What Is LGBTQ+ Fiction—And Does a Writer Have to Be Queer to Write It? | Jane Friedman

What Is LGBTQ+ Fiction—And Does a Writer Have to Be Queer to Write It? | Jane Friedman

Photo by Agustin Gunawan on Unsplash

Today’s post is by book coach and editor Amy Koerner.

Despite the recent wave of LGBTQ+ book bans, sales of queer fiction titles are booming. From May 2022 to May 2023, 6.1 million LGBTQ+ fiction books were sold in the US alone, a 173% increase compared to 2019.

These books are making waves, but what exactly is LGBTQ+ fiction? Is it a genre in its own right? and what does all of this mean for those who write LGBTQ+ fiction?

What is the definition of LGBTQ+ fiction?

Defining queer fiction isn’t easy. The reality is that there isn’t one single definition of what it is. But while there isn’t a correct or standard definition, there are definitely some specific factors to take into consideration when attempting to define it. One possible definition is as follows:

LGBTQ+ fiction = fiction about or by queer people that explicitly or implicitly explores LGBTQ+ experiences, issues, relationships, history or pride

This definition can be better understood in light of the answers to four key questions:

  1. Does an LGBTQ+ story need to be about being queer?
  2. Does an LGBTQ+ story need to have a queer protagonist?
  3. Is a book considered LGBTQ+ if it has just one queer character?
  4. Does a writer have to be queer to write an LGBTQ+ story?

1. Does an LGBTQ+ story need to be about being queer?

No, it doesn’t need to be specifically about being queer, but it definitely can be. Some fiction explicitly explores what it means to be queer, how it feels for someone to come out or realise they identify as LGBTQ+ and the challenges many LGBTQ+ people still face today. In these books, queerness and queer issues are explored front and center.

On the other hand, some stories are more implicit in their approach to LGBTQ+ inclusion and visibility. For example, the characters might be incidentally queer, with the focus of the plot being something other than their sexuality or gender. These kinds of stories are also crucially important, as they present queerness as something commonplace and everyday, which it is—or should be.

2. Does an LGBTQ+ story need to have a queer protagonist?

The simple answer is no, it doesn’t. While many LGBTQ+ books do have queer protagonists, this is not always the case, especially when it comes to children’s fiction. For example, there are many picture books or middle-grade novels in which it’s the protagonist’s parent, parents, sibling or other family member who identifies as LGBTQ+.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t also books for younger readers in which the protagonist is LGBTQ+ themselves or is exploring their identity, but books that focus on a rainbow family or queer family member as opposed to a queer protagonist can still very much be considered LGBTQ+ fiction.

3. Is a book considered LGBTQ+ if it has just one queer character?

The answer is a little more nuanced here, in that it depends very much on the queer character in question and how they are portrayed. This is where the Vito Russo Test comes into play.

This test was invented by GLAAD, the world’s largest LGBTQ+ advocacy organization whose mission is to promote fair, accurate and inclusive representation of LGBTQ+ people in the media. The Vito Russo Test is designed to help filmmakers create more multidimensional queer characters, but it is absolutely applicable to fiction too. The criteria a story has to meet in order to pass the test are as follows:

  • There must be a character who is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender.
  • The character must be defined by more than just their sexual orientation or gender identity. That is to say, they have the same sort of unique character traits commonly used to differentiate allocishet characters from one another.
  • The character must be so central to the story that removing them would have a significant impact. As GLAAD puts it, this means the character is not there “to simply provide colorful commentary, paint urban authenticity, or (perhaps most commonly) set up a punchline. The character should ‘matter.’”

So to return to the question at hand—Is a book considered LGBTQ+ if it has just one queer character?—it can be argued that yes, it is, IF that character meets the criteria outlined in the Vito Russo Test. But if the only queer character is just a token addition to the story or is more of a stereotype than a believable, three-dimensional individual (such as a gay best friend or hairdresser), then no, it’s not.

All of this being said, it’s often advisable to have more than one LGBTQ+ character in a story. This allows the writer to celebrate more of the many identities that exist under the rainbow and avoid one character coming across as representative of an entire community. It’s also a more realistic representation of the diversity of real life.

4. Does a writer have to be queer to write an LGBTQ+ story?

This is perhaps the most debated question of all, but again, the answer is no. Whilst it is without a doubt important to highlight and celebrate LGBTQ+ and other marginalized voices within the publishing industry, a writer does not have to be queer to write a queer story.

Many of the people who feel drawn to writing an LGBTQ+ book do identify as queer themselves, but when it comes down to it, so long as the writer is committed to writing a queer story that is respectful and informed, then anyone can do so, including:

  • out and proud members of the LGBTQ+ community
  • writers who identify as queer but haven’t come out yet
  • people who are exploring their own identity by writing an LGBTQ+ story
  • individuals who are simply drawn to writing LGBTQ+ stories
  • active and committed allies keen to support the LGBTQ+ community

That said, if someone has no personal experience of something they’re writing about, it’s crucial that they do their research to make sure that their representation is both informed and respectful and that they’re not accidentally playing into any LGBTQ+ stereotypes. This is where sensitivity readers can be incredibly helpful.

Is LGBTQ+ a genre?

No, it’s not. A genre refers to the style of book the author is writing—the kind of story they’re telling, such as romance, sci-fi, fantasy or mystery.

For example, if someone likes reading romance, then they enjoy stories that center on the romantic relationship(s) of the main characters and have happy endings. But if someone likes reading LGBTQ+ fiction, whilst that may say something about the person themselves, it doesn’t clarify the kind of story they like to read.

However, even if queer fiction isn’t a genre in its own right, it can be written within any genre, from queer romance to queer fantasy, queer mysteries to queer science fiction. In fact, in order to reach as many readers as possible, it’s crucial that there are LGBTQ+ characters and stories found in a wide variety of genres.

What does this mean for writers of LGBTQ+ fiction?

It means there is both a lot of freedom when it comes to writing LGBTQ+ fiction and a lot of things to be aware of. While there are no fixed conventions writers need to adhere to or reader expectations they have to fulfill in terms of the queer content of their story, there is nonetheless much to think about and be aware of.

The LGBTQ+ representation in the book needs to be informed and respectful, queer characters must be three-dimensional, believable people and those characters must also be central to the story. In addition to these considerations that are specific to queer fiction, there are also all the usual craft elements to think about, such as giving the protagonist a goal, making sure there are stakes and conflict, ensuring the protagonist has an arc of change, etc.

But if a writer successfully does all of that, they will be well on their way to writing a strong, compelling LGBTQ+ story—and the world really needs more of those right now.

Head to Amy’s website to get her free LGBTQ+ Story-Writing Guide and find out more about how she helps writers of queer kidlit.

Amy Koerner

Amy Koerner is an Author Accelerator certified book coach and editor. She specialises in helping writers of queer children’s and young adult fiction who dream of making a difference in the world to overcome self-doubt so they can write with confidence and pride. In the safe space she creates for her writers, she encourages them to dig deep into their why and unravel the story they need to tell. Connect with Amy on Instagram or head to her website to get her free LGBTQ+ Story-Writing Guide and find out more about how she helps writers of queer kidlit.

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