Discussion: labels in lgbtq+ fiction

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).

Books that I often see criticized because they fail to label a character but I think they’re perfectly valid in doing so are The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater and Leo Loves Aries by Anyta Sunday.

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.

9 thoughts on “Discussion: labels in lgbtq+ fiction

  1. Great discussion post as always Silvia!!!! ❤️
    I agree with this post so much, especially this part: “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”!!

    This is such a difficult topic because it really straddles a fine line: you of course want to call out books with bad representations of sexuality, but books that don’t label characters’ sexuality ≠ bad representation. I feel like a lot of people in the LGBTQ+ community are so determined to find labels for everyone and put ourselves into these safe little boxes (which can be helpful for some people discovering their sexuality and finding a name for themselves) but we kind of let questioning and other non-conforming people fall behind.
    Not to mention, who’s to say one’s sexuality won’t change in the future? Just because someone at this point in time labels themselves a certain way NOW doesn’t mean that tomorrow or next month or next year or in 10 years from now they might still feel comfortable with that label. Sexuality is fluid – having characters represent that in novels is just as important as having characters with distinct labels.

    Sometimes, not labelling a character’s sexuality can be freeing as it can allow people who don’t fall on the typical band of the LGBTQ+ acronym to see parts of themselves in characters. For e.g. years ago when Captive Prince was still a monthly online fic, I was on Tumblr and came across this post where people were discussing Laurent’s sexuality. Now, I have always viewed Laurent as homosexual, but due CS Pacat’s purposeful decision not to label his sexuality, many people thought of him as asexual as they could see parts of their own sexuality in Laurent. I think having characters like Laurent – where their sexuality is not explicit and readers can label him however they see fit – is important and inclusive.

    The only criticism I have seen of Adam from the Raven Cycle series is people angrily criticising his bisexuality because it screws with their Ronan/Adam ship – which makes me so mad !!!!!! 😡 I also ship Ronan/Adam but don’t erase Adam’s bisexuality for the sake of a ship, yeah?

    With Leo Loves Aries, I wasn’t annoyed by Theo’s lack of labelling himself, just confused because I could see parts of my sexuality so obviously in him. But you’re totally right when you say that it takes time for people to come to terms with their sexuality, ESPECIALLY when they have thought of themselves as a certain way their entire lives and then suddenly find themselves changing. And I think that’s why I love Leo Loves Aries so much – when I sat down and actually thought about it, I recalled what I went through when I discovered I was bi at 14: I was scared, confused, worried because I had no one to talk to this stuff about. I come from a Catholic Italian family, I went to an all-girl’s Catholic high school, and all my friends were straight. Very alienating time, but what got me through that time was reading queer books because I could see myself in the characters. So now that I’m older (and wiser?) I can see how Theo discovering his sexuality is a lot like what I went through and I’m so happy that there’s a character I can relate to. It’s why I’ve read that book 3 times already, and see many more rereads in the future. (We should do a BR by the way.)

    I think the important thing to remember is that humans are fickle and we can chafe at being confined into tight little boxes that label us a certain way. That’s not the same for everyone: some people (myself included) love our labels, but some don’t like them / don’t want one. And that’s fine too. We all have to be a little more open-minded.

    Thanks for writing such an engaging post Silvia!! ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Laura!!!!!!! ♥♥♥

      These topics are so hard to talk about because I want to acknowledge how other people feel about it but also I’m aware I feel completely differently about the same thing. I truly don’t think I’d have been able to come to terms with a lot of things if all the books I’ve read always labeled their characters, so I’m grateful when that’s done well without erasure.

      Thank you for your awesome feedback like always my dear, it’s a pleasure having these discussions with you ♥

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  2. Great post! I agree with so many of your points, and the comment above as well. Choosing not to label your character’s sexuality is a very valid and important kind of representation,

    In the case of TRC and LLA, though, I sort of disagree. My issue with those books was that they seemed to explicitly avoid any mention of even the prospect of labeling (in a way that felt very much like erasure to me). In my experience, the vast majority of bi/pan/multi-attracted characters in books I’ve read throughout my life *have* been unlabeled. While I’ve noticed a lot more in the last year or two, being able to pick up a book that has some of the same labels I use (demi/gray ace and bisexual) is still not a common thing. The disproportion of this really bothers me, especially considering the number of these books whose readers will describe characters as having “turned gay” before they’ll ever consider the concept of non-monosexual identities–obviously this is a fault with the readers, not the authors, but it’s still telling of the low visibilities of all labels other than “gay”.

    I don’t to distract from your points bc I absolutely don’t think all queer books need to use specific terms/categories, or that anyone should be implying that. On the whole, though, I think there should be more discussions of at least the possibility of labeling? Personally, the lack of visible labels (and characters contemplating the possibility of exploring/using them) is one of the reasons it took me years to understand my own identity. Before I settled on the ones I use now, I feel like I would have felt a lot less lost if I could have seen characters going through that same process and being open about their journeys with labels.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comment Emma! I really appreciate it and I perfectly understand why you feel that way. It’s a very nuanced topic and I feel like every person will feel differently about it, but speaking of my own experience realizing that my sexuality isn’t straight in my mid-twenties, I truly don’t think I would have “accepted” it so easily if every single book I’ve read always labeled its characters one way or another, or if said character had to have the “but what label should I use” internal monologue right away. To me, the finding-the-label journey only started after a while and it’s still ongoing, but I’m also okay with never finding one (we’ll see I guess).
      What I’m trying to say is that I’m sure that adding the pressure of asking myself what label I should use wouldn’t have helped me, even if the character settled on no label at all. However I’m aware that I’m in a minority here and I recognize the importance of offering the possibility of a label to people who have always (?) known they weren’t allo/cis/het but they don’t see their own label represented in books or feel like they are in need of a label.

      My thoughts on this are a bit all over the place and I’m not sure I managed to explain myself, but essentially as long as labels aren’t brushed aside or erased I think there’s no right or wrong way to treat this topic (there’s also a discussion to be had about the different age groups – I feel like certain rules don’t necessarily apply to YA and Adult the same exact way, but that’s probably enough material for a whole new post).

      Liked by 1 person

      • I definitely understand where you’re coming from, and that’s definitely an experience that should be represented! It’s not the kind of matter that has any easy or specific answer. Questioning is such a personal and individual process that we all experience in different ways, and there’s no way to write a universal representation of it. I didn’t really start to think about labels for a while, either, and I absolutely agree that it’s a long process. For me the possibility of using a label didn’t come right away, and it’s been a very long and gradual process that only started when I began interacting with more people and media that used the labels I ended up settling on. Even if a character isn’t ready to think about that or doesn’t want to use a specific label themselves, I think there are ways to present that that don’t erase labeling as a concept (ex. side/background characters using them, or even a brief mentions in passing). I really appreciated that in Carry On, while Simon acknowledges that he’s not really ready to think about using a label yet, Baz self-identifies as queer on the page. Personally, the most important thing to me is just getting to see a more varied mix of rep when it comes to characters figuring out their identities!

        Liked by 1 person

        • I LOVED how Simon briefly thought about labels in his internal monologue and I love that teens will read that and know that it’s okay to not fully know that about themselves either! As you said, the most important thing will always be diversity and a mix of rep even when it comes to figuring out a label. Ultimately our opinions pretty much match and the only difference seems to be that I’m more forgiving of authors sometimes failing to label their characters, but of course I’m all in favor of giving the possibility of a label to questioning characters (which we might need more of in any case). What I’m hoping for is that with the increasing amount of queer rep we’ll also see a diversity of ways in which this topic is handled, and hopefully there won’t be a need to have these discussions at some point in the future anymore.

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  3. Great post, and I totally agree with you.
    While for some people labels are really helpful/give a sense of identityX there are also lot of people who don’t feel like they fit under any one label, or are still trying to figure it out. It’s really reassuring to see that represented in books to remind people that they don’t have to fit neatly under a one-word description.
    Thanks for bringing up this topic!

    Like

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