Originally published on Loup Dargent as “QUILTBAG Protagonists in SF/F YA literature.” Reposted on YAtopia, March 16, 2013.
There is a lack of diversity in young adult fiction especially when it comes to QUILTBAG characters having the starring role in genre fiction. For those unsure, QUILTBAG stands for queer, unisex, intersex, lesbian, trans, bi, asexual and gay – a handy acronym to encompass various sexualities. The only one missing is the fairly new, pansexual, denoting a lack of preference or an all inclusive sexual preference.
Science fiction and fantasy, as both a literary and movie/TV genre, has been dominated by straight white males for decades. Think Arnold Schwarzenegger in his roles from Terminator to Total Recall. Consider Christian Bale and Tom Cruise in their leading manly-man roles in science fiction films like Equilibrium, Minority Report, Batman and soon to be released Oblivion. Given that a good number of these films are based on the works by literary greats like Philip K Dick, Asimov and others, this straight white male syndrome seems prevalent in the genre, and is sadly true for YA fiction as well.
Let’s look at recent YA smashhits: Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games. J.K Rowling’s series featured a straight white male protagonist, Stephenie Meyer’s series featured a straight white leading couple (I’ll get to Jacob in a minute) and Suzanne Collins’s dystopian series featured a straight white love triangle.
Only after the success of Harry Potter, both as a novel series and as a movie franchise, did it surface that Rowling had always thought of Dumbledore as gay, not that this was ever made apparent in either the novels or the movies. Why not?
There are numerous articles about Twilight and possible racism floating around the net. Regardless of how you interpret the fact that Native Americans were the ‘animals’ in the story, what surprised me even more than a centuries old vampire willingly repeating high school, was the lack of sexual fluidity so apparent in vampire characters from the works of progenitors like Anne Rice. Even the True Blood vampires explore same sex partnerships. But Twilight didn’t feature a single gay main character. And neither does another super popular vampire series: The Vampire Diaries. Meet Damon and Stefan Salvatore – white and straight despite both being almost two hundred years old, who confound just about every social more. Meet Elena Gilbert and her brother – straight and white. Meet the sidekicks Caroline, Matt, and Tyler – straight and white. Bonnie is the only smudge of colour on the cast and she’s a witch (why is no one screaming racial stereotypes?). There is one gay character but his appearance is fleeting and has little bearing on the mostly white, all straight main cast.
And now The Hunger Games. There was an uproar at the time of casting for the movie adaptation of the book when they cast Amandla Stenberg as Rue. Why is Rue black – fans protested. Why not? Is every character in a YA book white and straight until proven otherwise? Another character in The Hunger Games, played by Lenny Kravitz in the film, is referred to as ‘the gay guy.’ Kravitz is quoted to having said he didn’t want to play Cinna ‘too gay.’ In the novel, his sexuality is never expressly stated. He’s simply a stylist and designer, so once again stereotyping runs rampant.
YA protagonists are only gay, lesbian, bi or transgender when it’s a contemporary issue book like The Perks of Being a Wallflower starring the fabulous Patrick. I can’t name a single best-selling SF/F YA title featuring a gay, lesbian or bi – never mind transgendered – protagonist. Can you?
I’ve never deliberately gone out of my way to write a QUILTBAG character, that’s just who my characters tend to end up being. My most recent YA book, Obscura Burning, is a hybrid contemporary issue (my character’s sexuality is the least of his issues!) come science fiction novel and features a white bisexual male protagonist who has relationships with a Native American girl and a Latino guy. When I submitted this novel to agents they liked it but were nervous about the content. Thankfully, an indie press wasn’t afraid of taking on my novel and all its ‘questionable’ content. This is the beauty of the indie industry: they’re not afraid to take on books that might be controversial.
Even in books like Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince where varying sexualities are presented as not only acceptable but ordinary, the main character remained straight. This is exceedingly frustrating. Why can’t the main characters in YA science fiction and fantasy be gay? There’s no reason why QUILTBAG individuals can’t be heroes. Just look at pansexual Jack Harkness from Doctor Who and Torchwood fame, played by the openly gay and awesome John Barrowman. This is the type of heroic character I want to see in YA SF/F.
Given the slew of dystopian novels set in varying futures, I find it impossible to understand why so few if any of those main characters aren’t at least bi-curious. If we’re fated to a bleak future of robot wars, tyrannical governments and zombie apocalypses, why can’t we at least love whomever we choose and be comfortable with our sexuality?
Suzanne is a freelance writer and author from South Africa. She is the author of the cyberpunk novel Dragon’s Teeth (Divertir), the YA science fiction novel Obscura Burning (Etopia) and has had several short stories published by Golden Visions Magazine, Space & Time, and Niteblade amongst others. Although she has a Master’s degree in music, Suzanne prefers conjuring strange worlds and creating quirky characters. Suzanne is represented by Jordy Albert of the Booker Albert Agency. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, and online.