“Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.” — Rudine Sims Bishop
For most of us, a core part of our coming out process was reading or hearing stories about people like us or like the people we wanted to become. When you don’t see yourself, you might have an internal idea of who you are, but it’s hard to understand how to be that in the wider world.
Stories make us more human and connect us to the humanity of others. As National Council of Teachers of English member Ezra Hyland noted: “Humans don’t make our stories, it’s stories that make us human (paraphrasing Amiri Baraka). It’s not until we know the stories of each other that we embrace our humanity.”
I wrote Being Emily so that my trans girl friends would have a loving story in which to see themselves. When it came out in 2012, I was surprised that it was the first YA novel to tell the story of a trans girl from her perspective (after all, I’d started writing it in 2004). Now that the new edition is out, I’m proud to have it included in an ever-expanding list of positive trans girl representation and queer girl love stories.
A lot of times when people talk about trans representation, they cite the suicide stats (which are dire) but sometimes that distracts us from the upside. Girls need to see themselves so they can grow up strong, resilient and self-expressed. This includes (and is essential for) queer girls, trans girls, and nonbinary people who have “girl” in their gender constellation.
Despite the fact that girls need this as much (or more) than everyone else, their stories are still frequently not prioritized in the marketing budgets of large publishers or in many places that promote YA lit. A recent Bustle article describes this problem, “LGBTQ+ Diversity In YA Novels Is Getting Better, But Queer Girls Are Still Being Left Behind.”
Books with queer teen girls and relationships between girls are more likely to come from independent presses or be self-published. They’re less likely to be reviewed and included on library shelves. In addition, mainstream publishers tends to put bigger marketing budgets behind books they think can be made into bestsellers, which means that queer girl titles are less likely to reach teens who aren’t as connected online.
In addition, the Bustle article reports: “Saundra Mitchell, an author and editor of young adult fiction and the editor of the anthology All Out, which features 17 diverse stories from queer YA authors about queer teens through history, thinks that the issue is tied to a larger societal problem: That women’s and girl’s stories aren’t seen as important. ‘I feel like our culture and our society in general is trying to shrink all of the spaces that women fit in, and queer women (especially queer women of color) are taking the brunt of it,’ Mitchell tells Bustle. ‘Can’t we see girls and femmes on tour, in power, magical or chosen one, contemporarily solving murders and surviving the wilds?’”
Add to this the fact that books with trans girl characters are seen as even more “niche.” As if no one who isn’t a trans girl can identify with one, even though we’ve all been forced to identify with straight, cis white guys for decades in most genres.
A friend of mine argues that if you focus on taking care of trans people, you’ll end up taking care of everyone. That is to say: if you take care of the people who are least represented, you’ll end up also taking care of the people who are more represented. I don’t have scientific evidence for this yet, but my experience bears it out. So let’s talk about how to find these books and promote them!
How to find queer/trans girl YA
If you’re an avid reader, you’ve probably come across the challenge of selecting books in today’s really crowded market. If you go mostly for self-published books, you can find some great stories but often poor quality writing. If that gets frustrating, you might try mainstream, Big 5 publishers, where you’ll tend to get a higher quality of writing, but often a worse quality of story when it comes to queer and trans stories.
Yeah I know, I didn’t put independent publishers on there. I’m biased. I like to think of independent publishers as the sweet spot where you can find great and well-written stories. (I know, you can also find a mix of both downsides.) And of course it’s important to buy books from all three sources, to support independent publishers and authors, and to occasionally buy from the big houses when they get queer and trans representation right.
Luckily these days we have more online options to find the books we want to read, the ones that will empower us and others in our lives, and connect us across the LGBTQIA community.
Here are three great places to start:
Queer books for Teens: This newly-launched website has a great deal of research behind it and a very detailed search tool. You can search for main character(s) by gender, sexual orientation, romantic orientation, race/ethnicity, religion, location, and disability. You can also specify that you only want novels with happy endings!
The Lesbrary: Another very good masterlist that includes a YA section.
As always you can find out a lot about a book by reading the reviews. And if you find a book that you love with great queer/trans girl representation, please leave a review. The author will thank and so will future readers!
The anniversary edition of Rachel Gold’s Being Emily comes out this Thursday, May 17th and includes
- Updated language
- Expanded and additional scenes
- A new note from the author
- A new introduction
- Emily & Claire ten years later
You can pre-order now.