By Audrey Spitzfaden
Many people read fiction like “Harry Potter” or “The Fault in our Stars” for fun, but fiction may serve a much larger purpose than entertainment. Fiction provides characters with whom readers can identify and furthers their understanding of the people around them — people who may be different and have different experiences from them. However, fiction can only teach us about human society if it is representative of all humans. In fiction made available to children and young adults through libraries and publishers, there is a lack of representation of protagonists from minoritized groups, particularly LGBTQIA protagonists. Underrepresentation of minorities in literature reinforces the persistence of bigotry against minorities and increases feelings of isolation and non-belonging for people from minority populations.
Fiction frequently functions to help individuals understand themselves and those around them by illustrating human struggles. Fiction can help readers embrace and empathize with people they may resent. For example, reading about the tribulations of an LGBTQIA youth may facilitate an understanding of shared experiences and emotions, increasing people’s willingness to accept LGBTQIA individuals. Moreover, reading stories with situationally similar protagonists provides affirmation for people of minoritized identities. Fiction heros can become kindred companions for those who have few real, affirming friends and can provide inspiration for those have fewer privileges than their white, straight, and cisgender, peers.
Fiction can only properly fulfill its duty of education and affirmation if it represents a full range of human experience. However, libraries, the places many youths visit for their literary needs, are woefully understocked with representative literature. Virginia Kay Williams and Nancy Deyoe, librarians at the Ablah Library, Wichita State University, studied the collections of 5,002 academic, public, and school libraries in the United States. Williams and Deyoe also created checklists of quality literature in the categories of race/ethnicity, disability, and LGBTQIA representation for ages 0 to 18.
They found that, on average, libraries owned only 158.1 titles of the 964 titles on the race/ethnicity checklist, 45.7 of 334 on the disability checklist, and 24.9 of 116 on the LGBTQIA checklist. This means that many libraries stock less than a quarter of available representative fiction options for young people. But the problem doesn’t start with libraries. It often begins with the publishers. Williams’ and Deyoe’s findings show that quality LGBTQIA literature being published is scarce compared to other types of representative literature, so even libraries wishing to diversify their selections may have difficulty acquiring a decent LGBTQIA collection.
Having few LGBTQIA heroes is a devastating issue for many young people. For example, Lisa Horton, middle school teacher and library student at Antioch University, notes that being LGBTQIA in K–12 schools can be an incredibly challenging experience. Many LGBTQIA students are bullied in school, and providing LGBTQIA literature to these students can be an invaluable form of moral support. Horton shows that students who are being hurt by their peers for being themselves need know that there is nothing wrong with them, that they are valuable and respect-worthy people. Fiction protagonists are an excellent means by which to communicate such a message. Furthermore, cisgender and straight students could benefit from exposure to the diversity of the world around them through LGBTQIA fiction. Students can learn about their LGBTQIA peers so they will be inclined to befriend them rather than bully them.
Fiction titles with LGBTQIA protagonists are not readily available to children and young adults. The lack of LGBTQIA heroes available through libraries, publishers, and book awards may cause LGBTQIA youths to feel abnormal, alone, and depressed and hinders the ability of straight, cisgender people to understand and befriend their LGBTQIA peers. This leads to bigotry, bullying, and even fatal violence. The scarcity of LGBTQIA representation in literature can also lead to ignorance among well-meaning people. The lack of LGBTQIA fiction illuminates the larger social issues of bigotry, unacceptance, and ignorance in regards to the LGBTQIA community.
Libraries, publishers, book awards, and authors should work to make available more quality LGBTQIA literature titles for children and young adults to educate straight, cisgender humans and help eradicate bigotry and violence. Libraries, publishers, book awards, and authors should make fiction collections more inclusive so LGBTQIA youths can read about friendships, romance, and adventures that speak to their sexuality and gender identity, helping them understand and love themselves.