Women of color still missing, even as publishers strive for inclusivity

Graphic by Kinsey Ratzman ’21

Graphic by Kinsey Ratzman ’21

BY GABRIELLE RODRIGUEZ ’22

LGBTQ+ romance is notoriously hard to find. Romance involving LGBTQ+ women is even more scarce. Whether it be in the romance genre itself or in the growing ranks of LGBTQ+ mainstream novels, the question of which stories are told and how to tell them is one that arises with every new publication.

Compared to the variety of heterosexual stories told, it’s easy to be discouraged when thinking about relationships between women in literature. But times are changing. Independent publishers like Ylva Publishing and Sapphire Books Publishing, founded in 2011 and 2010 respectively, are focused on producing “quality stories about women loving women” and “lesbian literary works of art” according to their mission statements. Mainstream publishers including HarperCollins and Penguin Random House are also catching on. Networks like the Penguin Random House LGBTQ Network and Pride in Publishing were launched in 2011 and 2017 respectively to address issues of diversity, and specifically LGBTQ+ representation in the industry.

Acclaimed Young Adult (YA) author Malinda Lo (“Ash”) has been keeping a database on LGBTQ+ YA books (defined on her website as books with “lesbian, gay, transgender or bisexual characters or issues”) since 2003 and its growth is astounding. Lo cataloged the publication of around 20 LGBTQ+ books in 2003 and around 80 in 2016. While her data set does not break down the numbers according to characters’ specific sexualities, the fact that the number of LGBTQ+ books being published by mainstream companies is steadily rising is a good indication of the future for books starring LGBTQ+ women.

Still, mainstream publishing has a long way to go. “Most queer girls in YA have historically been white, abled and cis,” said Kayla Whaley, essayist and senior editor of Disability in KidLit, to Bustle. “So I think addressing that needs to be a major priority, while focusing in on specifics, like the extreme paucity of traditionally published Black authors and the ways anti-Blackness operates in YA generally and queer YA.” Bustle also reports that “Librarian Edith Campbell recently published research about Black girls’ representation in young adult literature, and among the books traditionally published over a three-year period, only one (‘Little and Lion’ by Brandy Colbert) had any LGBTQ+ content.”

Yet LGBTQ+ women of color have been involved in the industry for years. Archived volumes of Off Our Backs, an American radical feminist news-journal created in the ’70s, feature everything from a spread titled “Lesbian Writers Come Together” to one writer’s call for feminists to “make stronger links with the other struggles against oppressions.”

“I admit I have not done a lot of research in [WLW (women loving women) literature] because as someone who identifies as a Latinx queer I feel that if I want to read something where I want to feel my queerness reflected, I have to settle and leave behind my Latinx self,” said Salma Nava ’20. “But I think it is reflective of how when [white LGBTQ+ authors like] Rita Mae Brown, Ann Bannon and Leslie Feinberg are brought up and I don’t give immediate praise, my queerness gets called into question.”

“That is not to say WLW Latinx literature doesn’t exist,” Nava continued. “But if I thought WLW literature is hard to find, trying to find intersectional authors in my local libraries or bookstores requires dedication.”

Books by and featuring LGBTQ+ women such as “Juliet Takes a Breath” by Gabby Rivera, “Her Body and Other Parties” by Carmen Maria Machado and many others all represent strides in the industry in recent years. Rivera is a queer Latinx author; Machado, Latinx and bisexual.

“It’s sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy though as because [LGBTQ+ books] are not being published, they’re also not being written because writers fear they won’t get published,” said Patrice Caldwell, an associate editor at DisneyHyperion and the founder of People of Color in Publishing. “Especially if you’re a queer woman and you want to write about queer women in YA don’t stop yourself before you’ve tried—we need your stories. I—so many of us in this industry—want to publish these stories.

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