Updated: Jul 29, 2021
When was the first time that you read a book or story that featured a prominent LGBTQIA+ character? As a gay man who grew up in a small town in rural Minnesota, I didn’t think that such books were out there; and even if they were, I would never have known where to find them.
The first book that I can think of reading, which included a gay protagonist, was a popular German novel called Tschick. I remember having to read the novel as part of a composition course I was taking to fulfill requirements for my major. I was 21-years-old, and in order for me to finally find a book with a gay lead, I needed to learn a whole new language--or at least it felt that way. That’s how inaccessible LGBTQIA+ literature was to me growing up.
It turns out that I’m not the only one who experienced this. Maybe you didn’t need to learn a new language like me to encounter your first LGBTQIA+ book, but chances are you still had to jump a few hurdles or your own. This is because there is a serious lack of LGBTQIA+ representation in literature.
According to a 2017 study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), which sampled approximately 3,700 books, less than 4 percent included significant LGBTQIA+ content. While this number might at first seem consistent with the percentage of the population that identifies as LGBTQIA+, a closer look at the data shows that this is not the case.
Of the books sampled, the CCBC counted 136 that included what they termed “significant LGBTQ+ content.” However, this does not mean that all 136 of these books featured LGBTQIA+ primary characters. If this were the case, then the numbers would more closely align with the estimated population percentage of LGBTQIA+ folks--this assuming that all of those who identify as LGBTQIA+ are “out.”
Instead, these books were divided into the following categories: fiction books with LGBTQ+ primary characters, those with significant LGBTQ+ secondary characters, and then books with LGBTQ+ families. Additionally, nonfiction books about LGBTQ+ people or topics were included, as were fiction books considered “LGBTQ+ metaphor” books. This last category includes books that do not explicitly include topics such as gender identity or sexuality but nonetheless introduce such concepts. Examples of such LGBTQ+ metaphor books include All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold and Not Quite Narwhal by Jessie Sima.
When looking solely at books that include LGBTQ+ primary characters, the CCBC counted only 65 books--that’s only 1.8 percent of the total books sampled. Now that is a striking number. Less than two books per 100 feature a primary character with whom I feel I can identify.
Madeline Tyner, a librarian for the CCBC, writes in a summary of their survey: “It may be the case that non-LGBTQ+ book creators do not feel qualified or knowledgeable about LGBTQ+ experiences to write books about LGBTQ+ characters, especially those with identities that are not often discussed in mainstream media or culture--a legitimate concern considering the importance of authentic representation.”
While I agree with Tyner, I believe it’s also important to consider that there might be a significant number of talented authors writing stories about LGBTQIA+ characters, but they are unable to get them published.
The publishing industry serves as a major gatekeeper of LGBTQIA+ literature, controlling which stories become published and available for readers like you and me. Unfortunately, the industry is dominated by white, straight folks.
Lee and Low Books, a blog on race, diversity, education, and children’s books, released its second Diversity Baseline Survey in 2019, highlighting the continuing diversity problem in the publishing industry.
-- Lee & Low Books
A quick look at the above pie charts indicates that the majority of individuals in the publishing industry are White, heterosexual, cisgender women. Additionally, it is important to note from the summary of the results that of those 10 percent of individuals who identify as bisexual or pansexual, most are White women, so there is less diversity than one can assume looking only at the pie charts.
Those working in the publishing industry ultimately decide what becomes published and what does not. However, like any business operating on a model of supply and demand, an increased demand will elicit some response from the supply side of the equation.
We as readers can support LGBTQIA+ authors. We can purchase their books and share their stories. Let’s allow our voices to be heard today by including more LGBTQIA+ books and stories in our homes, classrooms, workspaces, or other places of gathering.
Don’t yet own any LGBTQIA+ stories and need recommendations? Check out our growing page of book reviews to find the right book for you.
By: Derek Wiebke Jul 28, 2021