by Vee S.
Authors, editors, and readers are important to the Queer YA community, but there’s another group that matters too: reviewers. We are lucky that there are so many fantastic reviewers reading, loving, and reviewing Queer YA books. But a growing number of reviewers have adopted a “code of silence” around queerness in the YA books they review. They are well meaning, but that code of silence is putting queer YA in the closet.
thingslucyreads posted this excellent video on what she calls Booktube’s “code of silence.” Luce says in her video that she’s noticed that in reviews of queer books, some people don’t mention the characters in them are queer. She’s talked about extremely popular books like Everything Leads to You on her Twitter and had others say, “what? that book has queer characters?” She goes through a number of reasons why this is a big problem. (Two other booktubers, Sam from Thoughts on Tomes and Adriana from perpetualpages have responded with videos of their own.)
This is such an important conversation to be having.
There are very few readers out there that know about all the great queer books that are available to them. There are a lot of people, including everyone here at GayYA, who are working to raise more awareness around those books. But there’s only so much that specific groups can change. The best way to really make a difference is equipping everyone in the book community with the tools to help support these books, and get the fact that they include queer characters out into the world. And it’s as simple as mentioning a character’s queerness in book reviews!
It seems like there are three big things that are stopping people from mentioning queerness.
- “It’s normal:” People have said that they don’t mention a character’s queerness because they see it as normal, not as something that attention needs to be called to. Unfortunately, we live in a world where it is not normal to see queer characters in mainstream media. Denoting a character’s queerness in a review is not pointing at them and saying “this isn’t normal!” it’s pointing at them and saying “this is normal but there isn’t enough of it, so I’m taking the opportunity I have to raise awareness around this book because it includes it.”
- Spoilers: There are definitely times when I like going into a book not knowing all of the character’s orientations and then discovering there’s a trans side character or the main character is gay. But there are two things that are more important than that enjoyment. When the character’s identity is treated as a spoiler, it sends the message that it should be seen as shocking. And when it’s made into something shocking, it suggests people need to be tricked into reading about someone who identifies that way. Sometimes a character’s identity is actually revealed in a book as shocking twist—that makes it easy to continue this cycle in reviews. In addition, not revealing an identity for fear of spoiling erases any likelihood of a queer teen finding this book who might desperately need it. There’s no need to go in depth about how that character identifies, how it impacts the story, or even who the character is. Just specify that there is a LGBTQIA+ character in it, and how they identify.
- Changing Minds: Another reason people decide not to disclose a character’s identity is the possibility that a bigoted person might end up picking up the book unknowingly, and have their mind changed. I unfortunately think this is very unlikely. When I was still bigoted about F/F relationships (I was confused about my own sexuality and didn’t want to accept that I liked girls), I read The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner. It was a good book and I enjoyed it and I connected to the characters, but as soon as it started leaning towards an F/F love story, I dropped it like a hot potato. What made the difference for me was entering into a community that talked about queerness openly and without shame. Though I am queer, I think the same thing would hold true for bigoted straight people. Though some of my discomfort stemmed from my not wanting to accept that I liked girls, much of it was solely from the anti-queer messages I got in my upbringing. Talking about these books openly and showing that you don’t think it’s wrong or something to be hidden, is a MUCH better form of combatting homophobia. Talking openly about queerness not only sends the message loud and clear to bigots that their viewpoints are not welcome, it’ll be making it possible for queer people to find these books. You’ll be prioritizing them over the bigots.
So, why is this such a big deal? Why is mentioning when a major character is queer so important?
There’s this idea that queerness doesn’t sell. This is a pervasive idea engrained in us all, and where this whole “code of silence” thing comes from. It’s not just on Booktube. It’s not just in book reviews. It’s everywhere.
But it’s funny though, right? Because there are actually legions of people out there, LGBTQIA+ identified and not, that are frantically searching for these books. Who want them because they’re queer. (And who really, really want gay dragons. 😉 ) And yet, queerness is continuously erased, by editors, publicists, booksellers… and by us.
Our culture perpetuates the idea that all that is all there is out there for queer representation is sadness and angst, and uses this to justify the belief that queerness doesn’t sell. But sad and angsty stories are not all that is out there (anymore). And reviewers have the power to open people’s eyes! Recent releases like Everything Leads to You by Nina Lacour, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz, More Than This by Patrick Ness have more than sadness and angst. These books are really really good and have gotten a lot of acclaim in the book community. We really need to get the fact that these books have queer characters out to the world.
So we need to start spreading awareness in the book community about the fact that these books have queer characters. Because so many people want them, and aren’t finding them. So many people want to support them, but don’t know that they exist. So many people still aren’t able to find themselves represented. And so many people desperately need these books.
Reading a book that has someone like you in it is miraculous: it makes you realize you’re not the only one experiencing what you’re experiencing, and it gives you a chance to see what your life might be like beyond what you’re going through now. And, if it’s sci-fi or fantasy that’s inclusive of queer characters, you get a chance to escape! For queer teens, many of whom deal with unsupportive parents, bullying, or mental health issues, having that validation and the belief that there can be something better can be lifesaving.
I and many others are doing all we can to help bring awareness to great queer YA books, but to really make an impact, the entirety of the book community needs to hop on board. I’m not sure if denoting a character’s identity is the be-all-and-the-end-all of fixing things, but I think it’s a solid start. And, I’m so glad people are starting to talk about this. Thank you to Luce for courageously broaching this topic, and to Sam and Adriana to building off of it!
If you have more thoughts on this, drop them below! I look forward to conversing further.
Vee S. spends their time writing, reading, hunting through queer book tags on tumblr, and keeping up with school. They’re a passionate feminist, a huge fan of actual representation in books and TV shows, and a lover of theatre, mythology, and biology. Vee is the admin and co-founder of GayYA.org. Find them on Twitter, Goodreads, or Tumblr.