By Malinda Lo
For the last three years I’ve been tracking the number of young adult novels about LGBT1 characters. Here are my statistics from 2011, 2012, and 2013, as well as an overview of LGBT YA published by mainstream publishers from 2003–13. Anyone who reads these posts can see that the topics I’ve been interested in unpacking have changed and focused, my methodology has been refined, and the language I’ve used to describe gender has evolved as I’ve learned more and as the language itself has evolved.
I use the term “LGBT YA” to identify a young adult book with an LGBT main character or that has a plot primarily concerned with LGBT issues. Some books have multiple main characters, and if one of that cast of primary characters is LGBT, I also count that book as an LGBT YA book (e.g., Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater). In the cases of books about LGBT issues, those issues typically focus around a straight person’s relationship with an LGBT person who comes out to them (e.g., The Boy I Love by Nina de Gramont). I do not include YA books with supporting LGBT characters because I think it’s important to focus on books where the LGBT person is the star of the story, but I recognize that the dividing line between supporting and main can be pretty blurry. Nor do I include YA books that have subtextual gay story lines (e.g., The Girls of No Return by Erin Saldin; and more recently, Dirty Wings by Sarah McCarry), because I’m focused on books where the gay story line is overt. (In other words, I’m tracking openly gay YA!) That means I may have left out some YA titles that others would count as “LGBT YA,” either on purpose or by accident.
LGBT YA is published by several different kinds of publishers ranging from small independent presses and LGBT-specific publishers to major global conglomerates. I am primarily interested in books published by mainstream publishers. By “mainstream” I mean the Big 5 publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon and Schuster), as well as general interest publishers that do not focus on LGBT books. These general interest publishers include: Akashic Books, Algonquin Young Readers, Amulet, Big Bang Press, Bloomsbury, Booktrope Editions, Candlewick, Carolrhoda Lab, Flux, Harlequin Teen, K-Teen, Merit, Ooligan Press, Pulp, Red Deer Press, Scholastic, Sky Pony Press, Sourcebooks Fire, Spencer Hill Press, and Strange Chemistry.
In 2014, mainstream publishers published 47 LGBT YA books. This is a 59% increase from 2013, when only 29 LGBT YA books were published by mainstream publishers.
The category of “mainstream publishers” includes tiny presses like Big Bang, a startup with only one book out, as well as global giants like Penguin Random House; they don’t always have the same resources or the same distribution levels. That’s why, when I did my analysis of LGBT YA from 2003–13, I focused on “major commercial publishers.” That was an attempt to look at the biggest producers of YA books — they truly aim to reach the masses, which I think is something important to think about. In my analysis, major commercial publishers are the Big 5 plus three major US publishers: Disney Book Group, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Scholastic.
In 2014, out of those 47 LGBT YA books, 24 or 52% were published by major commercial publishers. The other 23 or 48% were published by small publishers.
(Edited 12/10/14, 1 PM: Initially my math was wrong on the above statement because I’d accidentally omitted one title. It has now been corrected above, as well as in the third chart below.)
This year I’ve chosen not to analyze the output of LGBT publishers simply because they produce too many titles for me to manage. I think that LGBT presses still play an important role in producing stories about LGBT experiences, but since my interest lies in analyzing mainstream production of LGBT books, they fall outside the scope of this project at this time. For those who are interested in looking at how LGBT presses represent LGBT experiences, I encourage you to look up the catalogs of Bold Strokes Books, one of the leading publishers of LGBT fiction, as well as Harmony Ink Press and Queerteen Press. I don’t know how many LGBT YA titles Queerteen Press released in 2014 (it was hard to tell from their website), but Harmony Ink informed me via email that they released 52 YA books this year. Bold Strokes Books published 15, and Lethe Press released at least one title (Red Caps, a collection of fantasy short stories by Steve Berman), adding up to at least 68 YA books published by LGBT presses in 2014.
Gender Representation in 2014 LGBT YA Novels
Over the past few years I’ve struggled with how to count gender representation in these YA novels. I’m primarily interested in determining how many of the books focus on the L, G, B, and T experiences, which can be very different in reality. However, lesbian, gay, and bisexual are sexual orientations; lesbian is understood to refer to females, but gay and bisexual can refer to males or females; and transgender is neither a sexual orientation nor a sex. Transgender has a particularly complex and constantly evolving set of meanings, and the terms that were used to describe trans people 10 or even 5 years ago are in some cases no longer appropriate today. This is because gender as a concept is currently in major flux in our society, and that means it’s messy and often difficult to write about.
After searching for an overarching definition that can help me conceptualize how to categorize these LGBT YA books, I’ve found that the Wikipedia entry for gender is surprisingly detailed, well-documented, and helpful. If you’re interested in diving into the many complexities of gender, that’s a pretty good place to start. For the purposes of this analysis, I’m looking at gender in the broad way described on Wikipedia:
“Gender is the range of characteristics pertaining to, and differentiating between, masculinity and femininity. Depending on the context, these characteristics may include biological sex (i.e. the state of being male, female or intersex), sex-based social structures (including gender roles and other social roles), or gender identity.”
I’ve sorted 2014’s LGBT YA into the following categories to track this overarching concept of gender:
- Cis Female Main Character — This refers to a character who was assigned female at birth and continues to identify as female. In LGBT YA, this character is almost always lesbian or bisexual, although in some cases characters choose not to choose a label.
- Cis Male Main Character — A character who was assigned male at birth and continues to identify as male. In LGBT YA, this character is almost always gay or bisexual.
- Plot/Issue Related to Cis Male Character — Several books are about a straight cis female main character’s engagement with LGBT issues through a character who is cis, male, and gay.
- Gender-destabilizing Main Character — Two 2014 books are about characters who switch gender, but are not necessarily transgender.
- Intersex Main Character — “‘Intersex’ is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.” (Source: Intersex Society of North America)
- Multiple Characters of Multiple Genders — Books that are about more than one LGBT main character. Exception: Robin Talley’s Lies We Tell Ourselves is about two cis female characters, but because they’re both cis female, I counted them in that category rather than this one.
This year there was only one LGBT YA novel that included a main transgender character — The Island of Excess Love by Francesca Lia Block — but that book is grouped under the “Multiple Characters” category because there is more than one LGBT character in the book. There were three nonfiction YA books about transgender people published this year, but those nonfiction books aren’t included in the following chart, which focuses on the fictional characters in 2014 LGBT YA novels.
This year, more LGBT YA books focused on cis male characters than cis female characters, which is typical in LGBT YA. I thought it was interesting that this year there were a number of issue books about a straight girl and her gay/bi best friend (Undone by Cat Clarke; The Boy I Love by Nina de Gramont; The Fourth Wish by Lindsay Ribar). I thought this trend had died, but apparently it’s alive and kicking.
The fact that there were two books about intersex main characters published (Double Exposure by Bridgett Birdsall, Sky Pony Press; and Shadowplay by Laura Lam, Strange Chemistry), is pretty much revolutionary. I also thought it was interesting that two fantasy novels, both written by transgender authors (Changers Book One: Drew by T Cooper and Allison Glock-Cooper, Akashic Books; and The Unintentional Time Traveler by Everett Maroon, Booktrope), starred main characters who switch genders due to fantastical reasons. It’s also notable that none of these four books — probably the most boundary-pushing of this year’s crop — were published by a major commercial publisher.
Genre Representation in 2014 LGBT YA Books
Genre breaks down a bit more simply than gender, but here are my definitions for the categories I’ve sorted this year’s books into:
- Contemporary — Realistic novels set in the contemporary world.
- Science Fiction and Fantasy — You know what these are!
- Cross-Genre — Novels that don’t fit squarely into either contemporary or science fiction and fantasy; this is where I put Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith.
- Historical — Realistic novels set in the past.
- Nonfiction — Not novels! Includes history and memoir.
For the past decade, contemporary has had a massive lead on all other categories of LGBT YA. Science fiction and fantasy totaled 10% of all LGBT YA books published from 2003–13, so this year shows a significant leap. As a fan and writer of SFF, of course I’m happy about this! I would also like to see an increase in historical fiction in the future, because historical fiction does something contemporary simply cannot: It shows that LGBT people have always existed.
Intersectionality is a complicated concept, but it basically refers to the idea that individuals face oppression on multiple fronts. Someone who is gay and black has a different experience than someone who is gay and white because racism impacts homophobia, and vice-versa. As should be obvious, each individual human being is more than one thing. A woman is more than simply female; she also has a race, a sexual orientation, and a class history. As an Asian American lesbian, I experience the world through the lenses of race, sexual orientation, gender, and class (among others) — sometimes simultaneously, since being a middle-class Asian American lesbian looks different and is perceived differently than someone who is a wealthy white gay man, even though we both fit the category of “gay.”
For far too long, being gay — and I specifically mean “gay” here, rather than bisexual or transgender, which have different cultural histories — has largely been perceived as a white experience. Obviously, that perception is false, but consider: How often have you read a book or watched a TV show or movie in which the gay character was not white? Probably not very often.
This year I noticed that several of the LGBT YA books had characters who were not only LGBT, but also people of color, or also disabled. I examined these books a little more closely and discovered that at least 15 of the 43 YA novels feature characters who have intersectional identities — that’s 35%. I haven’t examined this aspect of the LGBT YA novels in previous years, so I have no idea whether this figure is higher or lower than it has been in the past, but I suspect it’s a new development. These 15 books are:
- One Man Guy by Michael Barakiva (Farrar, Straus and Girous/Macmillan) — Gay, Armenian
- The Bane Chronicles by Cassandra Clare, Maureen Johnson, and Sarah Rees Brennan (Margaret K. McElderry Books/S&S) — Bisexual, Asian
- A Hero at the End of the World by Erin Claiborne (Big Bang Press) — Gay, Asian
- Shadowplay by Laura Lam (Strange Chemistry) — Bisexual, Intersex
- Drama Queens in the House by Julie Williams (Roaring Brook/Macmillan) — Gay, Black
- Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley (Harlequin Teen) — Lesbian, Black
- Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour (Dutton/Penguin) — Lesbian, Mixed Race
- Far From You by Tess Sharpe (Disney-Hyperion) — Bisexual, Disabled
- Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis (Amulet) — Bisexual, Disabled
- The Unintentional Time Traveler by Everett Maroon (Booktrope Editions) — Gender-destabilizing, Disabled
- The Sowing by Steven dos Santos (Flux) — Gay, Latino
- Stranger by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith (Viking) — Gay, Lesbian, Latino, Asian
- Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan (Algonquin Young Readers) — Lesbian, Persian
- Guardian by Alex London (Philomel/Penguin) — Gay, Person of Color in a science fiction context
- Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld (Simon Pulse) — Lesbian, South Asian
Note: I’ve listed the main characters’ identities as best I could, but I haven’t read all these books and had to rely largely on reviews and online commentary. If I’ve made an error or missed any books, please let me know.
The Broader Context
What started out for me as a geeky way to see where my own YA novels fit into the broader YA market has become an ongoing research project that has nothing to do with my books, and a lot more to do with analyzing and interrogating the way mainstream publishing produces stories about LGBT teens. This is unsurprising given my interests from graduate school. I continue to believe that it’s important to question the way that the heterosexual mainstream shapes popular narratives about LGBT lives, and while I don’t have the time or the resources to delve into this subject as deeply as I would if I were still in grad school (nor do I wish to return to grad school!), I hope my statistics posts provide a place to start.
Building on my 2003–13 analysis, it was clear that major commercial publishers published a lot more LGBT YA this year than last year. I’ve updated my chart on LGBT YA published per year over the last decade to reflect 2014:
You can see that this year major commercial publishers published almost as many LGBT YA books as they did in 2007, the high point in the last decade. I don’t know if this is a trend or just a blip on the radar. I hope it’s a sign that the shrinking of the YA market that followed the economic crash in 2008 is finally over, but given all the upheaval in publishing industry lately, there’s no guarantee.
Each year I’ve done these statistics, I’ve calculated the percentage of LGBT YA published in comparison to all YA books, but this year I’ve decided not to do that because I simply am not confident that anyone knows for sure how many YA books are published each year. I also know that I’ve missed a number of LGBT books since I haven’t counted the LGBT presses, and I haven’t even tried to address the rise of self-publishing. So rather than present a somewhat arbitrary and likely low percentage, I’ve decided to skip it for this year, but the math is out there — you’re welcome to make your own estimates.
My primary conclusion is that major commercial publishers upped their output this year. Additionally, more of those books were genre fiction, and more of the books of all genres were about LGBT teens simply being themselves without facing massive coming-out trauma. Finally, a significant percentage of LGBT YA books acknowledged that not all gay people are white and abled. I think all these things are positive results, and it’s important to take a moment to notice that 2014 was a good year for LGBT YA.
If you’d like to do your part to make sure 2015 and future years are also good years for LGBT YA, I urge you to buy the books that are out there right now. Here’s a list of all of 2014’s LGBT YA titles for your convenience.
- I missed the fact that this year one YA novel featuring an asexual main character was published: Clariel by Garth Nix (HarperCollins). Thank you to the person on Twitter (I’ve lost your message) who told me!
- Dahlia Adler emailed to inform me that The Fourth Wish by Lindsay Ribar isn’t about a girl and her gay/bi best friend; it’s about a girl and her bisexual boyfriend. Thanks for the clarification!
While I’ve made every effort to avoid mistakes in this analysis, at the end of the day I am the only person working on this and errors may have slipped through. If you find any, please feel free to tell me about them by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!
This post is cross-posted at malindalo.com.
LGBT stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender. It is currently most widely accepted English term used to identify sexual and gender minorities, but its initials omit other identies such as queer, intersex, asexual, and more. While I could add more initials (e.g., LGBTQQIA+) or use a term such as QUILTBAG, I believe that would simply be too confusing for the general reader, so I’ve chosen to follow the standards in the GLAAD Media Reference Guide – AP and New York Times Style. ↩