Avoiding LGBTQ Stereotypes in YA Fiction, Part 4: Secondary characters and gay jokes

Today, in part 4 of my series on avoiding LGBTQ stereotypes in YA fiction, I'm blogging about secondary characters and gay jokes. Here are the other posts in this series: Part 1: Major LGBTQ stereotypes Part 2: Gender Part 3: Words to watch out for Part 4: Secondary characters and gay jokes Part 5: Resources

Be sure to check out the introduction to the first post if you haven't read it yet.

Secondary Characters

In YA fiction today I often encounter secondary characters who are LGBTQ. This is a great development; it means that LGBTQ people are increasingly part of the story. Nina LaCour's hold still has a particularly awesome secondary queer character in it.

However, I also find the most stereotyping in secondary characters. I think this is because a secondary character, whether he's a supporting character or simply a walk-on one, has less space on the page than a main character. The author has fewer words to describe these characters, and therefore sometimes relies on loaded words (like the ones I listed yesterday) to hint that the character is queer. Using those words, especially ones related to gender, can result in stereotyping.

I think that including LGBTQ characters as supporting or walk-on characters can create a more realistic world for the main characters, and I definitely support including them. So how do you write a non-stereotypical LGBTQ supporting character? Here are some tips:

  1. Ask yourself if this secondary character needs to be identified as LGBTQ. Is it truly important to the story? If not, you don't need to identify them as queer. Just remember that their queer identity will inform their actions and beliefs, and use that to develop the character.
  2. If their sexual orientation is important to the story, watch out for loaded words (especially relating to gender) when describing the character. It's often better to just have the character identify him or herself as queer, or have it come up in conversation, rather than hinting about their queerness through description.
  3. Read books that include well-drawn secondary LGBTQ characters and study how the writers do it. I've blogged a bit about that here.

It's easy to find lists of books featuring main characters who are queer, but secondary characters don't seem to make it onto those lists. Since so many YA novels do include secondary LGBTQ characters, I think it's important to highlight novels that do this well. Here are some that I recommend:

  • Dairy Queen, The Off Season, Front and Center by Catherine Gilbert Murdock (realistic) — major secondary character is a lesbian
  • The Demon's Lexicon, The Demon's Covenant by Sarah Rees Brennan (urban fantasy) — supporting characters are queer
  • The Gemma Doyle trilogy by Libba Bray (historical fantasy) — major secondary character is a lesbian
  • Hold Still by Nina LaCour (realistic) — major secondary character is queer
  • The Modern Faerie Tales by Holly Black (urban fantasy) — supporting characters are LGBT
  • The Mortal Instruments trilogy by Cassandra Clare (urban fantasy) — supporting characters are LGBT
  • Secrets of Truth and Beauty by Megan Frazer (realistic) — supporting character is a lesbian
  • Shadowed Summer by Saundra Mitchell (mystery, ghost story) — supporting/walk-on LGBT characters
  • Struts and Frets by Jon Skovron (realistic) — several supporting/walk-on LGBT characters

Gay Jokes

Sometimes when I’m reading a YA novel that has nothing to do with LGBTQ issues and doesn’t even have any queer characters, I run into a gay joke. This occurs when a character describes someone as acting “gay,” (as in acting like a loser) or by describing someone as “such a fairy.”

I don't believe that offensive jokes should never be used; I think that in some cases they can be necessary. For example, in John Green and David Levithan's Will Grayson, Will Grayson, one of the main characters begins the novel in a place of deep self-loathing. He says a number of extremely homophobic things. I understood, however, that it was part of his own self-hatred and was necessary for the story. I also knew that it was written by John Green and David Levithan, two writers I respect; they know what they're doing, and I trust them to tell a story authentically.

However, it was so disturbing to me that I must admit I could not continue reading. I'm probably not like most readers in this area. I've spent so many years covering the representation of LGBTQ people in the media in my previous job that I now have a short tolerance for homophobia, whether or not it's used for a legitimate purpose. Just remember that when you write things that are so charged, someone will react negatively to it.

I'm not saying that you should avoid all potentially offensive statements for fear of driving away readers. I'm just saying that as a writer, you need to think consciously about your usage of loaded words and gay jokes. Do they really need to be in the book? Why? Be aware of what you're writing.

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Do you have recommendations for YA novels with great secondary queer characters? Questions? Please comment! As always, comments will be moderated, and homophobia is not tolerated on my website.