Saturday, April 12, 2014
Okay, let me start by saying I’m a lesbian. A big ol’ lesbian. I’m also an avid lover of books. My mother raised me to believe that reading is the best way to both entertain and educate yourself. I read hundreds of books as a child. Thousands, probably—everything from biography to history to gothic, fantasy and science fiction. Never, though, did I ever see such an important part of myself in a book as when I opened a battered copy of Mercedes Lackey’s Magic’s Pawn.
“He doesn’t like girls,” giggled an idiot on page 81. “He likes boys. Lucky boys!"
She snickered the words behind her hand, whispering like it was something to be ashamed of, despite the beauty of Tylendel, the boy who was the subject of her speculations. That’s the only way I’d ever seen gay people depicted in literature. They were a subject of hushed words and knowing glances, their lives the topic of scandalous gossip in locker rooms or pointed sermons in churches. Having been raised deep in the American south, this was familiar ground. This was my reality.
Twenty pages later, though, the protagonist—the distinctly male protagonist—and Tylendel were kissing one another furiously.
I read it again to make sure I’d gotten it right.
Vanyel was gay.
He was gay, and he was the main character of a mainstream fantasy novel by a bestselling author. Mercedes Lackey wasn’t speaking in whispers or giggling behind her hand as she muttered indecencies to girls who got off on being scandalized. She wasn’t making a statement against him. His sexuality wasn’t even the point of the novel. It was simply a part of his life and a part of his personality, as it is for every other gay boy out there.
“There is in you a fear, a shame, placed there by your own doubts and the thoughts of one who knew no better,” she tells Vanyel through the words of another character. “There is no shame in loving.”
I don’t remember how old I was. Fifteen? Sixteen? It doesn’t matter. I cried when I read those words. My hands shook, and I lost the ability to breathe. Never had I read anything that so echoed what I felt within me.
When I finished the book, I read every other novel I could find by Mercedes Lackey, and what I discovered was that almost all of her books included gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender characters. Why? Because they’re a part of the world, and literature is about the world. The whole of it, and not just the parts that so much of society finds savory.
I began finding characters like this in novels by other authors as well (Tanya Huff’s The Fire’s Stone, for instance, and Anne Rice's The Vampire Lestat), and my heart stamped out a lovely beat.
Mostly what I found, though, is that books with LGBT main characters aren’t usually filed under the major genres. They’re segregated out and slipped into a category specifically titled “gay and lesbian literature”. I found the same issue with books centered around protagonists of other minorities—black ones, Hispanic ones, disabled ones, autistic ones, ones of multiple races or ethnicities. Books about those individuals are largely filed under “ethic literature” or a similarly titled section of the book store. They’re also largely self-published, or published by small presses that specialize in printing literature for and about minorities.
There were and are exceptions, of course, but from what I’ve seen, most books, to be considered part of a mainstream genre, usually require a protagonist who is both straight and white.
I hate this with the fiery passion of a thousand burned books.
I hate this as a lesbian, as a woman, as a human being, and as the mother of a young girl who is black, white and Cuban, a young girl who may never grow to see herself reflected back at her from the pages of a book, at least not in a way that tells her she is a part of something rather than apart from it. I don’t want her to grow up in this world in which the romance genre is divided into romance, ethnic romance, and LGBT romance, in which the sci-fi/fantasy shelves, teen fiction and YA fiction shelves are stocked with straight white protagonists and all novels that don’t fit into that mold are relegated to the segregated shelves under the heading of “LGBT Literature” or “African American Literature” regardless of the novel’s true genre.
I fell in love with Mercedes Lackey because she is the first author I ever read whose books defied this particular social norm. Her books were mainstream. They were found in the sci-fi/fantasy section of every book store I walked into, not in the gay literature section. They were sitting right there in the middle of a hundred other fantasy books, like it was a completely normal thing to do.
Which it was, of course. It still is.
We need diversity in literature because life is diverse. I don’t read books exclusively about women, about mothers, about lesbians, about 9-1-1 dispatchers. I am these things, sure, but I read books about everything because I am also a part of the world, and I want to read about everything and everyone in it. Books are about the world, and they should reflect more than just a single part of it. We need Hispanic protagonists, Japanese protagonists, gay ones, transgender ones, protagonists with same sex parents, adoptive parents, single parents. We need protagonists who are adoptive parents. We need all of these things and so much more, and we need them in supporting roles as well. We need them in books that are sitting right smack in the midst of every other book out there, not stuffed into a corner of the store by themselves, visited only by those people who are black, are lesbian, are anything that is actually included in those corner sections. Why? Because these people deserve to see themselves as a part of the world, and because all people need to be exposed, both in life and in literature, to that which is not a part of their own lives.
To put it simply, a book is LGBT literature when the focus of the book is exploring issues specifically related to being LGBT. A book is not LGBT literature simply because the main character happens to be LGBT. This is something so many people and so many publishers seem to miss or dismiss, and not just in reference to us big ol’ lesbians. It happens to books and movies who happen to be about anyone who isn’t straight or white (or even male), really.
We need more Mercedes Lackeys in this world, and we need more publishers, more editors (and more filmmakers) willing to offer these writers their support, their contracts and their printers.