Recently I was reading Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older–which is fantastic, as everyone told me it would be. I knew that I was going to enjoy it, but there was one factor that surprised and impressed me, and that was the inclusion of two minor queer girl characters. They’re not a major part of the storyline, just Sierra’s friends who get wrapped up in her adventure, but they both have their own fleshed-out personalities and neither are villainous or stereotypical.
What’s more surprising than Older’s decision to include these characters was my own reaction to it. I read a lot of queer books, so I don’t have a shortage of representation in the books that I pick up, but it was so immensely satisfying to find queer representation in a book that I didn’t specifically seek out for that. Queer main characters are, of course, incredibly important. But that doesn’t mean that just because a book has straight main characters, it can’t acknowledge the existence of queer people.
Sometimes in discussions of queer representation, an argument takes place that goes something like this:
Person A: We need more queer representation in books.
Person B: Not every book needs a queer character! No book can be everything to everyone! Sometimes queer people don’t fit in a story and you shouldn’t try to shoehorn them in!
Person A: No one is asking for every book to have queer characters. That’s a straw man argument.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately: that supposed straw man argument. But what if that is what I’m asking for? What if I do want queer characters in every book?
Take Harry Potter, for instance. There are hundreds of named Harry Potter characters in the series. Given that massive cast, it’s frankly pathetic that we have maybe-kind of-sort of one gay character (who isn’t good representation even if it was canon). There are more named animal characters than queer characters. Or characters of colour, for that matter. Or characters with disabilities. There are more basilisks than (canon) trans people in that series. I love Harry Potter, but that’s unrealistic and offensive. When you have a cast that big and so little diversity, it becomes absolutely fair to ask “Why did you only write about straight people?”
Sure, most books don’t include hundreds of characters. But they do usually include more than ten characters, and at that point, why did you decide to make all of them straight? (And white and neurotypical and…) Queer people exist. Everywhere. Throughout time. We’ve gone by different names and definitions, and we’ve lived in varying levels of openness, but we’re always there. So why shouldn’t we be there in stories?
I don’t expect this to actually happen. We still live at a time where everyone, real or fictional, is straight until proven otherwise. But I don’t believe this is the only way to tell stories. I believe it’s possible to imagine stories that include the array of people who exist in reality, and I don’t believe there are stories that cannot be told diversely.
If that makes me a straw man, so be it.