17 October 2013

Why LGBT+ Representation is Important in YA

Amber: A couple of weeks ago, I was casually scrolling through my Twitter feed when I saw that Christina had asked about ships. If you know me at all, you'll know that I am a huge shipper; in books, on TV, and in movies. I am a fangirl, and I can't help myself. So of course I jumped into the conversations that were going on, and the topic of slash shipping came up. One thing led to another, and I found myself getting annoyed for the thousandth time about the lack of LGBT+ representation in YA. I asked people to name books with queer protagonists, whose sexuality is not the main focus of the plot. I wanted fantasy novels, dystopia, science fiction, with characters who just happened to be anything other than straight. I got a mere handful of responses. Seriously. I got so annoyed that I ran to Lauren and asked her to write a guest post, because I think that this is an important topic of discussion, and I felt that Lauren could say it better than I could.
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Let me start by telling you a little story about myself growing up. I was raised in a small village about an hour’s drive from the centre of London. This village was White. I am descended from Irish Gypsies (dark eyes, wild dark hair, olive skin tone) and when I moved into this village at the age of 7, I was literally the darkest skin tone these villagers had ever come across (I had a lot of racial slurs thrown at me growing up. Twas awesome). In this village, 80% of the inhabitants had blue eyes, despite the colour being a recessive gene (looking back, I’m going with inbreeding tbh). At my high school, there were 2000 students, 4 of which were people of colour - all from the same Pakistani family. Then, when I was 18, I went to university in Central London. My first day, I got on the London Underground, got off at my stop and stepped outside... and was absolutely blindsided by the sheer amount of racial and ethnic diversity that hit me in the face. I spent the first few weeks being completely terrified of interacting with these people, because they were so different from what I knew about the world. I didn’t know the difference between a Niqab and a Hijab, between African and Jamaican descent, between Sikh and Muslim, and I lumped everyone that looked like they might be brown under the label ‘Asian’. I was scared of getting something wrong, of making a mistake and offending someone without realising, and it took me a long time to overcome this fear and see all these different races and ethnicities as just people, beautiful, amazing people.

So, why did I react this way, when I had spent the majority of my life being looked at out of the corner of people’s eyes due to my own colouring? Why couldn’t I see immediately that these were all just people like myself, instead of some weird group that had nothing to do with me? Why was I so scared to talk to them, kept my head bowed away from them as though they were alien creatures? The answer is simple: because there was (and unfortunately still is) a lack of representation in mainstream media. Television, movies, books, they all reflected my own personal surroundings, which was incredibly insular. It meant that I had no chance growing up to learn that outside of my own tiny sphere, there was an entire world filled with different, awesome people, all of whom have something important to bring to the social table. All of my social outlets told me the same thing; Blacks were criminals and ‘Asians’ run the corner shops (seriously, watch any show from the 90s, especially British, this is what they tell you) and they are surrounded by White people. And then London happened to me and I got handed a message: sorry Lauren, but that’s not in fact how the world works.

I was fortunate enough to grow up in a very accepting household. When I was picked on because of my looks, my mother (blue eyes, pale skin) and step-father (also blue eyed, pale skinned) would tell me that I was beautiful, that what I looked like had absolutely nothing to do with who I was on the inside and what I had to offer the world. The same thing happened when I started wondering about my sexuality, about how I was attracted to girls just as much as boys. They told me that it didn’t matter who I loved; as long as I was happy, they would be happy for me. But although I was lucky to be so unconditionally loved and accepted within my own family, I grew up just assuming that I was different. I had dark eyes and skin because I was different, and I liked girls as well as boys because I was different. There was nobody else like me in my entire world. And as much as I accepted this fact, it was still an incredibly lonely experience. I was alien, I was ‘Other’, compared to the people that made up my world, and that world included all the fictional characters I either read about or watched on TV. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” Unfortunately, the opposite is true for me, because the vast majority of literature and TV shows are made up of white, straight, and (more often than not) male characters, and I am none of those things. According to literature, according to TV shows, my longings are not universal, I am lonely and isolated from everyone. I do not belong.

When it comes to the subject of queer representation within social media, there seems to be a pervasive sense of “not in front of me”. Time and time again I hear some variation of “hey, I’m not homophobic, I have a cousin who is gay! I’d just rather not see it on my page/screen.” But, why don’t they want to see it? Because it makes them uncomfortable, just like my first few weeks at university made me uncomfortable. And why does it make them uncomfortable? Because it’s not the norm. Because mainstream media ‘Other’s these people, makes them seem alien, strange. But here’s the catch; if mainstream media were to treat queer representation in the same way as they treat straight representation, then it would cease to be so alien. So what would happen if queer representation was suddenly made equal? Sure, some members of the heterosexual audience would be uncomfortable for a while - humans are creatures of habit who reject change as a matter of course, after all. However, most importantly? The next generation would find it normal. In the 20 years since I was at high school, people of colour have begun to be much more prevalent within mainstream media (although there is still some work to be done on that front too), meaning that my children will never go through the same shock that I went through upon venturing out into the world at large. If similar progress was made for the queer community, the same thing would happen in the future. Straight people wouldn’t feel uncomfortable, and queer people wouldn’t feel ostracized. Because guys, us queer people are just people who happen to be queer, just as straight people are people who happen to be straight. Rip off our skin and we are all the same underneath; take way who we like to have sex with and we are still all the same underneath.

Anthropologically speaking, the reason why we are social creatures can be summed up with the following phrase: “It takes a village”. Now however, things have changed, and now “it takes entertainment media and access to the internet”. Whereas we were separated into small groups, our ‘village’ has now expanded worldwide, and the people in charge of informing society on its rules and boundaries are the ones with access to the widest audience at any given time. In place of the religious leaders/village elders/healers/magic users, we now have music, tv shows, movies, books. They tell us through their stories how to act, how to be safe, just as stories were originally intended, back when we were all just a small group of people gathered around a fire. I doubt anyone managed to miss the internet furore over Miley Cyrus’s weird foam finger dance, because oh my gosh! Imagine all those fans of hers that are going to think that kind of behaviour is okay! And they’re right; whatever a public figure says, does, or thinks, is going to have a bigger impact on society in general, purely because they are in a position of influence. And because our current society has fallen into the trap of capitalism, we are caught in a vicious cycle: entertainment media is too scared to upset society, so society keeps on thinking their current behaviour is okay, which keeps entertainment media too scared to upset the status quo. Something has to give in order for this cycle to be broken, and just as Miley has the moral and social obligation to be a good role model over the people she has influence over, so entertainment media has the moral and social obligation to stop the perpetuation of heteronormativity. They are the ones with the power here, they are the ones with the influence. They are our village elders, and they have the responsibility of making sure that our villagers have the correct tools for making sure our society works to the best of its ability.

Until someone steps up and takes the reins for our society, those of us who see the problem, who deal with it in our everyday lives, we need to try our best to make our voices heard. While it is not our responsibility to give out the message ourselves, we are a part of this village, and we have a duty to help our elders when it appears that they are floundering. Shipping slash is a way for us to do that, for us to stand up and whisper this is how it should be done in their ears over and over until the message sinks in: something has to change. And if we whisper it enough times then at some point someone is going to hear it and realise that it is down to them to make the change. But sitting back on our haunches and waiting for them to come to the realisation on their own is just as bad - that non-action is also perpetuating heteronormativity. Refusing to ship against “canon established sexuality” does nothing other than silence our voice over how our society should be behaving. It doesn’t matter if slash subtext was meant to be read or not, what matters is that we are using this as a platform to ask the question, why isn’t it in any of the text? Slash shipping is a way for us to get our voices heard, a way to make people sit up and take notice of the fact that we are so unhappy with the current status quo that we have had to resort to making up our own stories. It is their social obligation to teach us not to oppress any of the people who live within our society, and it is my social obligation to ship slash as loudly as I possibly can until I don’t have to anymore, because they’ve got the message and made a change.

Queer representation within social media is important, and especially so in Young Adult genres, for two distinct reasons. The target audiences for these stories are at the beginning of building their own worlds; this is the time when Young Adults are learning what it means to be a social creature, to understand where and how they fit into society. All those books and TV shows out there that are centred around heterosexual love are merely perpetuating the belief that this is the Norm, and anything outside of those lines are alien, strange, ‘Other’. Instead of reinforcing this, we should be trying to eradicate it, because otherwise all we are doing is setting these people up for failure when they eventually step out into the world. Because the truth is, there are queer people within our society. You will have to work alongside us, you will have to sit next to us on a bus or a train, you will have to serve food to us, be served food by us, be given medical treatment by us. You will have to share your picnic spaces with us, watch as we kiss our loved ones just as we watch you kiss yours. Your children will have playdates with ours, and we will share your holiday destinations. You can’t escape us in the Real World, and the myth that current mainstream media is selling to you is just that; a myth. Because unlike what the media tells us right now, we aren’t actually that noticeable. All of those things above will happen to you without you even knowing. Because we’re people, just the same as you. What mainstream media should be doing is reflecting this truth, showing everyone just how normal queerness is. And YA genres need to do this so that when Young Adults go out into the world, they aren’t blindsided by this truth.

There is another reason why queer representation is so important, and it’s so that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s words can be true for everyone. Sexuality isn’t something that springs up when people are in their mid-twenties - it’s something we’re born with. When hormones kick in and we all start frantically trying to work out how our bodies work, queer people are also trying to work out if their longings are normal. Well, heads up guys, they are normal, and we should be showing them that truth. Instead of leaving them out in the cold and dark, we should be showing them that their longings are universal, that they’re not lonely or isolated from anyone. We should be showing them that they belong. 

So here’s the thing. Mainstream media used to reflect what was going on in society; it was a way for people to connect to others all around the world. These days, it seems to be holding tight to an antiquated belief that no longer holds true within our society. And this is why so many people slash ship and shout about it loud and clear; because mainstream media hasn’t yet got the message that times have changed. So, as a member of the queer community and a proud slash shipper, here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to shout about it, I’m going to shove it in your faces, I’m going to dance naked in front of you with “LGTB+ representation!” written all over me in bright red lipstick and make you all as uncomfortable as Hell until it stops being uncomfortable and just becomes normal. Because that will mean that equality has happened.

It will mean that I belong.

12 comments:

  1. <3 this post. While Trey isn't the MC in Lisa McMann's Visions series, he is the MC's brother and he is proudly gay and wonderful. Being gay isn't the main part of his character, the main part is being a good big brother. I also love that the POV is first person, since we get to read about Jules' thoughts on how people treat her brother and I hope it goes a little ways towards showing teens who are questioning that they are okay.

    On a personal note, I definitely empathize with this post. It took me until college to realize that I wasn't straight (I identify as bisexual now) not because I didn't know about homosexuality (we had a GSA at my high school) but because I didn't realize that there was something besides straight and gay! I figured that I liked boys (as well as girls) so I must be straight because I was obviously not gay. We definitely need to get more diversity of all types into YA, but I seriously can't think of a single bisexual (/pansexual/queer) character at all (Oo, I just thought of Summer Prince though, yey). In some ways that might be the easier transition since there can still be "traditional" relationships, but if the book is first-person, we can get a clear message that the female MC also thinks girls are attractive even if she ends up with a boy. There better also be gay MC's, since you're right, I read about gay "sidekicks" plenty, but no MC's. Probably because of the romance plotline being so important in modern day YA :-/

    Also, I remember reading a post about the "not homophobic but..." line is crap, perhaps from Foz Meadows? That post made the excellent point about sexuality that you made with skin color/ethnicity. LGBT+ people that are raised in non-diverse settings often end up being afraid of other LGBT+ people or themselves because they subconsciously bought in to the message that LGBT+ is a scary and uncomfortable thing :(

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    1. Omg yes, bisexuality is actually even worse off for representation (up top, fellow equal opportunity lover!) because people become uncomfortable going against a character's previously established sexuality which, is actually not even a thing, it's simply previous sexual experience that society's heteronormativity translates into a sexuality choice. There needs to be more queer MCs, because queer people also need to know that they can be the hero of their own story, and because straight people need to know that being gay isn't what defines a person. There needs to be equal representation so that Young Adults can grow up understanding that sexuality is a personal thing that has no bearing on their place in society, and know that society feels the same way. Which it won't, until we get that equality tbh

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  2. I've been thinking about a proper comment for a while now, but I just want to say that you've phrased it all in such a good way. I have never been in the same situation, but I still have an idea how it must have feel liked to be in your situation. It would be great to see more different types of MC's. One of the books I recently found with a lesbian character was the Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger. (In the second book.) I love how there was no emphasis on the fact that she was a lesbian, because that is also something that annoys me. They always seem to force me to SEE it's about a character that isn't straight. Like "she has blue eyes, brown hair and she is a lesbian." It's not something that defines you as a character..

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    1. That's the thing about it really, we all have something about us that makes us a little bit different to everyone else, and it's a little bit ridiculous that society has somehow found itself clinging to the idea of 'normal', because nobody is 'normal', for goodness sake. My 3y/o met a little boy with Downs Syndrome today, and she asked what had happened to him because "his face looks not-normal". So I told her that he was just born a bit different, but we're all born a bit different, so different *is* normal. Instead of either adhering to what we've been told is 'normal' or going in the opposite direction and creating characters that are all about their 'differences', we should be concentrating on what makes us all the same; our desires, our feelings, our needs. Define characters by how they react to situations, instead of what they look like, or by who they're attracted to. Those things are unimportant, it's the choices we make that create a compelling story.

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  3. I love to read books that contain something different from the mainstream norm. A perfect example of this is
    The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño, where there's a huge cast of characters from around the world of both genders, and LGBT characters. Some of them also step out of the gender norm like one of the characters is a female body builder. However, a lot of these books tend to be Adult books. A lot of YA books that contain stuff stated above are usually hard to find.

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    1. There are some awesome book series out there that do manage to bring a little variety and equality into their cast of characters, but you're right in that it rarely happens in YA. Which is such a shame because that is the age group that needs to see the representation the most, and it really saddens me that we are in the 21st century and people are still being oppressed through ignorance. It's really time we moved on from this social outlook tbh

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  4. This is such a beautiful, heartfelt post. I literally yelled out "YES!" several times while reading, and nodding my head in a agreement. Beautifully written too -- you've got a gift!

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    1. Thank you, what a sweet reply! I'm glad you agree - the more we all talk about it, instead of treating it like the taboo subject society has decreed it as, the quicker something might change, after all. <3

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  5. yes to all of this! we talk a lot about 'slash' and i think you perfectly set out why it's an important thing to acknowledge. i have deep thoughts about this which i cannot discuss while watching one tree hill but the point is you're occasionally awesome

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    1. Occasionally awesome? Tuh, some girlfriend you are, I'm going to trade you in for a better model because you suck. I do love our slash conversations though, I feel like they should be set out in large print for the entire world to read. Although possibly not the DeanCas convos, because nobody needs to read about me breaking down every 5 minutes over those two assholes t b h

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  6. I'm only like two months late with this comment. SORRY. Life got a little crazy and then I got a little forgetful and yeah. Anyway, here are my long overdue thoughts on your post. First of all, it gave me goosebumps. Dude, you are SERIOUSLY talented. This was absolutely beautifully written and you need to hurry up with that NaNo book so I can read it. Kthxbye.

    Last month I read More Than This by Patrick Ness for book club and the reason I liked it was because Ness writes characters that would be non-standard in all other books, in a way that doesn’t make a big deal out of it at all. There are three characters, one of which is gay, one of which is black and one of which is a little kid from Poland. Not really what we’re used to from YA. Ness obviously doesn’t care. These are just characters, and where other authors would have made a big deal out of it (by mentioning it over and over again blah blah), he doesn’t. The one character being gay is not the main plot point, as it so often is. But the thing is, this stood out to me, because it’s not something we’re used to from books – and DEFINITELY not YA, because god forbid YA authors take a chance with anything. And it shouldn’t stand out. It should be normal to have characters with different races and sexual orientations and anything else. But at least books like these are out there, and I completely agree that it is SO important to have books like that, and especially for children and young adults, because they are still growing up and defining who they are and learning about themselves.

    On the slash shipping: I also definitely think that the fact that most people only ship by pre-determined sexuality is because that is what we see in the media, and if these characters aren’t “pre-determined” as bisexual, then why should they ship against it? Personally, I think chemistry and attraction are not pre-determined by anything. Even though these characters are probably gay or straight, that doesn’t mean that they can’t have chemistry with people who aren’t something they would usually fall for. If that makes sense. Gah, I don’t even know anymore. I could talk so much more about this because I think equality is SO SO SO important, but I think I melted my brain with all this rambling. This is a very incoherent comment, but whatever.

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    1. Haha it's cool, only losers show up to the party on time! ;) I will get right on that NaNo for you, promise!

      I haven't read any Ness books yet, although people keep throwing him at me for recs, but your comment has just bumped his books way up my list of Want To Read Right The Fuck Now, because yessssss to equal representation without making it into a Thing To Be Discussed tbh.

      Yep, exactly, society pushes us to see things as Hetero Until Proven Otherwise, and many people seem to miss the fact that sexuality can be fluid for some people. I mean, do they think that all queer people are like "oh gross, genitals of the opposite sex, noPE" right from the very beginning? Of course not, there's almost always a little bit of hetero experimentation before they realise that it's just not working for them, so there will always be that 'first' relationship that sets the boundaries of their personal queerness after all the hetero stuff. So why can't it be the same in books? Sure, Character A has only ever had girlfriends in the past, but then he meets that one guy who makes him think differently. How is that such a hard concept to grasp? And that's what slash shipping is, it's the audience giving Character A an option on his sexuality.

      Your comment was perfect, and one of these days you're going to have to come into Chat with us and join our epic slash discussions, because we literally NEVER stop and it's always awesome! <3

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