Labels can be hard and it’s definitely a sensitive topic in real life and when it comes to the book community. They are very personal and even though we like to do the “everyone is free to label themselves how they want” thing, I feel like there is some hypocrisy when it comes to labels in lgbtq+ fiction.
I definitely understand why it hurts when a certain label isn’t used or is used inappropriately. There are examples of books that wrongfully label or don’t label characters, be it out of ignorance from the author’s part or out of convenience (I don’t want to say malice). I am definitely condemning those books and those authors because sometimes not calling something with its name is just as bad as bad representation (and I suppose the two often might go hand in hand).
But. When done well, I believe books that don’t label their characters not only can be good, but they are also necessary. That’s almost always what happens in fantasy, where lgbtq+ characters are coded a certain way without using words such as “gay” or “bi” because they simply don’t exist in that world, but I think it’s important to sometimes not label characters in contemporary fiction as well, and it’s important for the same exact reasons why we need lgbtq+ (or any kind of) representation: because some people simply don’t identify in a strict label, or they still haven’t found one they’re comfortable with, and if every lgbtq+ character is certain of their label and they are able to say it out loud and without hesitation (even after maybe being confused about it for the whole book), that sends the message that not having found your own label is simply wrong and you need to find one right here right now or you won’t be lgbtq+ enough, you won’t be good enough.
That is obviously not true but even as a grown up person that’s something I still struggle with almost every day, and I didn’t fully understand things about myself until I started reading books that acknowledged the importance of labels but also didn’t give one to a character, or books where the character went through different labels throughout their life. Seeing everybody, both in real life and in fiction, all labeled up and ready to be put in a fixed sexuality box for the rest of their lives can be alienating and it doesn’t help all the people who are confused and questioning because all they feel is that they’re inadequate for not having found a definition they feel comfortable with.
The books that helped me the most and that I found most interesting (and that by pure chance made it to my currently reading list at the exact time I seemed to need them) are Openly Straight and Honestly Ben by Bill Konigsberg and How to Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Sex and Teenage Confusion by David Burton. If you’re interested in labels and in seeing how different people might feel about them, these are the books for you (especially the first two, which are a duology, have some in-depth conversations about this topic).
In The Raven Cycle, Adam is shown to be attracted to a girl first, and then by the fourth book he’s attracted to a boy. I’m not here to defend or attack the author for her decision, but all I’m saying is that the fact that he’s never labeled as bisexual (which is the main critique) doesn’t mean much. He’s a teenager and we don’t know how he feels about his sexuality or labels. He might not know how he feels about them himself. He might be bisexual or pansexual or simply want to label himself queer or nothing at all, but that’s not something he has to do right away, there and then in those few pages of a book. Coming to terms with a sexuality can take years or it can also never happen.
In the second book I mentioned, the main character starts out by saying he’s straight but then he falls in love with a man. By the end of the book he doesn’t label himself and I know that has hurt people, and even if by the next book in the series (where he has a cameo) he is able to say without hesitation that yes, he is bisexual, I don’t think not labeling him right away is a bad decision. I mean, what you feel first is attraction to a person, and only later comes the question, “But what am I?”, so I don’t feel like that was out of place at all, especially since the author has written many books and she doesn’t shy away from using labels most of the time.
You’ll notice this issue about labels is more common with “in-between” sexualities like bi and pan but I think that’s something that is completely understandable because the definitions for those terms change over time and they can be confusing when you’re already struggling with internalized homophobia and biphobia and microaggressions and all that good (not good) stuff. It also makes it a very sensitive topic like I was saying at the beginning because it’s definitely a fine line between good representation of a character not wanting a label and bi- or pan- erasure, so I get why people are criticizing this.
I don’t want this post to be too long (it already is sigh) so all I’m saying is that even if you are sure about your label you shouldn’t automatically dismiss books that don’t give their characters one, because to do so implies that real people who for whatever reason won’t or can’t use one don’t deserve to be represented, when that’s obviously not true and harmful.