The Unseen: How the Golden Age of YA has been Ignoring LGBT Youth

To view the pdf version click here: The Unseen

“I’m looking for books in which LGBT characters are the stars.” –Melinda Lo

As an author committed to diversity in upper middle grade and young adult novels I like to know the numbers: how many UMG/YA books with LGBT main characters are there?  What percentage does this represent of the market? Since my focus is sci fi/fantasy, how many feature LGBT main characters?  And just how many LGBT youth in America are there?

Well, the numbers are hard to come by, but thanks to Melinda Lo I was able to get some insight (click here for her full post).  Looking at the nine largest U.S. publishers between 2003 and 2013 she concluded that an average of 15 LGBT YA books are published a year.  She limited her definition of LGBT YA to books where the main character was LGBT (so this excludes Clarissa Clare’s Mortal Instrument Series, even though she has an important secondary character who is gay), which gives some insight to why these numbers are so low.  Having said that, she makes an important point that as a lesbian reader she wants to read about lesbian characters, and I think that’s valid.  Inclusion doesn’t mean contenting yourself with the presence of secondary characters.  A secondary character, no matter how important, shouldn’t be the standard we aspire to.  The mark needs to rise.

Now, the numbers she presents don’t include every single LGBT YA book published between 2003 and 2013; she confines herself to the top nine publishers because getting total numbers from all publishers would be exhausting and she’s only one person.  But what she does provide is very telling.  Of the LGBT YA novels she included only 10% were sci fi/fantasy, meaning over that ten year time period a total of 16.5 sci fi/fantasy YA novels with an LGBT main character were published.  That’s it.  Over ten years.

I’m also interested in knowing what percentage of YA books published each year LGBT YA Litfeature an LGBT main character.  Again, finding averages was surprisingly hard, so I went with one site that reported the total number of YA books published for 2012, which was 2200 (Click here for post, total YA numbers for 2012 are towards the bottom).  Using Melinda Lo’s number of LGBT YA published in 2012 (which was 16), this means 0.73% of YA published that year included an LGBT main character.  Less than one percent.

How does this stack up against the actual number of LGBT youth here in America?  I’ve already run through my calculations of this in my First Blog Post which you can find here.  I used the percentage of 3.8% for the overall number of those who identify as LGBT in America.  This is probably a conservative estimate, but finding a hard and fast percentage can be tricky.  You can read Wikipedia’s discussion on it here.

Using the 2012 estimated population numbers for the United States I was able to come up with at least 953,800 kids between the ages of 12 – 17 who are LGBT.  That means for almost a million LGBT kids there were 16 books published that year with them in mind.  For YA publishing it’s as though LGBT youth don’t exist.  They are the unseen.

I wonder if this trend is because publishers are shying away from LGBT YA or is it the author pool itself?  One of the clichés writers often hear is ‘write what you know.’  If publishers aren’t getting enough well-written manuscripts with LGBT protagonists than this indicates something totally different than if publishers are making a conscious choice to turn such works away.  It says that the average YA writer either doesn’t know anyone who is LGBT well enough to feel competent to write an LGBT main character, or it means that the possibility has never even occurred to them.  To me, the latter is far more troubling.  It means that for the vast majority of YA writers, people who are LGBT aren’t even on the peripheral edges of their mind.

You may attempt to write about something you don’t know very well, but you’ll never write what you don’t even think about.

And by no means do I think YA with an LGBT main character should only be for LGBT youth.  I think these books should be marketed like any other YA book.  What matters is whether the story’s compelling, not the sexual orientation or gender identity of the protagonist (or the ethnicity, for that matter.  Something I plan on discussing in future posts).

YA with LGBT protagonists are not just important for LGBT youth; they’re important for straight kids, too.  Presenting realistic portrayals of LGBT protagonists will take the “otherness” out of those who identify as LGBT, and help straight youth as they navigate a world where they will almost certainly encounter LGBT people in school, in the workplace, in their families, and amongst their friends.  It will help them see and treat LGBT as individuals and not view them through the lens of their sexual orientation or their gender identity.  It also promotes the idea that someone who’s LGBT can be the main character, that their orientation or identity isn’t the only story that they have to tell; that it’s just one aspect of who they are and not all they are.

As a mother I don’t want my daughters to grow up with a constricted view of what normal encompasses.  I want them to believe, truly believe, that anyone can be the star of the story.  After all, isn’t that one of the reasons why we read in the first place: to exist within the dream of someone else’s possibilities, and expand our understanding of ourselves through their humanity?

Thanks to Melinda Lo and all the hard work she did in compiling and crunching numbers.  You can get to her website by clicking here.

2 thoughts on “The Unseen: How the Golden Age of YA has been Ignoring LGBT Youth

  1. Very interesting – – as a mother 0f twin boys who are gay, I would have to say that I am surprised that I never gave this issue much consideration before. Now that you have started my thought process, I am wondering about the film industry as well? And television? I don’t watch much of the latter but a few people have mentioned it’s more prevalent on soap operas now. Well, maybe I will do a little research of my own. Thanks for opening some tired eyes tonight with another well written post.


    • Your welcome! That’s pretty much my purpose here, raising awareness about the lack of diversity in YA lit. so thanks for making me feel like I accomplished something! 🙂


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