When I was a teenager, I’d borrow books from the library and then hide them in my closet.
I couldn’t search the library shelves for fear of being seen in the queer literature section, so instead I’d place holds on books online. Afterwards, I’d wipe my history even though I had my own computer—I couldn’t risk leaving any tracks.
Once a month, I’d skip school to go to the library when I was sure it would be empty. I’d pick up my books and proceed through the self-checkout before rushing home.
I’d hide the books in my closet inside old shoeboxes, taking them out to read only when I was sure I was alone.
When I was finished, I’d surreptitiously send them down the library’s return chute.
I felt like a criminal.
The first book with queer characters I ever read was David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy, which follows the budding romance between two boys who live in a gay-friendly small town.
At thirteen, I wasn’t interested in happy endings. Boy Meets Boy was preposterous, I decided. Corny. It was too optimistic, too unrealistic, and too gay.
With contempt for the book—and contempt for myself most of all—I threw it back into my closet. I didn’t read another queer novel for two years.
Though I wasn’t reading books with explicit queer content during those years, I was always looking for allegories, even if I didn’t acknowledge that that was what I was doing.
I often found solace in fantasy novels, which usually follow a “coming-out” storyline: a young person discovers something about themself that makes them different from the majority of people around them; this difference is celebrated by some as a gift and reviled by others as a curse; the person meets similar people and they band together, ultimately finding love, acceptance, and happiness in the face of hostile forces.
I always loved the X-Men movies for being one of the better queer allegories. In fact, the role of Magneto was pitched to Sir Ian McKellen on the basis that, as a gay man, he could relate to the persecution the mutants faced .
Allegories are sometimes useful, but they’re ultimately a poor stand-in for actual, explicit textual representation. As more and more people come out in the real world, so too should there be more visibly and openly queer characters in fiction. Visibility—in fiction and in real life (when it does not compromise one’s safety)—is crucial for the acceptance of queer people. Thus, this failure to include visibly queer characters is a way to silence us and to impede our progress in attaining the human rights denied to us.
I dislike allegories because they are often a cop-out. Writers use them to appeal to the queer audience without ever actually committing to helping us and accepting the risk of a potential backlash from conservative communities for including queer characters. We deserve to be more than allegorical figures whose lives and identities are “up for interpretation” because we are real human beings. You can’t debate our existence, but you can—and do—ignore it.
Far too often queer characters are limited to token roles in their rare appearances. Their brief lives and tragic deaths inspire the (white) cisgender heterosexual (male) protagonist to surmount all opposition. Death conveniently allows writers to discard queer characters after taking advantage of the emotional heft of their struggles.
In most stories, if you’re queer, you’re expendable. The white cisgender heteronormative heterosexuals will save the world without you. Let’s call this trend of unrelenting systemic violence “Queers in Refrigerators,” in homage to Gail Simone’s “Women in Refrigerators ” project, which analyzed how women in comics had been disempowered, injured, or murdered in order to advance the stories of male protagonists.
In real life, queer people fall in love, go to coffee shops, and complain about their Internet service providers just like their straight and cisgender peers. And if we also do these things, then of course in an alternate world we’d also be a part of government espionages, intergalactic wars, and zombie apocalypses. A quick Google search will tell you that queer people have been a part of the real world equivalent of those things throughout all of recorded history.
In speculative fiction, gender is typically only explored in the context of an alien species that is definitively non-human—that is literally Other. Often, human characters view the aliens’ non-binary identities as disconcerting if not utterly repulsive. These damaging and extreme expressions of transphobia are often left unchallenged and unresolved. Pretending that intersex and trans* people can be found only in alien species is grossly offensive and is an outright denial of reality.
The rigid adherence to the gender binary is a direct result of colonization and the oppression of past and present indigenous cultures that embrace non-binary genders. Not only do we need more trans* characters, but we also need more characters who identify outside of the Western colonial gender system altogether.
Alex Dally MacFarlane has done excellent work in trying to end the default of binary gender in speculative fiction and to bring attention to works that explore post-binary gender.
In this post , she describes how writers and readers alike will often decry the inclusion of trans* characters in speculative fiction because they find non-binary pronouns jarring and outlandish. People will go out of their way to learn Elvish or some other made-up language, but ask that people use pronouns used by real human beings and they act as if they’ve been transported to some kind of dystopia.
Given how many cultures have non-binary genders, in a grand scale speculative work it would be disingenuous not to have multiple pronoun systems from multiple cultures. The inclusion of non-binary characters is simply another—often neglected—aspect of worldbuilding.
Stories are both mirrors and windows—they reveal our deepest preoccupations to us and offer a glimpse into the lives of others. But few stories reflect back the diversity of their readers.
I’m gay, but I’m also white, cisgender, able-bodied, and middle-class—meaning that even within the pathetic lack of representation of queer folk, I’m gorging on pies while my trans* people of colour friends are starving for crumbs.
The lack of queer characters of colour is intertwined with the lack of representation of racialized characters in general; this parallels the lack of representation of queer women in comparison to queer men. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality is vital here: where multiple dimensions of oppression intersect, further erasure is inevitable. The less a character resembles the idealized white, able, cisgender, heterosexual male hero, the less likely it is that that character will be represented in fiction (let alone given a positive portrayal or a leading role).
Diversity is reality. The lack of diverse characters in fiction is not a mere oversight—it is an intentional and malicious effort to distort reality through exclusion and erasure.
We create art in part to immortalize the things that we believe are precious, and the underlying reason why people read stories is to explore what it means to be human. Thus, the failure to include diverse characters is both a devaluation of their real world counterparts and a refusal to acknowledge that they are worthy of empathy, compassion, and understanding.
It is a rejection of their humanity.
After coming out, I gave my mother a copy of David Levithan’s newest (and best) book, Two Boys Kissing. Sometimes stories can say things that we can’t articulate; they can be a gateway to let others into our minds and hearts. There’s no official manual for life, but stories are often the closest thing we have.
Despite her reservations, for Christmas my mother gave me a copy of a new book by one of my favourite authors, Patrick Ness’s More Than This. It’s one of the few novels I’ve read where the protagonist’s sexuality does not preclude their chance to be a hero.
Reading books about characters like me was crucial to my realization that I was not alone and to my understanding that I wasn’t broken, sick, or doomed to be unhappy. We need diverse books because there is nothing criminal or disordered about queer people.
But getting diverse books written is only a small part of the battle—they also need to be accessible. I have access to the Toronto Public Library’s catalogue, and, if necessary, can order books online without financial stress. However, many do not have access to these resources—let alone a closet in which to hide their books—and for them it is near impossible to read books with characters like them.
Diverse books are being written—but they’re usually published by smaller presses and aren’t likely to crack any bestseller lists or to be found in most bookstores. So we also need to support diverse books—buy them if possible, or ask your local library to stock them. Spread the word through social media; word-of-mouth has always been the most effective campaign in publishing.
There are many amazing queer speculative fiction books already in print: Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente, Octavia E. Butler’s Lilith’s Brood trilogy, Malinda Lo’s Adaptation and Inheritance, and the works of Nicola Griffith, Nalo Hopkinson, Clive Barker, and Melissa Scott.
We need diverse books because I know firsthand how seeing yourself in fiction can give you the courage to live openly and to own your truth.
We might be queer, but when we read we’re still dreaming of saving the world, of practising magic, of falling in love. We deserve acknowledgement that we exist—we deserve better books.
-contributed by Alex De Pompa