Monday, October 17, 2011

LGBTQ characters in YA literature: Continuing the conversation

On September 14 and 15, 2011, Malinda Lo blogged about a set of data on LGBTQ characters in recent YA literature in the US. The data confirmed my own anecdotal observations from reading YA:

There are far fewer gay than straight characters; those who are gay tend to be secondary rather than main characters; and they tend to be male rather than female. Bisexual and transgendered characters are the rarest.

As Ms. Lo acknowledges, the data were obtained from multiple sources. The total number of titles for year 2010 was obtained from a different source than the list of titles containing LGBTQ characters, and the compilers of the latter list did not read all 4000 titles published in 2010. In addition, the total of 4000, which affects the percentages, is itself an estimate arrived at by Harold Underdown, who had to use several sources to arrive at this figure. (The website lists about 500 YA titles published in 2010, which is roughly a tenth of Mr. Underdown’s estimate, and points up the uncertainty as to the total number of YA books published overall.) Ms. Lo says, “I can guarantee you that this list of probably not complete,” but adds, “sadly I should note that even if I double the number of titles on the list, the total percentage of LGBTQ YA will still only be approximately 1% of all YA books.”

I suspect that under-reporting will most significantly affect the numbers of books with LGBTQ secondary characters (rather than main characters). From my own observations reading the genre, I was able to think of several additional titles that were not included on these lists, but all featured secondary rather than main characters. LGBTQ characters appear more often in YA literature than they used to, and I believe that this growth has been exponential in the industry, given that I could only name about three YA books from my own youth that featured LGBTQ characters. However, these characters are still far more often members of the supporting cast rather than center stage.

I would love to quantify all of this more exactly. The part of my brain that sat through all those science courses in college and read countless articles in scientific journals could not resist outlining a study, a way to systematically examine the literature. Alas, given the realities of the time-juggling act known as my life, I cannot conduct this study myself. But if anyone is interested in carrying it out, or is already conducting such a study, please let me know.

For this study, the researcher would select a universe of publishers and publication years, and would define what qualifies for a “young adult” title. This would create a master list of the “population” of books under study.

Ideally, the researcher would read every book on that master list. Less ideally and more realistically, the researcher could randomly sample the master list and read a selection (the larger this sample, the better).

For each book read, the researcher would record the book title, publisher, year of publication, and whether the book contained LGBTQ characters, and whether they were main, secondary, or minor. Malinda Lo looked also at whether the characters were girl, boy, transgendered/genderqueer, adult, multiple, or undetermined, and our prospective researcher could collect similar data. If several publication years were studied, the researcher could explore trends over time. In addition, data on subgenre (whether YA contemporary, fantasy, historical, etc.) could be collected. Based on anecdotal observation, I suspect that most LGBTQ characters appear in contemporary novels, but that in recent years the numbers in paranormal/fantasy have grown; it would be interesting to see if the data support that theory.

The master list could be made available so that the universe of titles included in the study would be clear, and the decisions made by the researcher in categorizing books would be identified. The master list would also be helpful in any case where subjectivity enters in: for example, in determining whether a character is secondary (that is, playing an important role but not the main character) or minor (essentially a background or walk-on character).

For a less systematic collection of data, book bloggers could be another source of information. They read a huge number of YA titles,  although I don’t know anyone who reads 4000 in a year. Any blogger could begin to compile a list categorized as described above (on a shared database perhaps. GoogleDocs?). If several bloggers would share their lists, that would further increase the pool of available data. A master list that contained data from several bloggers would also need to indicate the blogger who served as the source of each data point.

My own grad-school days are over, but I would have loved to tackle such a study, and I hope someone does.

Grateful acknowledgment to Malinda Lo for her post and for reading an advance version of this post.


  1. That would definitely be a good study! I am curious as to how it would compare to adult books... I feel that I've read quite a few with gay or lesbian characters, though they are secondary characters.

  2. Alexia--That's another good question. Most of the adult books I read are nonfiction.

  3. I have a gay nephew and also know several other gays and lesbians, and when asked, most have said they've never read LGBT literature, either as an adult or as a teen. The consensus was that they don't pick a novel based on the sexual orientation of characters any more than non-LGBT readers. So, while I guess the stats are considered significant by some, I can't help wondering why. (I'm sure someone will be quick to tell me. LOL!)

  4. Careann: This all grew out of a discussion of whether publishers and agents discourage the presence of LGBTQ characters, out of a perception that such books aren't marketable. Malinda Lo decided to try to bring some hard numbers to the discussion, thus addressing larger and more fundamental questions.
    Statistics can help answer all kinds of questions:
    Just how diverse is our literature?
    Is there an apparent bias against including LGBTQ characters? Or have some barriers been partly broken down--for example, a gay male is "OK" but a transgendered character is still taboo, or maybe certain subgenres have diversified while others have not?
    It's an attempt at quantitative measurements of diversity in literature. Seeking diversity in literature is about being more reflective of the realities of our world, and not having entire groups of people being invisible or absent from our books.

    To look at it another way, parallel to your original example: I'm a woman, but I certainly read books about male characters, and I don't choose the book based on whether the character is male or female. But if all books only had male characters, I'd feel that something was missing, that the body of available literature lacked a certain dimension and depth.