What makes a story queer?

June 23, 2023 | General

What makes a story queer? A picture with a purple background, and an illustration of a Latina woman holding a Pride flag, with the text "Queer stories" in white.

Happy Pride Month! 🏳️‍🌈 As you probably know by now, I love talking and thinking about representation, and why it’s important to write books with diverse characters. For Pride Month, I wanted us to explore the difference between representing the diversity of the world versus representing an LGBTQIAA+ identity. To put it simply: what makes a story queer? What defines a queer book?

Diversity vs Queer representation

Being involved in a subset of the book community that cares about diversity, I’ve often been part of conversations about what good representation looks like. Paying attention to how we include varied experiences in stories is important. Like I said in my latest post about mental health themes in books, representation only works when you do it right. Otherwise, it has the potential to be harmful.

On one hand, we can talk about representation in general terms. If we include diverse characters in our storylines, our cast has the power to reflect the real world. Historically, even though the world includes folk of different races, ethnicities, orientations, and other identities, we see stories centering a homogeneous experience.  Often, entire casts represent heterosexual, white, abled bodied, neurotypical experiences. Of course, this doesn’t mirror reality. In the real world, we have people with multiple identity intersections.

On the other hand, we can talk about representation of individual experiences. Having stories with a diverse cast of characters doesn’t mean the story represents particular identities. Including a queer character in a story doesn’t necessarily make it a queer story. For example, in Seeking Stars, one of Ana’s best friends is in a sapphic relationship. While that helps reflect real life diversity, it does not make it a queer novel. It wouldn’t be right for me to market it as such.

In other words, including diverse characters is not the same as creating representation for people’s intersections. In terms of LGBTQIAA+ media, we could say that at least one of the main characters has to identify a queer for it to count as representation. But is that enough?

Telling our own stories

Sometimes, in diverse spaces, we hear people asking why we want to tell our own stories. Typically, the question is something like, “Why can’t I write a main character who is [insert identity not their own]?” Other times, that statement is followed by, “I thought you said you wanted to see diverse characters!”

The thing is, we do want to see diverse characters. We also want to be the ones telling our own stories. This is important for two main reasons. One, when we create worlds and characters meant to represent us, we can add nuance that is hard to catch by research alone. We’re more likely to get it right, because we’ve lived it! And two, allowing us to craft stories to mirror our experiences means we get a chance to occupy space in the creative world. The latter is particularly important when we consider that about 70% of the publishing industry in Canada and 80% in the United States is cis, white, and heterosexual. Why shouldn’t the rest of us be given the chance to tell our stories?

This means that we need to know what our stories are. To be fair in this space, we need to understand our own experience, and identify the limits of what is ours to share. Personally, in terms of the queer stories I can tell, it’s important for me to acknowledge that not all LGBTQIAA+ stories belong to me. What I can tell with certainty is the story of a bi/pansexual cis woman who isn’t out to her family, only to a few people in her life, who is still exploring what the identity means, and how that intersects with being in a long-term monogamous relationship with a cis straight man.

I can’t tell every queer story, because I don’t know them. Still, I am best situated to tell mine.

The case for happy queer stories

The thing with representation is that sometimes it feels like all people want from our marginalized identities is the trauma story. There seems to be this tendency to think of tragedy as the better art. That, somehow, if you’re heartbroken at the end, it was better. This seems to be particularly so with queer stories. It used to be the rule in mainstream media that few queer stories seemed to be about joy. Worse still than heartbreak and unhappiness, many featured the “bury your gays” trope. Thankfully, more queer people are writing their stories now, and this is beginning to change.

As a romance writer, I’m constantly rebelling against a sad ending. I write romance because the genre demands that everything ends well. Clearly, the middle of the story can be harrowing but, the end? Make it happy! It’s not just about the happily ever after for me, though. I like to go beyond that, by creating low-conflict relationships among people who truly care about each other. This feels powerful because so much can go wrong in real life, be it because of the wounded world we live in or because we’re wounded people. It can be revolutionary, in a way, to focus on the good we can do if we give ourselves and each other a chance.

It’s because of this logic that, when I tell a queer story, I want it to be happy. Just like I write fatness in a neutral to positive way, I write my orientation in a similar way. Specially when my identity as a bi/pan woman is questioned by society, it feels defiant to create a world where characters who share that identity can be joyful. And I like that a lot.

I create a vision for my happiness through my stories, and one of my goals is that it will serve people with some of my shared identities as well. They say we can’t create what we can’t envision. So I’ll share the stories of what can be true for all of us one day.

What’s next

If you’d like to read a book featuring a fat, Latina, bi main female character, check out my new book, Yours, For Now!