Now that my debut middle grade novel, George, has been released into the world (fly, baby, fly!!) I’ve been witnessing and engaging in conversations about “who this book is for”. In other words, “is this age-appropriate?”
Now let me be clear. There is no age at which it is inappropriate to appreciate people for who they are. And there is no age before we know ourselves. We may not have fully formed those notions, but each of us is the only person we know inside and out, and each of our challenges includes finding, respecting, and celebrating that self.
I am excited and delighted by the wave of queer literature that is finally appearing in YA: happy stories, sad stories, complicated stories, people who are fine with their queerness, people for whom their queerness plays little role in the troubles in their lives. There’s even a supertastic blog (Hi gayya.org!) and other growing resources for teens. I’m also grateful for the growing collection of picture books that let kids explore many ways of being.
In between lies middle grade. Not middle school, which is practically YA territory, but middle grade, which typically spans fourth through sixth grade. 9 through 12 year olds. A key age in learning about the separation between self and other. Where do my parents’ values end and mine begin? How am I like my friends, and how can I bear to be different from them? What am I doing because I like it and what am I doing because people have always expected me to?
And right in that pocket of intellectual development, the field of literature is nearly barren. Sure, you can counter with “what about X book”, and why yes, I am so happy it exists! And I remind you that one book, or even three or four, aren’t enough. We need more.
So not only is LGBTQIA literature appropriate at any age. It is, in fact, critical for people of all ages to see a range of potentials to help them steer themselves in their own direction. Babies of queer parents should get to see families like theirs in board books. Sparkleboy toddlers deserve picture books about kids like them. And nonbinary elementary school students seeing themselves in middle grade novels would know acceptance much earlier than so many of us reading this did.
You do not have a choice in who children are, yours or anyone else’s. But the adults in a child’s life have a big choice in whether to provide tools to support kids in exploring and naming who they are, or whether to hide their road from them, and make it so much harder for them to clear the paths later.
Alex Gino loves glitter, ice cream, gardening, awe-ful puns, and stories that reflect the diversity and complexity of being alive. Alex’s debut, George, a middle grade novel about a transgender girl, was published by Scholastic Press in August 2015. You can find them on twitter as @lxgino.
by Sarah Benwell
When I was a kid, I wanted to become a knight. To take on chivalry and honour and a bravery that was bigger than I’d ever felt in real life. I wanted to protect, defend, pick up a sword and fight for something good. I wanted to be Lancelot or Gawain or a knight of Gondor or Cair Paravel. And sometimes talking and writing about diversity feels a little bit like picking up that mantle.
I’ve talked a lot lately – in schools and cons and AGMs and right across the internet – about how crucial representation is.
How perhaps, if I’d seen genderfluid narratives when I was young, I would not have felt so very, very out of place. How I might have had a concrete answer to the many-times-asked, ‘Eurgh, what is it? A boy or a girl?’ How representation might have offered weapons to fight back with, or protective armour at the least: the knowledge that there are people like me, that there are words that describe and explain me, stories where we make it through.
I’ve talked a lot about how that narrative needs to extend right out of books and demonstrate that we are real. We’re not some made up, faddy thing. Not a horror story or a tragedy. That we’re people, and we’re right here in front of you, whole and fallible and fighting.
It’s all true.
How can anyone feel good, normal, okay, wanted, valued, if they cannot find themselves? With no role models to look up to, and no language to explain themselves? No stories. When society either confronts them or denies that they exist (and sometimes does both in one breath)?
You can’t. We need representation.
Having lived in the uncomfortable space where I do not belong, I’ll fight for something better. I’ll fight for everyone who does not have a voice. Who’s silenced by their situation, or still figuring things out. You have my sword, always and forever.
Things like #TransAwarenessWeek, diversity panels, #ownvoices, the accessible megaphone of social media, and a general increase in awareness and/or willingness to learn are all such important parts of this. They offer us the space to share, to educate, to find support and recognition as and when it’s needed.
But there are things that no one tells you when you pledge allegiance. With increased visibility, increased space and opportunity to talk, come certain expectations.
This week, #TransAwarenessWeek, I’m writing 4 blog posts on diversity, speaking to school librarians, working on a story with a genderfluid character.
I’ll run a lesson where we talk about why representing people fairly matters; we’ll talk labels, and I’ll let the room see all of mine – every label society pins on me.
Next week, I’m teaching a weekend course on diverse narratives and writing.
I love every single one of these things, and I’m grateful for the opportunities. They’re exciting and important and I wouldn’t change them for the world.
Sometimes I wish I could just talk about something else. That I could discuss which books I’ve read until they have fallen apart, or argue fantasy VS contemp, or tell you about my jar of readers’ tears or why pirates are the actual coolest, and post-it-notes are the greatest invention of all time.
Sometimes I wish I could go for a day and not weigh up how much to share, whether it’s safe or not.
Sometimes I wish that social media felt safer. That I didn’t have to walk the line between being heard and being far too loud. That I didn’t have to invite the trolls and questions into my life in order to have important conversations.
Sometimes I wish that I had role models. That I wasn’t trying to be one. That we didn’t have to pave the way.
This week, as well as all the awesome things, I feel super dysphoric – totally disgusted by body, uncomfortable in my own skin. This week my name and pronouns do not fit. The entire concept of me feels wrong.
This week, I’ve only had my gender questioned in the street once, but it’s once too many, and right now, I don’t have an answer to ‘what is it?’ that doesn’t make me want to cry.
This week I’ve tried to answer thoughtful, well meaning questions like, ‘How does your work contribute to trans/ nonbinary representation?’ and, ‘Why haven’t you written about people like you?’ (I’m working on it, actually, but questioning why it took me so long was uncomfortable, and the expectation that I should? Not fair.)
This week, I feel small and scared and utterly incapable of picking up a sword and being a defender.
I don’t know how to do it. I don’t know the answers. I’m not sure that I want to.
And that needs to be okay. Behind each knightly voice there is a person, and we can’t expect people to always want (or be able) to share. We should not expect them to write their life stories any more than we should demand dragons or romance or happy-ever-afters. We have no right to treat identity as a commodity.
And yet we do. The thing about having a voice is that when opportunities knock, you’re expected to use it.
You’re actually expected to talk. To be a voice for everyone who can’t. To be that role model you never had and let the world know it’s okay. To answer questions and boost signals whenever they appear.
You’re expected to know stuff – to be clued in on news and research and the latest books and characters and storylines.
You’re expected to write characters like you. To get it right. To carve that space out for yourself and others.
With knighthood, there are expectations – you answer the call of your king. And when it’s asked of you, you stand and fight. You asked for this. You pledged allegiance. It’s what you believe in. Pick up your sword, and do what’s right.
And I’m happy to. I’m really, truly glad I can.
Sarah Benwell is a perpetual student of the world, a writer and adventurer, who holds degrees in international education and writing for young people, and believes in the power of both to change the world.
Sarah’s debut young adult novel, The Last Leaves Falling, is published by Random House (UK) and Simon and Schuster (US).
by John Jacobson
Writing about yourself is hard. Writing about something, or someone, that you understand is hard. Writing about something or someone that is oppressed, stereotyped, and dehumanized by society is hard – especially when you don’t understand that struggle on a personal level.
Trans narratives are vital to the young adult book community. Trans teenagers often seek resources that can be found online, in libraries, and through other relatively quiet methods. Our voices as people outside of the gender binary are quiet when we’re young because we’re often met with varying degrees of unsafe environments. The dramatic amount of trans women, mostly of color, murdered this year alone proves how important these resources are to us.
Many writers want to help. Teenage narratives are rife with opportunities to explore what makes us human; they are narratives encapsulated with veiled simplifications of universal struggles, wrapped up in a few hundred pages and through a few important characters. Many writers in turn have continued to branch out in the characters they write, trans and other non-binary characters included, in order to make a sense of the growing world we are collectively aware of.
The question has become: can someone who doesn’t know us write about us? And, more importantly, if someone can, how do they do it well?
It’s a question that I think many of us still don’t know the answer to, at least when it comes to nuance, or circumstance. We obviously don’t live by a particular code of conduct as writers, or even as readers or editors, when it comes to addressing our direct experiences. Books involve imagination and they involve looking at the lives of people we never would have known before. Whether that involves the writing or the reading process, you’re bound to want to explore past the boundaries that you know.
What I struggle with as a non-binary writer and reader is how I want it to be addressed. I don’t want writers to avoid writing characters like me – because obviously I almost never see myself in fiction. I want to be able to read books and feel like a facet of my identity is represented.
Then again, sometimes I read about myself and the research/characterization/awareness of what it means to be non-binary is such shit that I almost wish it had never been written at all.
I want there to be more of an emphasis on research and vetting. If you’re an author that is writing about a trans or nonbinary character, you need to be aware that whatever you’re constructing about them may not be accurate. You as the writer have the power to construct a story – this is true – but that’s no guarantee that the story you’re telling is one of a trans or nonbinary person, regardless of how you label them. Stories need to be researched whether they’re fictional or not. There needs to be a sense while reading and writing that, yes, someone has been consulted and varying life narratives have been considered. This was more than just a single thesis paper or a few articles from the internet – this was work.
Too often, trans and non-binary people are not given the humanity to be considered important. This is one way to change that. If you want to write a story about us, about someone in our community of identity that is rich and complex and individualized, then you need to give us agency and humanity in the process of writing.
The character cannot merely be a puppet – they need to feel human, and they need to read as humanized to the people that identify with the character the most. It’s very easy for you to think a character is three-dimensional if all you have to go on is a set of stereotypes; it’s much more difficult when you live that experience, and understand exactly how hard it really is.
It’s difficult. It’s not something the writing and reading community can agree on readily. But I think, for the sake of trans liberation and for the sake of better books and writers, we need to campaign for a better understanding of how to write the trans and non-binary communities. We need to have higher standards. That doesn’t mean barring anyone from telling our stories, but that means having our stories told based on our realities, our pain, and our individual truths. To do that, trans people need to be more than labels for characters or plot devices – we need to be present in the process, and we need to be considered more so than the cisgender audience that will most likely be consuming our stories as well.
John is an aspiring writer of queer fiction. When they’re not hammering out undergrad papers at Ithaca College, John is co-editing for Spencer Hill Press, freelancing for Heroes and Heartbreakers, and reading gloriously sexy books about empowered people finding love (and other things, too). They’re also obsessed with coffee and gender/sexuality studies (read: nerd alert). You can find them on Twitter @dreamingreviews saying opinions about things and discussing their dating woes.
by Everett Maroon
In the November 8, 2015 issue of The New York Times‘ Book Review, Malindo Lo opened a review of two novels with a note about diversity in contemporary YA fiction. It was an eloquent, simple summation regarding the ongoing conversations about representation: “[The] call for diversity has been accompanied by uncomfortable yet necessary debates about what constitutes quality representation, and few people agree on that.”
I’d like to focus on one very important word in her opening. Quality. Quality representation. Because while including transgender and gender nonconforming characters is an important shift in contemporary young adult fiction, I believe it also matters how such representation is handled, what messages accompany that representation, and what readers see through the course of character development, plot development, description, and subtext, and priorities in the narrative.
Put simply, representation matters. As Casey Plett wrote for The Walrus earlier this year, after looking at four novels that had trans or intersex protagonists:
This might make for inspiring reading, but it’s odd to spend a few hundred pages with someone who goes through hell and emerges with all the flaws of a Disney hero. The reader scarcely knows anything about the characters’ inner lives.
Representation, or the mere inclusion of trans or gender nonconforming characters isn’t enough. It’s not even a good start, really, because how we write about trans people matters. It matters to the story, it matters to the reader, and it matters to our cultural consciousness. Books aren’t inanimate objects in the same way a chair is—the appeal of a book is the attachment a reader makes with the story as its told, and afterward. Good stories become our ghosts, following us around, sticking in our minds and leading us to new stories, yes, but new understandings. If the takeaway about a trans character becomes “being trans is awful,” then the representation is problematic, untrue, reductive, and uninteresting. (Also, haven’t we moved past The Well of Loneliness in the last hundred years?)
Ultimately, trans people are people. Inasmuch as anyone is “fighting the power,” trans people come up against powerful institutions and personalities. But where is the story, the hook, the situation about which readers will want to know more? What makes a trans character interesting is not any of the following:
* Their surgical status
* Their body parts
* Their alliance to gender stereotypes (e.g., “I’m strong because I’m really a man inside”)
* The split between their bodies and their identities
* Their fear of transitioning or coming out
* Their relatives and/or their relatives’ responses to their gender identity
What makes a trans character interesting is what makes any character interesting. It’s the same thing as what makes them real. If we look at characters that have stuck around our collective consciousness for a while—Jane Eyre, Ishmael, Scout Finch, Sethe, Holden Caulfield—we see characters that illuminated the stories around them in a believable way. We may not have liked them as people (Caulfield is a notable jerk!), but we could understand them and we could get a sense of them. We knew them directly, and we knew people (often ourselves) who had something in common with them. If a trans character is set up throughout a novel as some kind of troubled, benevolent, brave person (always with the brave! trans people as brave people is now a trope to avoid), it pushes readers away.
Humans are complex, nuanced, contradictory. We are amalgams of interesting things—experiences and moments being some of those things—but if we are boiled down to one major aspect of our lives, we lose our interestingness. It’s not enough for a writer (especially a cis writer, but anyone is capable of the following) to include a trans character or protagonist in their story, if the character’s entire arc is about their transition. Transition could be a plot point, maybe, but it has to be handled with honesty and not platitudes. Trans people are not just sweet white children trapped in the wrong body, so representation needs to move past this mythic paradigm.
In fact, let’s throw the whole “trapped in the wrong body” thing out the window. Well first, open the window. Now pick up the trapped in the wrong body idea—I’ll wait, I know it’s heavy and whimpering—and there you go. Look, it grew wings and flew away. Writers of today and the future, I beg you: NEVER write a character with that concept as your subtext, or foundation, or starting point, whatever. Want to know the truth? It was a throwaway comment in an early interview with Christine Jorgensen in the 1960s, because the interviewer could not get his mind wrapped around the idea of a transsexual. But like I said, some ideas (okay, I said characters) are like ghosts, and that ridiculousness has haunted us in something like total desperation for more than forty years.
So if I would rather authors not write tropes, stereotypes, misinformed concepts, or boringness into their trans characters, what am I looking for in the future of trans representation?
I love this question because I love answering it.
I’m looking for the life after transition, the other aspirations these characters have, the friends who shape their lives, even the nonsense we all deal with—crappy teachers, hating algebra, escaping from one’s parents for an afternoon, sneaking into an extra movie at the cinema, getting one’s heart broken by that asshole who seemed so great before one went to second base with them. Trans people are not figureheads, tragic heroes, as untouchable as saints, they’re people. We make mistakes and we cry when we break our favorite coffee mug, and we stay up late at night reading terrific books and damn it we want to see ourselves in some of those books. Ourselves, not some person’s simplistic imagining of who we are. Ten pages in we can all tell if we’re getting the real thing or a thin veneer. Representation itself is not enough—character work and storytelling are the actual beginning of writing trans-themed fiction that matters.
Everett Maroon is a memoirist, humorist, pop culture commentator, and fiction writer. He is a member of the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association and was a finalist in their 2010 literary contest for memoir. Everett is the author of a memoir, Bumbling into Body Hair, and a young adult novel, The Unintentional Time Traveler, both published by Booktrope Editions. He has an essay, “In a Small Town, Nothing Goes Wrong, in the anthology _Untangling the Knot: Queer Voices on Marriage, Relationships & Identity,_ from Ooligan Press, and a short story, “Cursed,” in the anthology The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard, from Topside Press. He has written for Bitch Magazine, GayYA.org, Amwriting.org, RH RealityCheck, and Remedy Quarterly. He has had short stories published here and there. Everett’s blog is transplantportation.com.
by Cheryl Morgan
There are many things about the lives of trans kids today that leave me a bit misty-eyed. When I was at school hormone blockers were unheard of, and coming out as trans was liable to land you in an asylum getting electroshock treatment. YA wasn’t even a thing back then, so there was no point in asking for diverse characters.
We did have books, though. Paper had been invented. Reading was pretty heavily gendered. I don’t think I could have got away with reading books like Little Women or Anne of Green Gables. I was grateful for the girls in Swallows and Amazons, who seemed rather more like my sort of people anyway. I clung to Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings, but if I wanted stories with girls in that I could read I had to look to comics.
Back in those days British kids TV was all about Gerry Anderson’s puppet shows, and there was a tie-in comic that I read avidly. There was Doctor Who as well, of course, but the girl companions were a bit screamy in the early days. On the other hand, characters like Venus in Fireball XL5, Atlanta Shore in Stingray, and of course the inimitable Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward in Thunderbirds, showed that women could and did take part in thrilling adventures. I suspect that I have Sylvia Anderson to thank for much of this.
The other place I could find female characters with whom to identify was in American comics. Amazingly I was allowed to buy Supergirl comics, even though the main character was a girl. Batgirl was even on television occasionally, and I retain a fondness for Babs even now. But at heart I was a Marvel girl.
Janet van Dyne – the Wasp – was the sort of woman I wanted to grow up to be. She was rich, smart and successful. Goodness only knows what she saw in Hank Pym, but someone had to keep him in order. What’s more she was a total fashionista, changing her costume on a regular basis.
The girl I identified with, however, was Jean Grey. Like me she was a teenager with a special secret that she could not tell anyone about. If only Professor Xavier had opened a school for talented trans kids rather than for mutants I would have been right there begging for a place. X-Men, when it started, was a teen comic, which made it about as close to YA literature as I could find save for awful school-based soap operas.
Jean and I grew up together. From the shy, prim kid who was somewhat overawed to find herself the only girl in a special school, to the elegant, confident young woman of the Neal Adams era, she lived my life for me. I would have married Warren, of course. He was rich and looked a bit like Pygar in Barbarella (that is, mega-cute). Superheroes, of course, don’t get to have happy relationships. All I can say is that I’m glad I was older and had mostly deserted comics for books by the time the whole Dark Phoenix thing happened.
What all this nostalgia means for today’s trans kids I don’t know. We are all busy asking for believable, non-tragic trans characters in books so that they have someone to identify with. What I think it means, though, is that we find a way. Even when there is nothing; even when you don’t have a word to describe how you feel about yourself (I was a teenager before I even heard the word “transsexual”); you can still find something to latch on to.
I want to take this opportunity to say Thank You! to my big sister, Jean, for being there when I had no one else. Fiction is an amazing thing. We’d all like it to be better, but not being perfect doesn’t make it useless.
Cheryl Morgan is old enough to have grandchildren who are teenagers, but tries not to let that be an excuse for being grumpy. Amongst other things she writes, writes about, and publishes speculative fiction; writes about trans history; and co-hosts a women’s interest radio show. You can find her online at Cheryl’s Mewsings and on Twitter as @CherylMorgan.
Welcome to GayYA’s Transgender Awareness Week Series!
In honor of Transgender Awareness Week, we’re featuring posts from trans and trans-spectrum contributors on various issues surrounding transness in YA. We have an AWESOME line up of contributors and posts, and we’re so excited to share them with you all!
The Awareness Week series are something we’ve started doing for all of the LGBTQIA+ Awareness Weeks throughout the year. Though we hope to include everyone on our site at all times, we’ve found that dedicating a specific and concentrated space to a community to talk about the different ways their identity relates to YA can produce phenomenal results.
During this year’s series, we’ve got topics ranging from why transgender representation is important, to the ways in which non-trans LGBTQIA+ YA is exclusive of trans people, to thoughts on how to write trans characters, and more!
So now, let the series begin!
Asexuality in YA Series: Day 7 – Previous Posts: Introduction to Asexuality in YA Series – Aces Out: Laying the Cards On the Table – Acing Romance: On Writing YA Love Stories as an Asexual – 5 Tips and Tricks To Writing Asexual Characters – Interview with Simon Tam – Reading While Asexual: Representation in Ace YA – Being Ace: Cultural Differences and Progress
by Morgan York
I’ve been experiencing demisexuality since I was old enough to develop sexual feelings. But I didn’t know the word “demisexual” until I was 21. If I’d known the term existed as a teen, it sure would’ve helped.
For those who don’t know, demisexuality falls on the asexuality spectrum. Us demisexuals are only able to experience sexual attraction if we’ve developed a strong emotional bond with the person first. That means celebrity crushes and sexual feelings for fictional characters aren’t possible (though we may be able to appreciate that these people are aesthetically pleasing to look at). It also means we’re less likely to develop as many sexual attractions as non-asexual (allosexual) people do. For instance, I’ve only experienced sexual attraction to three people in my life.
As a teenager, I realized my attractions were unusual, but I misunderstood why. I thought, “Clearly, I’m one of the few realistic people in the world when it comes to dating. These people who see someone and say ‘I’d bang that’ are talking about the distant future, right? After they’ve gotten to know the person? They can’t possibly find the person sexually attractive just by seeing them, so they must just be feeling hopeful that an attraction will develop. As for people who hook up with someone they day they meet them…maybe they’re faking the attraction? What other option is there?”
I didn’t consider that these allosexuals were, of course, not faking their attractions, or that my attractions just worked differently from theirs. Instead, I jumped to the conclusion that these people were stupid and I wasn’t. Super open-minded of me, I know.
This attitude carried over into how I experienced YA as a teenager. Twilight exploded when I was about 15. I didn’t just dislike the series—I let everyone and their grandmother know how much I despised the books (something I avoid doing now, since I don’t want Twilight lovers to feel judged or attacked for their taste in literature).
“It’s unrealistic!” I shouted at anyone who would listen. “All they did was stare at each other a bunch, start dating, and claim they were in love. They barely even know each other. Any story that includes ‘love at first sight’ is badly written, and I’m not interested in reading it.”
That’s right, I assumed narratives involving instant attraction were proof of a poor storyteller. Worse, I assumed all YA fiction would be like Twilight. It seemed like every time I glanced over a book summary, it hinted at a romance, and I couldn’t trust that it would portray a type of love that made sense to me. So I swore off YA novels entirely and focused on classics, preferably ones that didn’t position love or romance as a central focus.
This was a terrible idea. Not only did I miss out on many wonderful YA novels when my age group was intended as the target audience, but I was also writing YA books at the time. Except I refused to call them YA. Since my books “weren’t like Twilight” because they “weren’t poorly written or unrealistic,” I assumed they couldn’t fit in the YA category, despite the fact that my characters were high school age.
Any writer knows that if you don’t read books in your category or genre, you’re in for a painful surprise when you try to put your work out into the world. Reading contemporary works in your genre helps you understand what the market looks like, what’s standard for your target audience, etc. Since I was writing YA amidst a sea of classics, I had none of that, and I made plenty of mistakes as a result.
This might just sound like the story of a grouchy teenager who was angry at the world and enjoyed hating on a book so many people loved. All that is true, but there’s more to it. I saw the way I experienced attraction represented almost nowhere in fiction, and spewing so much vitriol at Twilight was my desperate attempt at protesting this reality. I made an effort to put a large amount of distance between Twilight and my own work, making sure I developed future romantic partners as friends before anything sexual happened between them. Sure, I included allosexual experiences here and there, but never for the main character. Because if I didn’t do otherwise, I thought my books would be unrealistic. I wanted my books to be good, and to me, good meant demisexual.
I can say all this now because I’ve figured out what demisexuality means and how I experience it, but I couldn’t have articulated these things at the time. If I’d stumbled upon demisexuality as a teen, or even just asexuality in general, I bet a light bulb would’ve gone off. My irrationally intense distaste for Twilight would’ve made a lot more sense. I might’ve sought out books with asexual/asexual-spectrum characters, if any existed back then, and reignited my interest in YA fiction. And I would’ve been armed with more knowledge when crafting my characters’ sexualities. Instead of writing a whole bunch of “accidental demisexuals,” I could’ve been more intentional about where everyone fell on the spectrum.
This is one reason diversity in fiction is so important. People who don’t see themselves reflected in fiction are more likely to remove themselves from it. They are more likely to be confused about why “everyone else” seems to see the world differently, unaware that people like them exist and their voices just aren’t being heard.
When members of the non-majority do find that representation, they often cling to it, because it reassures them that their experience is real. What single fictional pairing was I absolutely obsessed with as a teen? Harry Potter’s Ron and Hermione. They may not have been demisexual characters—Ron’s relationship with Lavender Brown is proof of that—but they developed feelings for each other after several years of powerful friendship. That’s, like, candy for a demisexual.
In honor of Asexuality Awareness Week, I hope my fellow writers think about how they portray romance in fiction. Romance is popular in YA. I know some writers include a romance no matter what, maybe because they can’t imagine a story without one, or it’s an automatic impulse because it’s so pervasive. But does the story really need it? Can the book focus on other types of relationships, like friendships and/or family members? There’s probably more than one asexual-spectrum teen out there craving a story like this.
As for those narratives that work best with a romance, consider how each character experiences sexual attraction before you proceed. Are all of your characters allosexual because that’s what you’re most familiar with? Or, I ask while side-eyeing my former self, are they somewhere on the asexual spectrum because that’s the experience you know best? Equal parts intentionality and diversity can make us all stronger, more flexible writers.
And Twilight lovers? Let me take this opportunity to give those books an apology. They didn’t deserve the degree of hate I gave them.
Morgan York is a writer of both YA and adult in the fantasy and contemporary genres and hopes to see her stories published someday. She recently graduated from the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies, a design-your-own-major program at the University of Redlands, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in “Writing Fiction: Listening, Absorbing, and Creating.” In a past life, she was an actress who appeared in a variety of works, including Cheaper by the Dozen and The Pacifier. She’s a feminist, a gamer, a traveler, and a reader of everything from old Russian novels to modern YA to adult lit. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, and GoodReads.
Asexuality in YA Series: Day 6 – Previous Posts: Introduction to Asexuality in YA Series – Aces Out: Laying the Cards On the Table – Acing Romance: On Writing YA Love Stories as an Asexual – 5 Tips and Tricks To Writing Asexual Characters – Interview with Simon Tam – Reading While Asexual: Representation in Ace YA
by Teresa Santos
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman must be in want of a husband.
Except when they’re in want of a wife. Or a partner. Everyone wants somebody, right? Mm, maybe not.
If you have been paying attention to Asexual Awareness Week, chances are that you have come to realise that that isn’t always the case. There are those who don’t want a sexual partner. Those who don’t want a romantic partner. Those who simply don’t care for a traditional relationship. Sadly though, there are plenty of people who remain adamant that a life bereft of sex and/or romance is not a “real” life. Like with everything else, every thought is more predominant in some countries than others.
As someone who has lived in two European countries (Portugal and England), trust me when I say that the difference can be striking.
I was still living in Portugal when I found out asexuality existed. That I wasn’t a one-time freak. It was early 2011. For weeks, months, I kept quiet. Nobody else had heard of it – if they had, they’d have mentioned it in Sex Ed, Biology or in some other conversation. To my knowledge, anyone who didn’t have a romantic partner or showed interest in “love” would immediately be pitied, mocked or deemed a closeted homosexual. I was nineteen and knew for a fact that many were certain I was a lesbian. But still, there must be someone out there I could talk to face to face, right? Someone who got it.
Well, it figures that no, not really. The only out LGBT+ person I knew in my university told me it was a phase. When I turned to the Portuguese LGBT+ forums, I found a single thread on asexuality. It was brimming with derogatory posts. Asexuals were called closeted, prudes, sick, and viler things still. Despite this, I naively told a few colleagues of mine I got along with. They asked if I was an amoeba and laughed awkwardly.
If the queer Portuguese community – the one who should know what it’s like to be erased and set aside – , if my fellow biologists to be – who ought to show interest in the world’s diversity – did not accept or try to understand me, what was the point in coming out? To be laughed at further?
So you can imagine my surprise when I went on an Erasmus program to the UK and found that the university I went to not only had an LGBTQ+ society but they mentioned asexuals in their website. Not as an after-thought, but right there. In the middle of all other orientations. I wasn’t being ignored or laughed at. I was being included and celebrated.
Still, this did not mean that they would like asexuals. Maybe it was just politeness. Who knows? But when I walked up to two members of the society who were handing flyers, when I stammered that I was ace, they grinned. They told me there were others like me. They handed me a flyer and told me to go to their next meeting. Then, they introduced me to the others. And suddenly there we were, asexuals of all kinds, discussing our experiences along with trans men, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, … everyone. Heck, there were even informal talks on asexuality open to the student body.
Slowly, they gave me the courage not to be quiet but to tell my lab colleagues about my sexuality. Not all at once, but slowly. Whenever romance or sexuality came up, I’d let it naturally flow into the conversation. Some had heard of it. Others had not. They’d cock their heads, say “really? I’d never heard of it. What’s it like?” I’d explain and, because we’re all biologists, we’d delve into a conversation about genetics, neuroscience and ecology. Not in a “your brain needs to be fixed” way. In a curious, let’s understand the world way.
It was not perfect. The “what is it?” was still there, as was confusion. But there was no dismissal. Only understanding and simple curiosity.
In both countries, I am half inside the closet, half outside it. Anxiety always wraps its fingers around my heart when it comes to uttering those words. But if you ask me where I’ll admit to being ace with less fear, the answer is easily given. The UK.
Now, don’t get me wrong, a lot has changed in Portugal the past two years. A couple of articles have been published on the biggest magazines and newspapers. It came up on national news once. There’s finally a Facebook page and group for asexuals in Portugal. There were a handful of people waving the asexual flag on the last LGBTQ+ march in Lisbon. Asexuals are popping out their heads from their hide-outs and waving hello.
But it’s in the small things that you can see change. Just the other day, I was sitting on a lab bench next to a Portuguese colleague of mine. We were chatting about what we’d do after work and I mentioned I would be writing a blog post about asexuality. His answer? “That’s cool! (pause) Oh, did you finish labelling the tubes yet?” No condescension, no nothing. It gave me hope. The tides might finally be changing.
There is still a lot to be done in both countries. But maybe, just maybe, we might be close to being acknowledged. That by itself deserves a big slice of chocolate cake to celebrate. Would anyone like to join in?
Teresa Santos is a biologist, a writer in the making, and an aromantic asexual. When she isn’t busy eating chocolate or trying to catch up on reading, she can be found prowling Twitter @tessalsantos or babbling about books, photography and whatever tickles her fancy at tessellatedtales.wordpress.com. Approach with caution to avoid second-hand embarrassment for she is prone to geeking out and singing in the middle of the street.
Asexuality in YA Series: Day 5 – Previous Posts: Introduction to Asexuality in YA Series – Aces Out: Laying the Cards On the Table – Acing Romance: On Writing YA Love Stories as an Asexual – 5 Tips and Tricks To Writing Asexual Characters – Interview with Simon Tam
by Agent Aletha
Hi, I’m Agent Aletha. I was kindly invited to write something for GayYA for Asexual Awareness Week! I read and review fiction with asexual spectrum characters on my tumblr Ace Reads and keep a database of all works with ace characters I can find on Tagpacker.
The first explicitly asexual (ace) character I ever encountered was Kevin, from Guardian of the Dead. Only a few months before I had found the term asexual and it caused an epiphany that shook up my ideas of myself and made many disparate, previously inexplicable pieces of my experience suddenly slide into place. I was working in a bookstore at the time and I bought it in hardcover the day it was released, terrified that my coworkers would question my eagerness over a random young adult book. I had spent all of my teenage years desperately avoiding the topics of crushes, hotness, and sex with a fear that made my heart race and my hands tremble. I knew I was different. I didn’t know how or why. Asexuality made the past ten years make sense.
Occasionally there had been other characters where I caught a glimpse of someone who thought and felt like me. Tarma, from the Vows and Honor series. Chandra, from the Fire’s Stone. Dexter, from the Dexter book series. But never had I seen someone like myself be openly asexual, contradicting society and everything in pop culture and every song on the radio and every book that I had read and every classmate and adult in my life who implied or outright stated that to be human is take part in this to me undecipherable dance of desire and sex.
Kevin was mind-blowing. Kevin was validation. If you’ve experienced it, you know how powerful it is first find yourself reflected in fiction, out there for the world to see. Many great writers have written recently about the importance of diversity and representation in fiction, and although it has been said more eloquently, this was my inspiration for writing about asexual representation in fiction.
A few years ago, when I first decided to try and read and review with ace characters because I was tired of waiting for someone else to do it, there wasn’t much to go on. The same five books or so books were always brought up when someone asked where oh where are the books with ace characters. Some of them are so unappealing I’ve still never found an a review from anyone in the ace community. But when I actually started investigating, the situation had changed. Awareness that asexuality exists has continued to increase. Ebooks had appeared and independent and self-publishing has opened the way for more diverse voices to tell their stories. Stories that might have been too niche or were not expected to be a commercial success can now be released to the world by their authors. This has had a huge effect on the frequency of ace characters. The number of books with ace characters has increased from maybe 1 or 2 a year to over 15 for the past couple of years. I’ve been reading through the lists and while I’ve been reading a couple of books each month, I still have so many to read!
Initially I was surprised at how hard it was to objectively judge if a character actually was asexual. There are many reasons why any particular character might not show any interest in sex in a particular story that aren’t necessarily due to them being asexual. In addition there still seems to be quite a bit of confusion over the difference between celibacy and asexuality, by both readers and authors. So many times I end up examining only two vague statements as the entire body of evidence that a character is asexual. And there are many different factors even beyond suggestive statements and levels of vagueness. What did the author mean? How much does what the author meant matter? What if they are ace by choice? By magic? What if they wouldn’t consider themselves ace? What if their society has no concept of sexual orientation? What counts? I try to not be a gatekeeper, but I’m also fairly critical about fictional representation. I think the ace community has been so desperate for representation that we have willing made possibilities into castles. Fan characterizations have their place but we shouldn’t need to rely on them. Especially since we now have a decent start in canon representation.
However, there are still tendencies for ace characters to be non-human, to use asexuality as a way to show their alienness, their otherness, their separation from “normal” society. Sometimes this just comes with the territory – science fiction especially, and fantasy as well have always tended to explore the boundaries of what it means to be human, even with non-human characters. Some authors make it clear that their character is ace entirely separately from them being non-human. But other authors reinforce the idea that to feel sexual attraction is essential to humanity and to be human is to feel sexual attraction.
I’ve also noticed that asexual characters tend to be intellectual instead of having physical strength. Aces are often depicted as geniuses or nerds, definitely people who live in their minds. This isn’t bad by itself but I think it points to a problematic underlying assumption that aces aren’t physical, that maybe we aren’t really comfortable with our bodies. I would like to see some deviation from this trend in the future.
Another frustrating trend I see is for authors to be so vague in making a character asexual that 98% of the audience has no idea and would deny it later if asked. Remember the uproar over Rue from The Hunger Games being black? And that happened even when readers know that black people exist. Audiences default characters to white and straight even when there is textual evidence saying otherwise. Asexual characters especially have the ability to invisible even when right in front of you. Take the Big Bang Theory. Sheldon has said something that sounds asexual about every third episode and not only is it treated as a joke, even fan fiction writers, who don’t even need a significant look to make two characters gay for each other, don’t see it. I just checked and there are over 1500 works of Big Bang fan fiction and less than ten are tagged asexual character. Ten! Imagine a character who said he liked guys every few episodes but everyone just continued writing him straight and homophobic without a second thought. Ace invisibility is an active force working to enforce compulsory sexuality.
An author can’t show-not-tell something that most readers don’t know how to recognize when they do see it. I hear that there is a concern that a book will become an “issue book” but good writers get around this all the time just by being good writers. Stating on social media later that a character is ace does avoid this issue – a work can claim to have representation while not actually making the audience confront the fact that a character they like and identify with is not straight – but it would be much better to see it explicitly in the text. Cassandra Clare has said that Raphael from her Mortal Instruments series is asexual, while Scott Westerfeld agreed in a tweet that Darcy, the main character from Afterworlds, is demisexual. Recognition after the fact is better than nothing, but while it still makes ace readers happy, it does little to increase visibility. However, it is encouraging to see ace awareness from established authors and shows some progress toward more ace representation in YA fiction.
In the books I have read, I have found more stories about characters who just happen to be ace. The argument between stories focusing on the asexual experience and stories that happen to have ace characters is a pointless one. We need both kinds. Some people need escape, a break from the world, others need to see that they are not alone in their experiences and their fears and struggles. Sometimes it just depends on mood or what happened that day, or whether someone is new to asexuality or identified as ace for years. Both need to exist.
Fiction is a powerful tool for understanding diverse experiences because of how it puts the reader directly in the life of someone different. I care about asexual representation not just for the sake of aces, but also to have a meaningful way to help non-aces understand the difficulties of navigating life in a sex obsessed society. People seem to find asexuality hard to comprehend, but sometimes stories can reveal and grow connection where a hundred facts cannot. Thankfully, representation is increasing by the month. We’re starting to see more variety on the ace and romantic spectrums, more diversity in who is ace, what types of books they’re in, and what type of stories they get. I am so happy to have so many works to read. Even if I don’t always agree that a character is ace, I’ve discovered a lot of lovely books. With more stories, more variety, more people will be able to see themselves in fiction and more people will understand not just asexuality, but the diversity of what it can mean to be ace.
There are many lists of books with asexual characters. But I’m ready to go beyond that and find books that really get to what if feels like to be ace, that embrace a variety of experiences of what it means to be ace. Books that don’t just mention asexuality, books that have ace characters that we love. That celebrate being ace. Books we can recommend to librarians wanting to reflect the diversity of their communities in their collections and friends or family who might understand better in story form. Stories that we wish we could go back and hand to our younger selves and say, “Read this. You’re not alone.”
We’re not quite there, but at least we have options these days. They have their flaws but I love every one of these ace characters.
If you’re looking for main characters, you have Tori, engineering genius on the run from enemies earth doesn’t even know they have, Carrie just trying to figure out how to connect to people, Niavin, an sidhe drug lord dealing with cutthroat politics, Darcy discovering romance and writing, and Clariel just wanting to be left alone after being dragged to a city on the verge of explosion with magic she doesn’t really know how to handle.
If you’re willing to expand to supporting characters, you have best friend Kevin, just starting to come out as ace and pulled into a battle of magic and mythology, best friend Nash, smart and sarcastic and learning magic on his own, and creative whimsical camp counselor Layla.
Please support works with asexual characters and ace authors!
Quicksilver by R.J. Anderson (Tori) – teen action adventure
Carrie Pilby by Caren Lissner – teen fiction/romance
Sinners by Eka Waterfield (Niven) – action adventure
Clariel by Garth Nix – teen action adventure
Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey (Kevin) – teen action adventure with a bit of romance
Demonosity by Amanda Ashby (Nash) – teen paranormal romance
Lunaside by J.L Douglas (Layla) – teen romance
Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld (Darcy) – teen romance
Asexuality in YA Series: Day 4 – Previous Posts: Introduction to Asexuality in YA Series – Aces Out: Laying the Cards On the Table – Acing Romance: On Writing YA Love Stories as an Asexual – 5 Tips and Tricks To Writing Asexual Characters
Hi! Welcome to the Gay YA’s Asexual Awareness Week! I’m interviewing Simon Tam, doctor aboard Serenity, the spaceship from the cult spacewestern hit TV show Firefly. In my headcanon, Simon is asexual and aromantic but just lacks labels. As someone who has changed her labels not infrequently in the last ten years since I came out, I thought it’d fun to talk about language, labels, and letting yourself be a work in progress.
Katherine: Hi, Simon! Welcome to the Gay YA!
Simon: Thank you for having me. It’s an honor to be asked.
Katherine: I want to talk about sexual attraction, the lack thereof, what happens when we try to cram ourselves into little boxes, and the importance of having language and labels for our identities and experiences.
Simon: I hope I have something to contribute!
Katherine: I am sure you do. You’re basically why I’m doing this in this format.
Katherine: I was thinking the other day…you’re the most asexual aromantic person I’ve ever ‘known’. I think you just didn’t have the language during the filming of Firefly and Serenity.
Simon: Can you define asexuality and aromanticism for me?
Katherine: Sure. Asexuality is generally defined as the lack of sexual attraction. Aromanticism is the lack of romantic feelings. Sexual attraction and romantic attraction are different and it’s really important that we understand and identify that. People who are asexual may call themselves ace. Aromanticism is often abbreviated aro. Someone who is both might say ace aro.
Simon: I think…I think that might be right? I’ve never heard those words before, but that seems about right. I really want to understand sexual attraction because everyone seems to experience it. It’s really deeply ingrained in our cultural contexts and understanding of human interactions. Same with romanticism. Falling in love, finding a soulmate, partnering up with someone, forever with one person…we hear this in a variety of ways throughout our culture—both yours and mine.
Katherine: I used bisexual for years when I first came out because that described the people I thought I could date. But I still thought I was broken because I didn’t experience sexual attraction to anyone. I tried to trick myself and tell myself I was feeling it when I wasn’t.
Simon: I did the same thing. Tried to tell myself that if a girl made me laugh and smile, then that was just “my” sexual attraction.
Katherine: Same. But it wasn’t.
Katherine: It’s weird not to have words for things. It’s not even about labels, is it? It’s literally not having words for something you’re experiencing. It’s a certain type of…
Katherine: Yes. Dissonance between what we can name and what we can’t name.
Simon: I’m a physician by training, so labels and words for things are really important to me. I find them very powerful. It’s why I wanted to label my sister’s illness even though it’s almost impossible to name and I probably shouldn’t have been diagnosing her. Maybe I was doing that because I didn’t have words for my own experiences.
Katherine: And people don’t understand how you don’t know. Or you don’t have words. Because there have always been words for the default. That is, cisgender heteronormativity. But the words for those of us outside that default change. I use demisexual panromantic if I ‘break it down’ but I prefer queer because it also encompasses my feelings on gender identity.
Simon: I worry that people won’t see past the stereotypes if I label myself. Asexual doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t have sex. Aromanticism doesn’t mean I won’t have relationships. It’s just that sex and romance aren’t primary drivers in my relationships.
Katherine: I know. I worry about explaining asexuality/demisexuality to partners.
Simon: How do you?
Katherine: The only partner I’ve ever told was totally fine with it. I was out as bi prior to meeting him, and I casually corrected him when he said something about bisexuality and said queer or demisexuality. He hadn’t heard demisexuality before so I explained it and he said, “Cool” and that was it.
Katherine: I know. But I told him because he was also a safe person. I mean, not that I’d date a not-safe person, but in particular, he was a known entity.
Simon: I think the crew of Serenity would understand. For the most part. Mal would be confused but he generally seems to think that it’s not any of his business and I don’t mind that.
Katherine: I’m glad. I’m just thinking about all the times that Kaylee was outright flirting with you and you didn’t seem interested and then it seemed like you were trying to force yourself to be into her.
Simon: If you don’t experience the attraction yourself, it’s hard to figure out how to reciprocate. I really like Kaylee. She’s really fantastic and fun. She’s so in tune with herself it’s intimidating. But at the same time, she knows what she wants and I…don’t. I don’t know what that relationship would look like yet.
Katherine: I think it’s okay to say that.
Simon: You think?
Katherine: Yeah. It’s okay to say “I’m figuring this out. I think this is how I’d label myself now, but that could change. Please be patient with me.” And a partner who is deserving of you will respect that.
Simon: That’s really good to know. Sometimes we forget that last part.
Katherine: I’m twenty-eight. I just started using ace/demi last year. Those are the best labels I know for myself right now. If I learn a different word that better describes my experience, I’ll use that. Language and people evolve. We have to be better at letting people change and flux.
Simon: Easier said than done?
Katherine: But important.
Simon: As someone still finding his own labels, and now armed with these new ones, I think I can agree with that.
Katherine: Thanks for stopping by, Simon. Good luck with everything.
Simon: Thank you for this! If I have questions about asexuality, can I ask you?
Katherine: Sure. Just @ me on Twitter at @bibliogato. Or hit me up through my contact page on my website.
Simon: Thanks, Katherine.
Katherine: Stay shiny, Simon.
Katherine Locke lives and writes in a very small town outside of Philadelphia, where she’s ruled by her feline overlords and her addiction to chai lattes. She writes about that which she cannot do: ballet, time travel, and magic. When she’s not writing, she’s probably tweeting. She not-so-secretly believes most stories are fairy tales in disguise. Her books include TURNING POINTE, SECOND POSITION, and FINDING CENTER, available from major ebook retailers. She can be found online and on Twitter.