. Boys trapped in high schools where their version of puberty is glossed over, crossed out, or rejected by their teachers and peers.
I write for teenagers, and though I strongly believe gay people need voices in literature far sooner than high school, I don’t feel comfortable approaching a gay story from an angle as sensitive as a younger child would require.
My novel, Jake in the Box, is about an LGBT-identified teen who faces racism and homophobia. He never fully comes to grips with his place in the world.
Gay representation is an ongoing discussion in the YA industry, often framed around a need for triumphant stories — ones where gay teens kiss, fall in love and live happily ever after. Behind this is the idea that there is too much tragedy in gay representation, and “we need to show these kids that it’s okay to be who they are.” I support that. As a teen, I consumed the gay white coming out story, retreating into Utopian fairy tales that only vaguely reflected my life. I loved these stories for that reason — they were worlds I could escape to, where gay boys found self-acceptance despite a world that wished they wouldn’t.
When I finally found the courage to write the book of my heart, I wrote a black, bisexual MC whose journey doesn’t end in total self-acceptance. Jake doesn’t require some great catharsis of sexual insecurity at the end of his narrative. He must grow, but he won’t be the man by senior year that he will be beyond the final page, as he enters adulthood without us watching.
That sort of realism, the “it will get better, but it won’t be perfect right now” is what I, at age 16, needed, and what I found lacking in popular LGBT books.
But even more important than the comfort of my character is the comfort of the gay black boy who will read my book and know he’s valid enough to lead his own narrative. It’s enough, to me, that this boy who likes boys is the main character. The world wants to write us out, and that’s why I write these characters — these stories — in. Not to sanitize what it’s like to be a kid facing prejudice, but to give a kid something real to relate to — something as ugly as his waking life. While LGBT people may have shared experiences, no two gay people have the same one. This is especially true when comparing general experiences of white gay people and those of gay people of color. Racial identity cannot be isolated from sexual identity.
How many young adult books can you name that feature black, gay protagonists? If the answer is none, it’s not because you haven’t been looking. It’s because they don’t exist.
Diverse representation in general is an ongoing discussion in the literary world — especially YA. There aren’t enough books led by marginalized characters — PoC and LGBT. But the ones we do have are almost exclusively led by characters who identify as either gay or a PoC. In the young adult market, intersectional folks exist in the margins — best friends, side characters, dead characters or those bound for death.
It’s one thing to see a lack of stories representing you. It’s another to see absolutely none. As a teen, I was forced to compartmentalize my identities and piece together a relatable illusion of someone like me based on characters who weren’t all the way me. Only certain pieces of myself had a right to be heroic, had a right to be represented as full people.
This is why publishing failed me. Publishing told me that I am not a hero. Publishing is still, in 2017, telling me that I am not a hero. The message is as obtrusive as a blimp banner to me, and as subtle as a humidifier hum to those who have thousands of books about characters who share their identities coming out every year.
This is not an issue of bad representation. It’s an issue of no representation.
This doesn’t mean being ignored is better than being harmed by stereotypical portrayals. But not being present in narratives leads one to wonder if their existence on this planet affects anything at all. If I died today, who’d remember my name? Who’d keep my flame? Who’d tell my story? Who’d give someone like me permission to tell theirs?
As a quiet, bookish teenager I escaped through fantasy, science fiction and horror, genres which not only lacked gay black boys, but black people in general (except the ones who died). Even when a fraction of me was represented, that fraction was still disposable. Where there were stories about blacks in the market, they were often contemporary ones, overly politicized (in marketing especially), where race and/or lower class struggles took center stage. Don’t even get me started on the school English curriculum, where the only story I can recall reading about black people was Beloved — the one about slaves. We’re herded into a market, which apparently has no room for gays.
It’s not too much for a gay black boy to ask for a single story he can relate to. It’s not too much for him to ask for a hundred, because a hundred would only make a dent in what white people, even white gays, already have.
So why don’t we have them? It’s not that the traumas, fears, and triumphs of the black, gay experience don’t make for a compelling narrative. It’s that no one values the black, gay American enough to read about him. And until we have stories about him, people will continue not to value him.
Enchanted as I was by my Harry Potters, Percy Jacksons and Darren Shans, they were all straight and white. I wrote my first three books internalizing the idea that in order for my SFF projects to be successful, they had to be about straight, white people with sidekicks who were gay or a PoC (never both). Marginalizing marginalized people is celebrated as a feat for diversity, while centering them is frowned upon, because that’s when the stories become too “niche.” This brazenly reinforces the notion that marginalized people deserve to be marginalized, both in society and in stories.
It wasn’t until I gave myself permission to accept my blackness and gayness that I decided to write the story I needed as a kid. And in doing so, I had to kick the industry out of my thoughts. I had to say “fuck you” to the publishing industry in order to write a story about my experience. I write today so that other gay, black writers don’t have to go through the same thing. So a gay, black boy can be a hero in his own right without sacrificing any part of himself to deserve it.