The first book I read that had LGBTQ+ characters was a young adult book called The Vast Fields of Ordinary, by Nick Burd. I read it the summer of 2010, and it was a very strange and tragic introduction to the genre. The Vast Fields of Ordinary follows a gay teenager, Dade, through high school, coming out, and his love life. He has a part time job, struggling parents, and complicated relationships with two potential love interests. Sounds like a perfectly normal coming of age story, right? But this novel also has large amounts of internalized homophobia, racism, drug dealing, sexual assault, and a tragic death of a main character. I personally am not squeamish with my books, but I couldn’t help feeling like the mistakes and consequences characters faced in the book were written to be punishment for being gay. I found this almost more unsettling than anything that happened in the novel.
I would later come to learn that this was incredibly common in earlier LGBTQ+ fiction. The first books that portrayed gay characters in a positive light with no consequences for being gay were often banned, and in the end those that flourished were the novels that ended in tragedy, with the main characters dead or rejecting their attractions. It took decades after the start of this genre for the first LGBTQ+ romance with a happy ending to be published, and decades longer for this to be the norm. When I picked up The Vast Fields of Ordinary the genre was still hanging on to these patterns, but only barely. I am happy to say it has improved greatly since.
It’s now ten years later, and the genre has changed a lot. The most recent LGBTQ+ book I read was Red White & Royal Blue, by Casey McQuinston. Like Nick Burd’s work, Red White & Royal Blue is a coming of age story where the main character, Alex, is new to adulthood, has a summer job, and has a complicated love interest, but that’s where the similarities stop. Alex is the president’s child, and his love interest is a member of the British royal family. The tone is much more humorous, and the characters are allowed to explore and express themselves without tragedy (although they still have some pretty big consequences – like the fate of international relations!). Alex is also bisexual and half Mexican, and often discusses the difficulty of being a part of two minority communities while trying to live up to the respectability of the title First Son. This book addresses tough topics, but it shows how the genre is no longer about tragedy and punishment.
The LGBTQ+ genre hasn’t just gotten more happy endings though. More importantly, it’s gotten better representation. Even just ten years ago, the LGBTQ+ genre was not very diverse, with most books focused on gay, white, middle class main characters, with very little variation. It was rare to find books that had bisexual characters, let alone transgender characters or intersectionality with race, ability, religion, or economic situation. With young adult books leading the charge, books for all ages with LBGTQ+ characters are evolving.
Just as the tides turned with happy endings, these tides are beginning to turn as well. Girl Mans Up explores economic hardships and the Latinx community within a plot focused on romance and gender expression. History is All You Left Me explores OCD and mental health throughout college romances and breakups. And If I Was Your Girl explores being transgender and the desire to fit in with peers in high school, as the first book with a trans character written by a trans author. Time will only tell how the genre will continue to evolve, but one can hope it will continue to be more inclusive and representative of its diverse readership. While we wait, you can check out great LGBTQ+ books through the ages, which can be found here.