Why would a kid ask an author why their book doesn’t include gay characters? Apparently, this is such a baffling question that it warrants an editorial questioning this kid’s motivations. To summarize, Roger Sutton moderated a panel of middle school authors, and one of the questions they received was from a middle grade boy who asked R. J. Palacio why Wonder didn’t include any gay characters. Palacio responded with “That’s a great question” and conceded that it hadn’t really occurred to her while writing to make one of the characters gay.
The fact that this harmless, relevant question has sparked a whole debate seems to show just how much progress we still have to go in LGBTQ representation in publishing. Of course it’s not mandatory that Palacio included a gay character in her book, but why is it so surprising that someone should point out that lack? Why does that inspire pushback?
I don’t think much will be accomplished by sprinkling diversity into stories as if one were selecting candy bits and toppings at the ice-cream parlor.
The problem with sentiments like this is that they rely on the unmarked norm. Selecting all straight characters is not selecting toppings at an ice-cream parlor, because they are not selected at all, apparently. Straight, cisgender, white, neurotypical, abled men just naturally appear in stories, and any deviation from this is a conscious choice.
“Diversity” is not an optional add-on any more than whiteness is or straightness. Every quality of a character is a choice, whether conscious or subconscious. There is no neutral norm. Queer people, trans people, people of color, and people with disabilities all exist and all have just as much right to be in a story as their counterparts.
If you, straight author, feel compelled to add a baby gay into your story because a baby gay fits into the story you’re trying to tell, by all means. But once it’s being done simply to check off a diversity box, things start looking homogenous in a whole different way. Nobody’s identity is that casual, and we are none of us rainbow sprinkles.
There is no need to justify gay characters in a book, or any other representation marked as diverse. I “just happen” to be gay. I didn’t have to justify it in my life, and it didn’t and doesn’t dictate the trajectory of my personal narrative. What makes a gay character just not fit in a story? And why is it that a straight identity is always casual? That’s not even touching the idea that books that include diverse characters must just be doing it to check off boxes.
Who knows why that particular kid asked about gay representation in that book. Maybe he’s gay or questioning, maybe he knows someone who’s gay, or who knows, maybe he just cares about gay people. In any case, he deserves better than being told he’s asking for rainbow sprinkles. Queer people exist, and we’re not optional add-ons. We don’t need to justify our existence, whether in real life or on the page, and the only way we’re going to get that kind of representation is by people who keep asking the questions publishing doesn’t want to hear.