The Invisible Lesbian in Young Adult Fiction

A culture of misogyny erases the stories of queer girls

The other day on twitter I saw someone tweet about their reluctance to read f/f (female/female) romance, even though they identified as a queer woman. They admitted that reading f/f could somehow feel too close for comfort; that reading m/m (male/male) romance was sometimes easier, and allowed them to relax more. Several people responded, a bit self-consciously, that they agreed.

That wasn’t the first time I’ve encountered this. Since long before twitter, I’ve known queer women who’ve admitted that they often prefer books and films about gay men over books and films about lesbians. Sometimes they seemed a little uncomfortable admitting it, but I understood. I recognized their discomfort because I’ve felt it myself.

When I was a teen, I don’t recall knowing that lesbians existed, but I certainly knew that gay men did. I remember being captivated by Maurice, the 1987 Merchant-Ivory film of E.M. Forster’s novel, about an upper-class gay boy in Edwardian England who struggles with his homosexuality. Fortunately for Maurice, he gets a happy ending.

I was also drawn to My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), about a homosexual relationship between a young British Pakistani man and a right-wing punk named Johnny. Although the film includes brutal homophobia, the two young men are together at the end. 

I remember hunting for more movies like My Beautiful Laundrette and Maurice at the video store, completely ignorant of why they affected me so deeply. Later on I found My Own Private Idaho (1991), starring Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix in a story of unrequited love. It never occurred to me to look for any such movies about lesbians, and if it had, I probably wouldn’t have watched them. It would have been too shocking—too close to what I truly desired.

It was only years after I came out to myself and my friends, after I’d had my first relationships with women, that I became comfortable watching movies about lesbians. In those early years, the only way I could watch these films was by draping myself in false cynicism—by viewing “ironically,” ready to criticize bad acting or directing without giving it a chance—or by disengaging partway, not really paying attention. It was all too intense for me.

Seeing lesbians onscreen called my whole life into question. Why had it taken me so long to figure it out? What was wrong with me for taking so long? Why wasn’t I comfortable seeing people like me? Was I a terrible person for being uncomfortable with it? Had I actually internalized homophobia so deeply? Why did it hurt in this strange way to see those women together? 

This queasy, dangerous feeling; vulnerability. I can’t look.

Movies about gay men didn’t affect me that way because I was not a man. I could see myself in them without seeing myself in them. They were safe, and they fulfilled my desire to experience a same-sex relationship without actually experiencing it.

I think I had been conditioned to ignore and deny lesbians. It took me years to decondition this automatic tendency to erase people like me. I had to do it by living my life—having romantic relationships with women, being in communities of queer women, and slowly, by exposing myself to fiction about them. 

Sometimes it’s easier to be a lesbian in real life than it is to read a book about them. Real life is full of distractions that can dull the sharpness of what’s going on. If you’re at a party or a bar, there’s alcohol (there’s a reason for the long history of gay bars). There are other people; there are the daily demands of living your life. And we human beings are really good at ignoring stuff that makes us uncomfortable.

Reading, I think, is one of the most intimate forms of communication there is—even more than film or TV. A book’s words are in your head. While you’re reading that book, you become that book. It makes total sense to me that if you didn’t grow up seeing people like you everywhere, reading about someone like you can be an overwhelming experience. You’ve been conditioned to not see yourself. Seeing yourself turns your world upside down, and while it can be exciting and affirming, it can also be deeply disorienting and scary.

It’s easier to not look, to not engage. To seek out that mirror in a slightly distorted way. To read books about gay boys. To breathlessly watch Maurice or My Beautiful Laundrette.

A note on language

I identify as a lesbian. For me, lesbian means a woman who is in primary sexual or romantic relationship with other women. This is separate from gender identity, and lesbians may be cisgender or transgender or nonbinary. I want to note here that my definition of lesbian includes all genders.

In the YA book community, books featuring same-sex romantic relationships between girls have been identified with an evolving series of labels, including lesbian. The term f/f arose out of fandom to indicate a story that involves a romance between two female characters.

The term Sapphic has evolved in online discourse to be more inclusive than its dictionary definition, which simply means lesbian. Within YA, Sapphic now describes a female character who is sexually or romantically attracted to other women, but this character may be bisexual, pansexual, lesbian, queer,  or unspecified in her sexual orientation.

The word lesbian has always come with baggage; it is not a neutral word. It has connotations of being sexualized, ridiculed, embarrassing, exclusionary, man-hating, excessively or problematically political, or racist. And yet it’s also directly linked to the near-mythical life of one woman, a poet named Sappho who lived over 2,500 years ago on the island of Lesbos, who wrote some of the world’s most beautiful poetry about desire between women.

When I use the word lesbian, I use it knowing its complicated history and multiple connotations. I use it to claim a community that I’m part of, to draw a line through time, to underscore the fact that we have always been here.

Stonewall

In my corner of the young adult book world, one topic crops up for discussion with some regularity: Why do books about queer girls not get as much buzz as books about queer boys? They’re rarely if ever on bestseller lists; they don’t seem to generate as much fan art or fan discussion; and they also don’t win as many awards.

Last week, the Stonewall Book Awards for children’s and YA books about the LGBT experience were announced during the American Library Association’s annual Youth Media Awards. Among the two Stonewall winners and three honors, zero YA books about cis queer girls were honored. This is the second year in a row in which zero YA books about cis queer girls were recognized by the Stonewall.

The Stonewall has given awards specifically for children’s and YA books only since 2010. Since then, the Stonewall Book Award has gone to 17 winners; 33 additional titles have been named as honor books. Last year I examined the Stonewall and another prominent LGBT book award, the Lambda Literary Award, to see if there were any commonalities among their winners. After last week’s announcements, I updated my Stonewall data and am presenting it here.

When examining YA novels only, 55% of the Stonewall books (winners and honors) have cis male main characters, and 17% have cis female main characters. When examining winning YA novels only, 40% have cis male main characters; 20% have cis female main characters.

Looking at the gender representation in Stonewall YA novels (winners and honors) over the entire decade year by year, it’s clear that most of those books about cis boys were recognized in the first four years of the decade. Two years—2014 and 2017—didn’t award a YA novel about a cis boy at all. 

What does this mean? Does it show that there is no bias here? Or that the bias has disappeared during the decade? The Stonewall has done a pretty good job of recognizing books about trans characters, even though there are far fewer of them published than books about cis queer characters. Among the winning YA novels, 20% was about a trans main character.

I believe it is incredibly difficult and probably fruitless to attempt to draw conclusions based on this very small data set. I don’t think that the individual books are the problem; they are likely all quite worthy of selection.

The data doesn’t offer concrete conclusions, but it does beg many questions. Why weren’t any YA books about cis queer girls honored in the last two years—two years in which the number of books about cis queer girls have been higher than ever? There was so much to choose from. What excluded all those books from a nod?

Naturally

In Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, philosopher Kate Manne presents a new way of thinking about misogyny. She doesn’t see misogyny as the dictionary definition that we’re used to; it’s not simply the hatred of women, particularly by men. Instead, Manne argues that misogyny is “the system that operates within a patriarchal social order to police and enforce women’s subordination and to uphold male dominance.”

Just as racism is a system, and not simply one person being racist, misogyny is also a system; it’s not only about individuals being misogynists. Women, in this system, are expected to behave in certain ways (take care of children, provide emotional support to men). When they don’t adhere to these expectations, they face hostility (see the internet). Additionally, women who do adhere to these expectations are often rewarded.

These expectations for women are so deeply ingrained in our culture that they can feel natural, unquestionable. Manne writes: “in much of our thinking and acting, we channel and enact social forces far beyond our threshold of conscious awareness…and sometimes, markedly contrary to our explicit moral beliefs and political commitments.”

Are We Self-Gaslighting?

Cis queer women have always been marginalized because we exist at an intersection of misogyny and homophobia, at minimum. Add in race, disability, class, etc., and things become even more complicated.

We are dismissed for being irrelevant (lesbians, because we aren’t in sexual relationship with men). We are denied as impossible (bisexual women) or erased because we’re invisible (feminine-presenting queer women). Even when we gain mainstream acceptance (see Ellen), that acceptance turns into a dismissive shrug (see Ellen). 

We know what makes a story about men or boys significant. Men do things; they conquer the world; they save us. Their pain is transcendent and a commentary on the universal human condition.

Do we know what makes a story about women or girls significant? They’re always feeling things and having quiet, internal journeys. If they pick up a weapon and defend anyone except their children, aren’t they behaving like men? Is that acceptable?

If misogyny is a system that upholds male dominance, I can see how stories about women are perceived as less significant than stories about men. I can see how misogyny makes these women’s stories more difficult to connect with.

I have no statistics to bolster this argument. Misogyny is a slippery system that is so deeply embedded in our culture—it’s been so naturalized—that it’s incredibly difficult to pinpoint.

“Are we pre-gaslit?” Kate Manne asks, illustrating one of the central problems in discussing misogyny. “Are we self-gaslighting?”

I have no data, no charts that can illustrate this clearly. What I have is a lifetime of observing the way queer women are seen in our culture, or more accurately, the way we are not seen.

I Couldn’t Connect

When I was an editor at a major lesbian magazine, I fielded a phone call from an advertiser who wanted to sell us an ad for products that were specifically for gay men. I told this person over the phone that we were a lesbian magazine; their products weren’t right for us.

“What would be right for you?” the advertiser asked in some confusion.

“Well,” I replied, “lesbians are women. Perhaps products for women.”

*

Once when I was at a book festival, a literary agent told me in frustration that he never received submissions of YA books about lesbians, which he really wanted to represent. He wondered, a bit angrily, why he wasn’t getting any.

“I sent Ash to you,” I replied, “and you rejected it within twenty-four hours.”

He was flabbergasted by this.

*

A selection of recent reviews of Sapphic YA books on Goodreads:

“While I greatly appreciated the fact that sexuality is so fluid in this novel and many of the characters are bisexual, I almost wonder if all of the characters are bisexual until proven otherwise. And while I have nothing wrong [about] that assumption, it almost seems just as dangerous as the assumption that everyone is heterosexual.”

“The love scenes were so out of context and haphazardly put just in between. And yes, it was kind of slow burn romance but I wasn’t burning.”

“I loved that we got bi rep, but I couldn’t get fully on board with the couple”

“The romance. I felt nothing.”

“I couldn’t connect with any of the characters.”

“I just didn’t care about or empathize with the characters.”

“I didn’t CARE about the characters. I couldn’t connect. I wasn’t invested. At all.”

“I couldn’t connect to any of them and I couldn’t feel the chemistry between two protagonists, either.”

“I just couldn’t connect.”

“I wasn’t into the romance that much. I wanted to be and there’s really nothing wrong with it except for that unnecessary drama near the end, but I just didn’t buy it.”

“They are both nice girls and characters. The ‘coincidence’ of them both being lesbian made this book unfortunately not so realistic. I mean, I believe in fate and destiny from time to time but this is too much.”

See Us

Women who are in primary sexual or romantic relationship with other women are a direct slap in the face of the patriarchy. Representations of Sapphic women have always drawn ire, or resistance, or the lascivious male gaze—or a dismissive shrug. Not important.

We seem to be illegible for so many, even those who know we exist. Even when we stand up over and over, we are erased again and again. We become a blurred smudge, visible under certain conditions but always easy to overlook.

It takes a conscious, sharpened gaze to see us, to allow our stories to affect you. The first step is to acknowledge this consistent, repeated erasure. Look it in the face, unflinching. Acknowledge that you have sometimes held the eraser in your own hands. I have.

What did I do next? 

I let myself feel uncomfortable.


Malinda Lo is the critically acclaimed author of several young adult novels, including Ash, a lesbian retelling of Cinderella. Find out more at her website or follow her on twitter or instagram.

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