The Problem With #OwnVoices LGBTQ Lit

Danika Ellis

Associate Editor

Danika spends most of her time talking about queer women books at the Lesbrary. Blog: The Lesbrary Twitter: @DanikaEllis

In case you aren’t familiar with it, #ownvoices is a hashtag that was created by Corinne Duyvis to highlight books that are written by an author that shares a marginalized identity with the protagonist. So a Deaf protagonist written by a Deaf author is #ownvoices.* This is a hugely helpful term! When seeking out diverse books, we should be primarily looking for diverse authors, and the best people to represent a marginalized group are those who experience that marginalization. The funny thing about such a general concept, though, is that it doesn’t map on to every marginalization in the same way. I don’t know how the growing popularity of #ownvoices has played out in other corners of the bookish internet, but I have noticed a few complexities that have come up in the LGBTQ book community.

The first is that, of course, the “LGBTQ” community covers a lot of different groups. I am mostly involved in lesbian and bisexual women book circles, but I image it’s been playing out different with gay and bi men books. Romance and erotica between men is at least perceived as being a genre that is primarily written by women and for women. I know this is a simplification, but it’s definitely a concern for gay and bi men readers. I imagine that being able to find #ownvoices gay and bi men books would be hugely valuable. (Again, this is not my area of expertise, but seems to be what I’ve observed from a distance.) In fact, I feel like gay men erotica (mostly ebooks) of today have a lot in common with lesbian pulp books in the ’50s, both a reflection of their societal context and using technological advances of the time… but that’s a whole other post.

Trans lit, on the other hand, is a much smaller category. While m/m erotica is (was?) seen as a “trend” and as profitable, trans books aren’t viewed as having the same mainstream appeal. Slowly, though, this is starting to change. More trans books are being published–but a lot of them are by cis authors. These depictions can be offensive, but even the best portrayals still push trans voices aside. While trans narratives are still seen as “niche,” publishers will often have an unofficial quota for these and other marginalized identities, so when cis authors get published for writing a book about the Trans Experience, it can mean trans authors getting turned down because “We already have a trans book.” #Ownvoices trans lit is a great thing to support, because it is just starting to gain ground and could really use the support and publicity.

So here’s the funny part: #ownvoices lesbian and bisexual women books aren’t really a thing. Or, to be more specific, almost all lesbian books are already #ownvoices. While m/m romance and erotica was seen as a trend (at least a few years ago), f/f romance and lesbian & bisexual women stories in general have never really come into fashion. Excepting the pulp of the ’50s and ’60s, the only people who have really cared enough about lesbian and bi women stories to write them have been lesbian and bi women. (Though this is less true of bi lit–there are biphobic depictions written by gay and straight authors, so #ownvoice bi books is still necessary.) #Ownvoices is fantastic, but it does chafe a little to know the reason it’s so common with lesbian fiction.

It’s been a little funny to see some LGBTQ or lesbian & bi book blogs respond to people asking for #ownvoices lesbian books or complaints that there are so few, because it’s just not the reality. While there are lesbian characters that aren’t #ownvoices, they’re so few that it’s really only worth noting the exceptions (and then, really, only when they’re done badly).

There’s one more aspect to #ownvoices in LGBTQ lit: the pressure to be an out author. Dahlia Adler (author and creator of LGBTQ Reads) posted about this in response to requests for pansexual authors for a Diversity Bingo game.

I think Diversity Bingo is a great challenge – this isn’t the first I’ve seen of it and it won’t be the last – but I think there’s something extremely problematic about making readers dig into authors’ sexualities. And I get wanting to support #ownvoices – obviously I do – but as someone on the author side, I’m seeing it cause a lot of harm among authors who can’t come out but now feel they have to. And frankly, I feel weird at the messages I’m getting from people asking to know about my books being #ownvoices or not, as if I must be at liberty to discuss my sexuality because a challenge told them they need to know. And I say that as someone who is fine discussing her sexuality, though I some know other authors who aren’t.

(She then goes on to talk about how this is a particular problem for pansexual books.)

This is tricky, because asking complete strangers on the internet to reveal their sexuality to you is invasive. And I understand not necessarily wanting to out yourself. On the other hand, though, isn’t part of #ownvoices supporting those authors who are willing to be vocal about their marginalization? But then, where’s the line? Just because you don’t list every marginalization you have publicly on your website doesn’t mean you’re hiding them or that you’re closeted. Though how are readers supposed to support #ownvoices LGBTQ books without asking if it’s not publicly stated? As you can see, I have many questions.

It’s a tricky topic. I still am blown away that #ownvoices now exists, because it’s such a useful, succinct way to to express something that’s been talked about at length in terms of how important is for representation. It’s worth being aware of how it applies to different communities, though.

Let me know in the comments what you think of how #ownvoices applies to LGBTQ lit, and feel free to recommend your favorites!

*This post was previously published with “deaf” not capitalized and has been corrected.

EDITED TO ADD: Check out Dahlia Adler’s comment in the comment section for more context for this quotation!