The thing about getting what you want is that you then get used to getting what you want. And when what you want is diversity, you start to get very demanding. And damn straight, you should. When I read a book now I refuse to accept the bare minimum. Say I’m standing in a bookstore (okay, I’m more likely adding books to my Goodreads or browsing Amazon because shops are out and out is hard—but it’s far less aesthetically-pleasing imagining me sitting in my Ravenclaw hoodie and slurping green tea as I scroll down a billion pages, so we’ll go with the bookstore) and there are, as is often the case with bookstores, lots of really awesome-looking books, all ready and waiting for me to spend my pennies and figure out where the hell to shelve them on our overflowing bookshelves. Say that there are two that catch my eye. And say that one of them has LGBT characters—and the other doesn’t.
Welp, we know which I’m going to buy, don’t we?
I’m done reading a balance of 90% cis-het romance and only receiving 10% diverse romance. Plain fed up. So there’s a stunning romance in this book—well, good for you! But is it going to be any different from the last cis-het romance I read? Eh, probably not. Maybe it’s a fantastic love story… maybe it will totally float my boat. But listen, the one next to it? Well, that’s got a girl who also likes girls! So yes, I’ll be reading that one. Maybe I’ll get around to the other, but it won’t be a priority unless there’s something else in it that reflects the world around me accurately, one way or another.
And okay, so maybe both romances are cis-het—but oh, this one features an inter-racial couple! Yes! Take my money, because it’s already bought. I’m also sick of white cis-het romances. Yes, yes, they exist—of course they do!—but here’s the thing: so does everything else. I know gay, trans, bi, genderfluid and nonbinary people, for gods’ sake. These people also happen to have hearts and feelings and emotions and happen to fall the hell in love.
There are entire galaxies filled with the love stories of white, straight, cis people. Whole planets could be formed from the words written that feature pretty blonde girls with blue eyes hooking up with Mr-dark-hair-and-dark-eyes. And a thousand snowy landscapes could be formed from the stories of white girls and guys finding love and making out.
I don’t want such a whitewashed, heteronormative library. A lot of the YA I read now is very diverse, whether racially or in regards to sexuality and LGBT representation. Which is great, because that makes me feel represented. Sure, there are cis-het couples in the stuff I read. I read an entire four-book series (The Wolves of Mercy Falls) recently that was all white kids making heart eyes at one another. The thing here is, the diversity was found elsewhere. I want diversity of issues as well; I want realism. Teens who do drugs and have sex and who are suicidal and depressed and have friends who are straight-edge Buddhists and cousins who are socially and generally anxious (because I do think issues such as addressed mental illness and disability are diverse representation). I want parents who are shit and kids who do not stand for it. I want the world we live in reflected through these people. I want boys who cry and like clothes and girls who wear short skirts because they want to and it’s their body and who also program with code and like beer. I want characters with diverse sexualities who are not stereotypes. I don’t want to read a thousand camp gay guys who z-snap everything. I want Ronan Lynches and Ben Evanses and Dave from Holly Black’s Modern Faerie Tales.
I want girls who kiss girls and guys who kiss guys and bisexuals who kiss whomever the hell they want. And I’m done being surprised when I find sexuality represented. I want representation as-is. I want feminism to reign true and destroy the toxic masculinity that says I can’t wear foundation to cover tired skin without being gay and effeminate for doing so. I want gender-confused characters and guys who draw and paint and wear their hair long instead of having big muscles and football practise at the weekends.
And I want these characters to suffer real issues, without these issues being the entire basis of their story. I don’t want these diverse characters to be defined by the issues they face. Someone is gay and gets slurred or bullied—okay, but make it subtle, make it only a part of the background narrative. I want racism to be a thing at school because it is a thing at school—but don’t make their entire world and narrative revolve around it. Or make it a huge thing and commit to it. Do the thing. Reflect real life. I just want life. Characters who are biracial; characters who hook up with someone outside their own race, their own religion, their own species (what? Elves and faeries are species).
Just, quit with the normality. I’m so done. I’m done with sexism and I’m done with whitewashing and the en-straightening of everything and everyone. There are reasons I read the books I do right now—because they’re amazing and they touch me. They represent all the different parts of me, either directly in regards to sexuality, or by reflecting the openness of my opinions and acceptance of everything and anything regarding colour and religion and race and whatever the hell else. I want these detailed and realistic worlds to be real and true and to feel legitimate.
Not everyone is gay, and that’s fine. So give a straight protagonist people in their immediate circle who are gay. Have a protagonist who is actively bisexual and have them check out the opposite sex. A remark; a comment. Something! It’s not that hard to start reflecting the world around us. Every time a writer assigns a character a skin colour, a religion, a sexuality, they’re making a choice. And if it’s always straight and white and cis and binary, then that’s because the writer has chosen all of the above.
Of course books with straight and white and cis and binary characters will exist—as well they would/should—but there are ways of making these stories varied and diverse and reflective of real life in ways that I still classify as “diverse”, even if not in the immediately assumed sense of sexuality, gender and colour-of-skin or religion. Depression and anxiety and illness and disability and a million other things besides; these are all things that are so common in our daily, real lives, but are so underrepresented in books. People have feelings and issues and problems! Eventually, characters who are just normal and plain and carbon copies of each and every one of their predecessors will begin to read as false. They are false! They will begin to stand out as being lacking and dull and made entirely of cardboard. I don’t want cardboard. I want flesh and blood and bone.
People are awesome. So write awesome people. I want to be able to open a book and find myself in there, somehow, somewhere.
And I want to feel comfortable writing these stories myself. I remember once telling my brother that he maybe shouldn’t write gay characters into his dissertation, because the professor wouldn’t “get them”. And sure enough—he didn’t get them. And it’s not like we’re talking about the goddamn seventies or something. We’re talking the very recent now. That’s sad, the fact that I told him to change the sexualities of his characters, or to simply not write the romance into the book, because people might not “get” them. I was once discouraged from writing a guy wearing goth makeup because it was “weird” and “vain” (no, I don’t get that one, either). I’m so done with sitting here, second-guessing if people will “get” my genderfluid faerie character and if their romance with a guy will read as weird. Spoiler: it won’t. Sometimes Lilley is a girl; sometimes Lilley is Thorn and Thorn is a guy. It’s that simple. And Lilley/Thorn hook up with Feliks and Feliks is okay with this, guy or girl.
It is that simple.
Except that it still really, really isn’t, is it?
We’re still sitting here half disguising gay romances and non-cis genders between the lines of our blurbs and synopses, just in case diversity makes them somehow unsellable and unmarketable. We’re nowhere near where we should be in twenty-sodding-fifteen. I’m tired of whitewashed, straight, binary, sexist attitudes keeping the stories I really want to be reading out of my hands. And mostly it is YA leading the way with diversity—which is probably why it’s what I read the most. The regular fantasy I do read, I’m very picky with, and aside from a handful of well-loved authors, I’m getting very bored with the rest. Diversity, realism, representation—or gtfo.