I was eleven the first time I encountered a queer couple in print. It was through Kerry Greenwood’s YA fantasy trilogy, Stormbringer (2005-6). The series was one of my first ventures out of the market strand of children’s literature and into the big something else. In fact, I found the second book, Lightning Nest, at a school book fair among copies of The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Deltora Quest. Kerry Greenwood opened up a world for me where you could not only be gay, but where gender was also fluid: one protagonist, Scathe, was born intersex and identifies himself as male. The novel doesn’t exclusively revolve around his developing relationship with the second protagonist, Bran, yet their queerness is irrefutably at the heart of the story.
I had never talked to anyone about homosexuality before I read Lightning Nest, but somehow, somewhere, a hazy sense of unease had already been imprinted inside me. Perhaps it came from all the stories I had read and the TV shows I had watched (I remember Joey and Ross from Friends cuddling on the couch one moment, then straightening their shirts and clearing their throats the next). Perhaps it came from the half-whispered conversations where queerness was an oddity, or not there at all. Maybe it was all the jokes about being queer or about femininity, from the schoolyard phrase, ‘That’s so gay’, to the hushed tone people used when they said, ‘Oh … he’s gay’. And never mind being a lesbian. That was locker room talk. That was giggled behind girls’ hands: ‘I think she’s a lesbo’.
So, this is why when, in 2011, J.K. Rowling announced that Dumbledore was gay—despite the complete lack of evidence in the actual text (apart from some sly comments from gossipmonger Rita Skeeter)—I was not overjoyed. In fact, I was furious. No one reading Harry Potter would have presumed that Dumbledore was queer. And that is the problem. Because in Harry Potter, love is a heterosexual paradigm: Harry and Cho, Harry and Ginny, Ron and Hermione, Hermione and Viktor, etc. Love is only written as between a man and a woman. Except, perhaps, in Lupin and Tonks’ relationship. Lupin, as a werewolf, struggles to come to terms with his identity, which many readers have taken to be a possible allegory of queerness. Surely lycanthropy is morally greyer than two women kissing in the Gryffindor common room?
It is this kind of in-between the lines reading that we queer people are reduced to. It is like trying to light a fire from wet leaves—we cling onto to any spark of non-heteronormativity, even if it’s the intense and antagonistic relationship between Draco Malfoy and Harry that we hope could be mistaken for desire. Therefore, Rowling’s ad hoc announcement that Dumbledore was gay felt like a slap in the face. It felt as though she had made a statement that it was simply enough to just claim, outside of the text with no actual representation, that a character is queer—that it didn’t matter that there are readers who look to the characters for guidance and find only a heteronormative example. She had pressed any hope for queerness between the lines so small to be as inoffensive as possible to her presumed straight audience. I spent so long searching for something, anything, in the novels and found next to nothing; was I just expected to be happy when I learned, years after I first read Harry Potter, that it had included a queer character all along? It’s just not good enough.
According to Publishers Weekly, the number of published books featuring LGBTQ+ characters is rising, particularly in the YA sector. However, many publishers aren’t pitching these novels to a general audience; rather, they are marketing them to the niche of ‘gay literature’—no straight people allowed. Subsequently, publishers will reject stories with queer characters for fear that they won’t appeal to the ‘mainstream audience’ (I’ve read Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and watched Game of Thrones—am I not mainstream enough?), not to mention that many novels with queer characters are often overlooked for awards. There are some publishers that specialise in printing queer novels, such as Riptide Publishing and Less Than Three Press, so clearly the demand for queer books is there but has yet to fully be recognised—instead, they’re tucked away in niche little corners.
Yet stories about queerness are everybody’s stories: they are about identity, about battling oppression, about pain and joy and, most importantly, they are about love.
Perhaps what we need more are stories where the main characters are queer, but their queerness is not the central focus. Give me fiction with queer pirates and assassins and adventurers and ill adjusted high schoolers who all just happen to be queer. The plot should not be eclipsed by their identity, rather augmented and made to shine. As a close friend said to me over dinner a few weeks ago, ‘There is still a place for those stories about being gay or bi or trans, but we do need more books with queer main characters about other things.’
For those of you still unconvinced about the importance of queer characters, according to a 2013 report from Beyond Blue, roughly 80 per cent of LGBTQ+ youths have experienced abuse in public, the statistics worsening for transgender and genderqueer individuals. For Australian LGBTQ+ people, the suicide rate is 14 times higher than it is for straight people; not to mention higher rates of mental illness, such as anxiety disorders. I don’t know if more queer characters in novels will help these numbers, but it might ease the pain. It eased mine.
As a teenager, I developed a sort of numbness around sexuality to protect myself from the uncertainty and the hate. Any small thread I could catch that showed me being queer was normal—let alone something positive or something to be celebrated—both terrified and fortified me against the tide of heteronormative culture. This is why queer books like Kerry Greenwood’s are important. Her characters were the first to demonstrate to me that love—romantic and sexual love—isn’t bound by gender. Her fiction revealed a different paradigm, one of love between people, not genitals, which showed me that love is, above all, about respect and affection.
So, publishers, editors, writers, readers, this is my call to action: we need LGBTQ+ characters in mainstream fiction. Characters who are people, not just identities, who live and love outside all the boxes in wonderful and creative ways.
Get writing—and get published.
Stephanie King is currently studying a Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne. Aside from spending her days studying, Stephanie likes long walks in the rain while plotting out fantastically queer novels that she hopes to bring to fruition.