The publishing world has been talking a lot about representation and diversity recently. It’s a movement that I’m all for: we need more #OwnVoices authors producing content and a greater variety of characters in our stories. This is the perfect time for change in the industry, and every day I see literary agents on Twitter seeking these stories and authors as well as hosting conversations about who is sitting behind the desks at publishing houses. It’s not just a matter of appearing in more stories, though: it’s about having a variety of people being able to do more in fiction.
Consider what I remember from most of the fiction I read, watched, or played as a kid:
- Boys got to be heroes. Girls were there to be annoying sisters, cootie vectors, sidekicks, damsels to rescue, or prizes to win. Sometimes the girl character could be smarter than the boys, but the boys still did cooler things. I was never explicitly told that girls couldn’t be heroes, but the default for hero was “boy.”
- Books with black and brown faces on the covers were historical stories about slavery or the Civil Rights Movement. Those that weren’t were about inner-city gang violence. Black and brown faces just weren’t attached to simple adventure stories: their stories were always grounded in reality and bittersweet if not outright painful. I noticed that these were the books that won awards, but also that they were sad or had content that was often considered too mature for me. As a result, most of the characters I read about, male or female, were white.
- Boys were boys, girls were girls, and boys and girls liked each other and got married. Even tomboys would get girly makeovers so that boys would like them. Again, this isn’t something that was actively enforced in my home life, but I did internalize a lot of it from the media I consumed as well as my peers, who grew up in the same fairly conservative area that I did. There wasn’t a lot of “controversial” media available in my public schools, so I didn’t read many books with LGBTQIA protagonists when I was young: when I see these characters now, they’re either in the background of someone else’s story or their entire narrative arc is a coming-out story grounded in reality.
I’m not saying that these kinds of stories aren’t important or good, because they are. I’m also not saying that I never experienced fiction to the contrary or that my family didn’t try to help me open my mind to differences, because they did. I’m just saying that, when I was younger, there wasn’t much variety in who I read about or the stories that were told, and there was very little room to ask questions or broaden my horizons. The media we consume as children is one of the first places that we learn about people who are different from us, and it shapes how visible certain communities are and how they’re perceived: it’s important to get that kind of education started early.
Going away to college was a shock for me in more ways than one. I hate change as it is, but I was away from the area I grew up in for the first time. While I realized it on a conceptual level, it didn’t really hit me that people who had experiences outside of my own existed. I had a lot of learning to do. I’m far from perfect and still as privileged as ever, but I’d like to think that my mind opened up some.
In fact, my mind opened enough that after I graduated, I questioned the “default” that I had settled into and was content with.
About two years ago, I realized that I’m asexual. Before we go any further with this, no, you’re not going to get details about my bedroom life: most of you are strangers, and besides, my mother reads my posts. My experiences are my own and do not reflect some master “asexual experience,” although my self-discovery was prompted by reading and recognizing myself in the stories of others. I do not consider myself to be a representative of the asexual community, let alone the LGBTQIA community at large. While I try to be an ally, I am not a fair judge of my impact: that title is for someone in the community to bestow on me, not something that I can claim for myself.
I won’t pretend that my journey was full of pain or angst. In fact, I spent most of that time completely oblivious, which not everyone gets the luxury of being. What’s more is that I’m what’s called heteroromantic, meaning that I’m what I’ve been known to call “functionally straight”: I like men, but would shrug and walk away if one was naked and willing in front of me. More accurately, I would assume that I’d walked in on someone else’s private affair, shield my eyes, shout something along the lines of “OH GOD, I’M SORRY!” and not be able to live the experience down for the next decade.
My experience was supported by the “girls like boys” plots of my childhood, which is part of the reason that I literally didn’t realize I wasn’t technically straight until after I was out of school. Most of my crushes were genuine (Rupert Grint, I’m sorry, but I arbitrarily picked you because everyone else had claimed Daniel Radcliffe and I wanted to be a part of playground conversations about our future Harry Potter husbands) and on masculine people, but in hindsight, I seemed to experience them differently than the majority of straight girls. Where I saw them talk about guys being “hot” (I still have no idea what that means, by the way) and wanting to have their way with them under stairwells, in janitor’s closets, or in auxiliary gymnasiums, I experienced boys as being “cute,” was drawn to their personalities, and wanted to hold hands, have conversations, and watch movies with them, possibly with cuddling if we were serious. The idea of anything beyond kissing seemed gross in a “cooties” kind of way, which made perfect sense when I was a kid. However, the feeling persisted into my teenage years and adulthood: I didn’t really talk about it, and it wasn’t addressed as being abnormal, so I went with it.
Part of this was the area I grew up in. It was conservative enough that gay and transgender people just didn’t exist: while a few people in my social circles came out as I was getting to the end of high school, and I was (and am!) perfectly fine with it, I wasn’t aware that transgender was something you could even be until after I spent a year or two at college. Our district’s sex ed program was abstinence-only to the point where I didn’t know what a condom was, let alone what one looked like or how to use it, until I was a freshman in college. In fact, the only things I remember from that class were that sex was how you got pregnant and got STDs (but I never saw a slide show with horrifying pictures) and a demonstration of chewed Oreos spit into cups of water that was supposed to be a metaphor for having multiple sexual partners. Intercourse was a simple matter of “don’t do it unless it’s with your opposite-sex spouse,” and I didn’t question it because I never felt the urge to experiment. In fact, and regrettably, I took my lack of desire for sexual contact as evidence that I was somehow morally and even intellectually superior to my peers. I know, that’s very mature of teenage me, but what other conclusion was I supposed to jump to? People knew about the consequences of sex and still did it. Shouldn’t they know better? I did.
Not even encounters with other asexual people helped me figure it out. One boy I developed a crush on turned me down (far more gracefully than any man before or since, for what it’s worth) by citing asexuality as his orientation. At the time, I conflated asexuality with aromanticism, which, again, didn’t line up with my experience: I wasn’t interested in sex, either, but I was interested in relationships. My friend and eventual college roommate was also asexual and, for the most part, uninterested in relationships. It wasn’t until later my senior year when she started casually seeing someone that it occurred to me that maybe sex and romance were different (yes, I know now that orientations can be fluid, but baby steps, people).
With the chunk of time I had after college was over, I started my serious reading and soul-searching. I toyed with the labels “demisexual” and “gray-ace” to continue holding onto the illusion that I was “normal,” but ultimately gave them up with enough reading. I came out as asexual to my then-fiancé, who was fine with it (reader, I married him); a few months later, I came out to my Facebook friends; and finally, I came out to my immediate family on Coming Out Day 2015 (despite knowing I would be supported, this was still the most challenging part).
So what does all of this have to do with representation? Again, I stress that I have a lot of privilege: I’m white, cisgender, able-bodied, financially secure, and “straight-passing” with a white, cisgender, able-bodied, financially secure, masculine partner. In fact, I’m privileged in ways that I personally feel disqualify me from being considered an underrepresented voice, and I’m not here to claim that I should be considered one (which is why I haven’t tried to sell myself as an “asexual author”). The thing was that I wasn’t aware of any of these facets of myself until I broadened my horizons after high school: I didn’t see myself, so I just didn’t know.
Seeing a variety of people in the media you consume can help you find yourself among them, reassure you that your normal is valid, and allow you to feel less alone, especially if you’re a child or young adult that’s starting to make realizations about yourself that make you feel alone. Again, I stress that my life wasn’t full of pain because I didn’t know about my asexuality, and with very few exceptions I don’t think my cluelessness would have hurt anyone I’d never found out. But for someone who needs to see themselves to make sense of their place in the world, representation is everything.
But it’s not just about being there. It’s about making sure that the stories that people get aren’t just reinforcing what they already know, using stereotypes, or making them into two-dimensional plot devices. Everyone can go on adventures; everyone can get broken hearts; everyone can save the world; and, above all else, everyone is the protagonist in their own life story. Your identity plays a big part in how you interact with the world and the things that happen to you, but there’s more to you than that.
Give me more stories like Welcome to Night Vale, which canonically and famously has a gay relationship (with a Latino partner portrayed by Dylan Marron, to boot) but is about this weird and often terrifying little town somewhere in the desert and the community radio station keeping them informed.
I want another Lovecraft Country, which turns the tropes and themes of a racist and xenophobic author on their heads and acknowledges the reality of the Jim Crow social climate while still being a phenomenally-crafted story with excellent characters.
You already know that I love The Girl with Ghost Eyes, but it deserves mentioning again. Look at history and culture, stay faithful to it, and weave it into one of the most exhilarating fantasy stories I’ve ever experienced.
Think you can’t change up genre fiction? Think again. Put someone different at the helm. Bring Me Flesh, I’ll Bring Hell pleasantly surprised me by featuring (stay with me, please) a zombie detective protagonist whose condition is treated in-universe as a debilitating chronic illness. Just giving what would otherwise be a fairly typical noir detective character, complete with guns, a substance abuse problem, and an antisocial personality a condition like that was refreshing, and I want more characters like him out there in genre fiction, where they’re accessible to everyone who needs to see them.
There’s still a lot of work to be done when it comes to representation in characters and authors (including on the above list, regrettably). But there’s so much potential for new stories and new voices retelling old stories in a new way. We as readers can only benefit from it, and we as authors can do so much good by letting these voices be heard. As for me, I’ll try my best to help.
Do you have any recommendations for books or authors from underrepresented communities? Let’s hear about them!