We Need to Talk About LGBT YA Fantasy Representation
Updated: Feb 5
I LOVE data. I'm horrible at math and I never took statistics, but I feel like the older I get, the more data is bae. I need a shirt that says that. "Data is bae." Black with white lettering maybe. The thing about data--which I basically use interchangeably with "statistics"--is that it tells a story that feelings and emotions can't. Qualitative analysis is subjective and debatable. Quantitative analysis is hard to refute because it rests on (hopefully) objective numbers. So when I write articles, I love nothing more than to write them using data that I find online because they tell a story with deep and often hidden truths.
A few weeks ago, I was writing two articles that I intended to submit to LGBT-centric book blogs about LGBT representation in the YA fantasy genre. In the course of my research, I found the following: according to data compiled by author Malinda Lo, in 2009, mainstream American publishers only published 27 LGBT YA books. In 2017, the number increased to 84. In 2018, it was 108. Progress, right? Well, yes and no. The problem is that when looked at proportionally, this growth is negligible at best. Here’s why: according to the Library and Book Trade Almanac, in 2009, 5,028 YA books were published. That means 0.54% of them were LGBT. In 2012, an estimated 10,000 YA books were published. Assuming a growth rate of 1,000 additional books a year, in 2017 there would have been 15,000 YA books, meaning 0.56% were LGBT. For 2018, that number becomes 0.68%. Thus the overall percentage change over the last decade is only from 0.54% to about 0.68%-- a increase of only 0.14%. That's...nothing, basically. Given that up to 12% of Americans are LGBT (Gallup says only 4.5%, which seems low), that's an underrepresentation of 90-95%. Ouch.
This data isn't much more rosy when we break it down by genre and sub-genre. Of those 108 LGBT YA books published in 2018, Lo noted that 45% had female protagonists. Given that there were 37 LGBT YA science fiction or fantasy books published by mainstream publishers in 2018, that should be about 17 books with female protagonists in that genre. Since Lo didn't break the data down further to identify how many were specifically fantasy, I tried to find the answer myself, looking specifically at fantasy without paranormal or magical realism elements. What I found when comparing 2018 to all other years is that starting in 2016 there was a noticeable upswing in the number of YA fantasy books being published with queer female main characters...but before that representation was abysmal at best. There were years with no queer female protagonists at all. So the three books published by mainstream publishers in 2016 was a threefold increase from the one 2015. And the 11 books published in 2018 was almost a threefold increase from the four in 2017.
But before we get too excited about the eleven books of 2018 (which honestly is really good), let's remember context. Below is a list I compiled from LGBTQ Reads of mainstream LGBT YA fantasy books with female protagonists from which I excluded those that were paranormal or magical realism (so they should mostly be high fantasy). There are only 29 total. Granted, there *may* be some missing, and granted, too, that I arbitrarily removed two fantasy subgenres, but 29 high-ish fantasy books with queer female content in the history of American publishing? When seen in that context, while the 11 books in 2018 and six books in 2019 are worth celebrating, it's appalling that they represent more than half of all the books published in this sub-genre. If you put all the LGBT YA fantasy books (with female protagonists) ever published together, they would take up a single shelf on a bookcase. And that's a problem.
In 2019, a little over half as many of this subgenre of books were published as in 2018. Are we backsliding to the 2017/2016 years? I hope not. But only future data will tell.
Obviously, the list I made includes only the books published by mainstream publishers. If books published by independent publishers (like the Destiny and Darkness Series) or through self-publication were included, we would see more books in the subgenre. But it shouldn't fall to these sources to fill a gap left by mainstream publishing. In the articles that I've been working on and hope will post soon, the publication data points to bias in the publishing industry. Someone somewhere isn't taking queer content. We need the Big 5 publishers to take on more queer material, and that absolutely includes YA fantasy. To get there, we need to talk about LGBT YA fantasy representation loudly and often to show there's a market.
The Will of the Empress by Tamora Pierce (2006)
Ash by Malinda Lo (2009)
Huntress by Malinda Lo (2011)
Noble Falling by Sara Gains (2012)
Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis (2014)
Noble Persuasion (2015) by Sara Gaines
Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst (2016)
The Impostor Queen by Sarah Fine (2016)
The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie (2016)
Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust (2017)
The Cursed Queen by Sarah Fine (2017)
The Seafarer’s Kiss by Julia Ember (2017)
The Noble of Sperath by Siera Maley (2017)
Out of the Blue by Sophie Cameron (this seems to be more like magical realism?) (2018)
The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta (2018)
Inkmistress by Audrey Coulthurst (2018)
The Navigator’s Touch by Julia Ember (2018)
The True Queen (2018) by Sarah Fine
Rule by Ellen Goodlett (2018)
Between the Blade and the Heart by Amanda Hocking (2018)
Empirium by Claire Legrand (2018)
Reign of the Fallen by Sarah Glenn Marsh (2018)
The Never Tilting World by Rin Chupeco (2019)
Of Ice and Shadows by Audrey Coulthurst (2019)
Song of the Dead by Sarah Glenn Marsh (2019)
The Afterward by E.K. Johnston (2019)
Crier’s War by Nina Varela (2019)
Shatter the Sky by Rebecca Kim Wells (2019)