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Centered and Background LGBTQIAP2S+ Identities: How are LGBTQIAP2S+ Stories Told Today?

Emily Weissenborn (they/she) is currently attending Fresno State University as an exchange student from Heidelberg University in Germany. They have studied English with an emphasis in literature since 2019. In Spring 2022, she took the Diverse BookFinder course at Fresno State. Previously, she attended Lycée Richelieu in Paris, France. After graduation, which will hopefully be in Spring 2023, they plan on attending graduate school but her plans are unclear to everyone including themselves.

Emily's experiences as a lesbian and nonbinary person have shaped their identity and their experience with literature, especially LGBTQIAP2S+ literature.

Most  LGBTQIAP2S+ teens have experienced an endless search to see themselves represented in the media they consume. My media of choice was books, and so I spent many afternoons looking through sparse bookshelves and wildly searching the internet. While this experience was often isolating and lonely, I was a lucky LGBTQIAP2S+ teen: in my youth, there was a boom in LGBTQIAP2S+ literature. As an adult, I look proudly and somewhat enviously at the collection of LGBTQIAP2S+ young adult literature today’s teens have available. With this success in LGBTQIAP2S+ books, background LGBTQIAP2S+ characters in otherwise non-LGBTQIAP2S+ books have become popular. Often written by authors who are not openly LGBTQIAP2S+ themselves, these representations are becoming more important. But what is the difference between a main LGBTQIAP2S+ character and a side character, and what do these works offer the young LGBTQIAP2S+ people of today?

Centering LGBTQIAP2S+ stories in Aiden Thomas’ “Cemetery Boys”

There are different types of modern representation, one being the centering of LGBTQIAP2S+ voices with LGBTQIAP2S+ stories and characters in the foreground. One such book is “Cemetery Boys” by Aiden Thomas. The story focuses on Yadriel, a young gay trans boy. He is comfortable in his identities, but his community relies heavily on the binary division of gender roles in order to practice the magic they have within. As a result, his transition is a huge deal for the community and Yadriel always feels like he has something to prove. This results with Yadriel using dangerous magic alone to show everyone he is a real boy. Julien, a ghost he accidentally resurrects in the process and Yadriel’s love interest, has different thoughts about his identity. As an outsider, Julien can see things with a different perspective than Yadriel. In one scene, Julien points out the issue of his community excluding Yadriel on such an issue: “‘Why do you have to prove anything to anyone?’ […] ‘It’s just how it is, how it's always been. In order for them to let me be a brujo—’ ‘You don't need anyone's permission to be you, Yads’ (Thomas, 183).

Throughout the book, the author uses magic to validate and show the realities of trans identity. Yadriel can use the magic exclusive to boys. He is a real boy. This is also the reason his identity is eventually accepted by his community. If Yadiel's plot had been in the background, the revelation's impact would have been not as significant. This is especially notable since “Cemetery Boys” became the first trans-centered book written by an openly trans author to land a spot on the New York Times bestseller list, proving that stories about LGBTQIAP2S+ people are in demand and sell.

LGBTQIAP2S+ Characters Out of Focus

After talking about novels that center LGBTQIAP2S+ protagonists, but this is not the only type of possible representation. In some books the representation is in the background, just like in “Clap When You Land” by Elizabeth Acevedo, which is about two girls, Yahaira and Camino, living in two different places: the Dominican Republic and New York City. After a tragic accident kills their father, they find out about each other for the first time, as their father kept his two families, one of which was produced by adultery, apart. This book has a LGBTQIAP2S+ character as well, Yahaira. Her identity is never spelled out like Yadriel’s is, but she has a girlfriend named Dre. Yahaira’s mother knows this, but her father, who dies at the beginning of the book, does not. The story itself centers grief as its main point and Dre is there to comfort Yahaira, giving her the steady presence of a healthy relationship without her gender mattering. The only mention of potential difficulty is when Yahaira comes out to her sister, Camino. The chapter is told from Camino’s perspective and shows that Yahaira is not afraid to come out. In fact, she is very much defiant.

This book does not center around LGBTQIAP2S+ identity, rather, one of its main characters happens to be sapphic. Unlike Aiden Thomas, Elizabeth Acevedo is not openly LGBTQIAP2S+. She does agree that LGBTQIAP2S+ representation, especially representation of LGBTQIAP2S+ people of color, is very important. In an interview, the interviewer points out: “There is no big reveal and fanfare about their LGBTQIAP2S+ness. It is a fact of their lives” (Wallace). This form of representation is most commonly viewed in stories that do not center LGBTQIAP2S+ in their plots, and is usually used by authors who are not openly LGBTQIAP2S+. This is incredibly important for a normalized viewing of LGBTQIAP2S+ people and relationships. Readers not seeking out LGBTQIAP2S+ stories will still encounter stories that feature LGBTQIAP2S+ characters such as Yahaira, and this is a great way for authors who are not openly LGBTQIAP2S+ to be allies without taking away stories that belong to LGBTQIAP2S+ people. That being said, I don’t want to overemphasize these stories. This is not what I would recommend if someone asked me for a LGBTQIAP2S+ recommendation, but this normalization plays an important role nonetheless. 

LGBTQIAP2S+ Stories Without Romance

When most people think of LGBTQIAP2S+- stories, they think of romance, but there are many LGBTQIAP2S+ stories that don’t center around romance. For example, Gabby Rivera’s "Juliet Takes a Breath" is undeniably LGBTQIAP2S+ but ends with the main character, Juliet, single. Instead, she spends the novel learning about her own identities, showing that LGBTQIAP2S+ people are not wholly defined by romantic relationships. This book is especially important for LGBTQIAP2S+ people of color since it highlights the importance of learning about people of color’s role in LGBTQIAP2S+ (and feminist) liberation that is too often minimized or ignored.

Juliet’s arc takes her through coming out and eventually being accepted by her traditional Puerto Rican family and learning to set boundaries with her white feminist mentor who frequently oversteps and stereotypes Juliet. Juliet ends up choosing to learn LGBTQIAP2S+ and feminist history from people of color and finds a much richer experience and a vibrant culture that fits with her intersectional identities and therefore is a much better benefit to her. This story explores lesbian and LGBTQIAP2S+ identities and how a LGBTQIAP2S+ person can always evolve and learn. Those stories too often occur only in romance plotlines, but in “Juliet Takes a Breath” it centers Juliet on her own.

Illustration by Celia Moscote from "Juliet Takes A Breath: The Graphic Novel" by Gabby Rivera

This means a lot to me as a LGBTQIAP2S+ person as too often LGBTQIAP2S+ lives seem to depend on romance, yet many LGBTQIAP2S+ experiences are lonely. For example, Yahaira in “Clap When You Land” comes out to her sister via her girlfriend and doesn’t seem to feel the need to specify herself beyond that, but most LGBTQIAP2S+ people will be more familiar with loneliness and defining themselves alone. 

The work that background LGBTQIAP2S+ characters are doing is important for furthering the normalization of LGBTQIAP2S+ people, but storylines centering LGBTQIAP2S+ness – romance or otherwise – are just as important as ever. This background normalization will reach many readers, LGBTQIAP2S+ or otherwise, who are not explicitly seeking out LGBTQIAP2S+ stories, but they will not be able to fill the hole that many LGBTQIAP2S+ readers, such as myself, have in their hearts for the front and centering of LGBTQIAP2S+ identity.

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For discussion on LGBTQ+ Representation in Picture Books, check out this blog.

And, don't forget to checkout all the Diverse BookFinder picture books featuring LGBTQ+ Identities.

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