I’ve been talking about queer books on the internet for more than a decade now, and one of the most common requests continues to be “Where can I find queer books with a happy ending?” It’s understandable! Many times, the person asking has just come out or is exploring their identity. At that point, it’s crucial to be able to see positive representations of your identity and possible bright futures for yourself. Even after being out for 15 years, I still want to escapist into a fluffy queer book quite often. The only problem is when there becomes pressure for authors, especially queer authors, to only write queer stories with happy endings. Like any other group, we also have complicated, messy, and tragic stories to tell. When can we begin telling those, too?
To understand the significance of happy endings in queer stories, you have to know the history of queer representation in media. Obviously throughout history there hasn’t been a ton of representation of queer people, and when there was, it usually wasn’t very positive. There are exceptions to that, but it’s only really recently that we’ve seen mainstream representation in TV and books.
Historically, queer characters have acted to serve a couple of functions. 1) The Monster. This is the idea that queer people are inherently evil or monstrous and are trying to seduce an innocent person into their lifestyle. 2) The Joke. Queer people have been the butt of jokes for even longer than the Sassy Gay Best Friend character has existed. Many of the early representations of queer characters are simply, “Look! This person is queer! Isn’t that funny?”
When I think about the history of queer representation, I think of queer pulp fiction, and lesbian pulp in particular. These were around in the 1950s, and they were these cheap, disposable paperbacks that were meant to be titillating and alluring. They are an interesting facet of lesbian literary history, because although the assumption was they were in by and for straight men, they were often a reader’s first introduction to lesbians existing, and to the possibility of being a lesbian. They were incredibly important to lesbians of the 1950s and ’60s, and some queer women even wrote them.
The reason lesbian pulp is relevant to this post is that at the time, in order for your book to not be considered obscene, you had to punish the lesbian characters. It was okay to publish a lesbian book, as long as you proved at the end that it was meant to serve as a warning. Typically, lesbian pulps would end with one or both characters killed, having a mental breakdown, turning straight, or generally being left alone and sad. There were hundreds of these titles published, and that’s the legacy that queer happy endings try to subvert. Similarly, the first queer characters to show up in TV and movies were generally villains, and they were often the killer on a crime show.
For hundreds of years, if you found anything with queer representation, it was going to punish the queer character in the end, if they weren’t already the villain. Even recently, there is the pervasive bury your gays trope, which highlights how queer characters are disproportionately more likely to be killed off in media. This is primarily seen on TV shows, but it also applies to movies and books.
Luckily, we are seeing more queer stories, especially queer YA, reaching mainstream audiences. I think that we are in the golden age of queer YA: I’ve seen such a huge shift just in the last five years in how many titles are getting published. Obviously, we still have a way to go, especially in terms of intersectionality in queer lit, but it is a huge improvement. In the very early days of queer YA, they were “issue” books that included lots of homophobia and were likely to have a bittersweet ending. Then we started to see books like Boy Meets Boy that acted as a beacon of optimism and light — a real departure from the darkness before it. We started to see books where the same-sex couples stayed together in the end — and, you know, were both alive. They were necessary to contrast what had come previously.
It’s been more than a decade since those happier queer YA books started to be published, though, and we’ve reached a new point in the history of queer lit. We’re starting to see more complicated narratives around queer books coming out: books that aren’t just about experiencing homophobia, but also aren’t completely utopian. We’re seeing queer books that explore different genres, including horror. We’re beginning to see books published that deal with how race and culture can intersect with homophobia and queer identity (like The Henna Wars or Zara Hossain Is Here). Now that more of those stories are getting published, there is sometimes backlash to queer books that don’t have a happy ending.
Which, after all that prologue, leads me back to my original question: do we still need all queer books to have a happy ending?
Obviously, no one can dictate what all queer books have to be — queer books with unhappy endings have been published and continue to be. Are those books considered bad representation, though? For example, is it “bury your gays” if the book in question is a queer horror book? Bury your gays is a problem because there aren’t a lot of queer characters in mainstream media, so each one is weighted heavily. It doesn’t count if the majority of your cast is queer and they’re not dying because they’re queer; it’s not that no queer characters can ever die or have an unhappy ending — it’s about how few queer characters there are and whether they have a disproportionate amount of unhappy endings or chance of being killed off.
There should be space for dark queer stories. It’s completely understandable if you as an individual don’t want to read them, but queer authors should be able to write them and find an audience. I also think we sometimes need different representation at different points in our lives. If you are just coming out and feeling really vulnerable, maybe all you want to read it is happy, fluffy stories. Or maybe you’re going through a really hard time, and all you want to read are books that reflects your reality and that don’t sugarcoat things.
There’s also a danger in condemning all unhappy endings or bleakness in queer books, because this criticism can be aimed at authors reflecting their own experiences. Take More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera or Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta: these books by authors discussing their own communities, their own upbringings and cultures. Both of these books I read and thought, “Wow, this is a little dark for me right now.” But I also know that these books can be life-saving for the right reader, especially when they are from cultures that aren’t represented very often in queer media. Having these books is important, and criticizing them for not being happy and optimistic is counterproductive, because it’s just narrowing the kind of queer books that can succeed, and it pushes people out who don’t have an “acceptable” narrative.
I think it’s important to know what you’re getting into: there should be some indication that this is a darker story, ideally with content warnings, so readers aren’t blindsided by tragedy. You shouldn’t pick up what you think is a queer romance only to find that one dies at the end. When we’re discussing and recommending books, those warnings are important, but it doesn’t mean those books shouldn’t be published, or that they shouldn’t be celebrated and talked about.
Unsurprisingly, I think the answer is that we need more of all of it. We need more books with happy endings. We need happy, fluffy, queer books. But we also need books that deal with really dark issues in a realistic way, ones that don’t always end happily. We don’t need more queer suffering books from outside perspectives, though: I don’t think it’s appropriate to profit off another community’s pain. Authors representing their own communities, though, should be able to follow that story wherever it takes them, even if it isn’t to a happy ending tied in a bow.
I also think dealing with difficult situations in fiction can also help readers figure out how to survive it themselves. Of course, we need the option to escape into a story without having to encounter the bigotry of the real world as well. We need more of all of it: more queer books in every genre and every variety, escapist and realist. The problem was never the existence of queer characters with unhappy endings, it was that there was no alternative given. I hope that in this continuing golden age of queer lit — and queer YA especially — that we can make room for all of these stories, no matter how complicated and messy they can get.