Representation In Literature: LGBTQ+ Inclusivity

A famous book of the young adult fiction genre is the Percy Jackson series. Rick Riordan went to great lengths to make his novels as inclusive as possible. Characters ranging from different nationalities, colour, creed and sexual orientation have been portrayed as both protagonists as well as supporting characters. In the first 5 novels under the title of Percy Jackson, the author only hinted at how some of the characters were not heterosexual. Post 2013, the character of Nico DiAngelo was shown as a openly gay character. In fact, Rick Riordan’s novels after the Heroes of Olympus series, under the title of Trials of Apollo and Magnus Chase have show characters being bisexual, lesbian, pansexual as well as gender fluid. Authors such as Madeline Miller, John Green, Becky Albertalli and so on have also written novels having LGBTQ+ characters as the protagonists.

While such established authors have been able to write books having queer characters, majority of the authors who write novels having LGBTQ+ characters face tons of criticism as well as backlash. Not only are such authors incentivised to write about straight characters, there have been multiple instances where they were asked to “straighten” their characters as a condition for the book to be published by the publication house. This process is termed “straight washing” and authors like Jessica Verday (Wicked Pretty Things) and co-authors of Stranger, Sherwood Smith and Rachel Manija have come in the open regarding how they were asked to do the same. This “straightening” of characters has been found morally outrageous by the writers of these characters. Unfortunately, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to queer representation in literature. A very common practice in Medieval and Renaissance literature is queer erasure, a heteronormative cultural tendency to remove queer groups intentionally or otherwise, to downplay or dismiss their significance. This erasure is evident in oral lore and art as well. This practice morphed into different forms in the twentieth century. This era saw book ban, censorship and prosecution of authors who wrote about LGBTQ+ characters. Up until mid-twentieth centry, it was illegal to express homosexuality in multiple nations. We can find multiple examples throughtout history illustrating how expressing homosexuality or diverting from the heteronormatic identity of gender was frowned upon. Stories of how the works of Sappho were destroyed during the rule of fourth century archbishop Gregory of Nazianzus and eleventh century Pope Gregory VII, due to their portrayal of lesbianism. In the refusal by publishers for publishing books having LGBTQ+ representation, we see how this exclusion was enforced by both the state and the public. To understand the extent of this practice in the current times, in 2018, the American Library Association reported that half of the top ten most-challenged books in the country were contested because of the presence of LGBTQ+ characters in them. 

While the authors and poets in the past faced obstacles when it came to expression of homosexuality in text, the authors of today’s day and age are confounded with another set of troubles. It is seen that many of the novels published, that contain homosexual characters, are 

critiqued not because of the characters sexuality or gender, but regarding how legitimate it is for a binary or straight author to write about LGBTQ+ characters. A lot of authors have started to fear that if they do not include at least one LGBTQ+ character in their text, they will come across as homophobic or bigoted. While these lines of thought deter the authors from writing queer characters, rules, such as restriction on novels about LGBTQ+ characters in libraries, or practices like character straigthtening, further take representation rights of this community from the general reader’s reach.

However, if we want to truly understand what it means for a community to be represented in text, we can’t restrict our study to an author’s experience of doing the same.  A quote comes to my mind, when we speak about representation in fiction.

“ Literature can provide a safe haven of knowledge and reassurance for those whose feelings stray from the ‘normalised’ biologies and identities of human beings.”

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What it means to identify oneself in any form of media can never be understood by those belonging to majority communities whose representation is commonly found throughout history. The struggle of LGBTQ+ representation can be traced as far back as the 4th century, and from the 18th century onwards, people belonging to this community were prosecuted. To be able to write about characters belonging to this community is a historical landmark in LGBTQ+ literature, a homage to the struggle of authors who dared to defy the state law and present society as it was, and not as the state deemed fit, a homage to those who were given death sentences for who they were. Moreover, it is a way for the queer community to know that their identity is not something to be dismissed, that they are recognised and accepted. Even if this acceptance comes through a fictional novel at our local bookstore, it counts for something. While we encounter an age where the concept of ‘rainbow capitalism’ comes in every June, the pride month that marks trans-exclusionary femininity and backlashes the idea of bisexuality, to be able to have books which do not portray homosexuality- however unconsciously- as the only other sexual preference, books that show non-binary genders as a part of their world, are imperative. It is imperative for those who are still at loss of who they are, who they love, or feel that their decisions of themselves are not acceptable to the world. 

-Anshi Pandey

FY BSc Economics

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