Why We Need Queer Books (More Than Ever)


June has arrived, and with it, Pride Month 2024 has kicked off. Pride started in the 1970s to protest the treatment of queer people, both by law enforcement and society at large. The Stonewall Riots were the last straw for many queer people. They were frustrated by living in fear and denial, always under threat of violence from the state. Pride parades became a way of protesting this oppression. Queer people marched in the streets, declaring themselves “out” and—more importantly—“proud.”

A tree-lined street with historic buildings is filled with people on a sunny day. Many members of the crowd are wearing rainbow paraphenalia or waving rainbow flags. A large rainbow flag dominates the center of the image.
(Gotta Be Worth It / Pexels.com)

Pride became more important through the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. In the 2010s, it became larger and larger, and it began to take on a corporate shape. From the turn of the millennium, queer rights, queer viability, and queer acceptance have been on the rise. Pride is one of the most notable spaces, but queerness has become more visible across the board.

Why does queer representation matter so much? Why, when queer representation has been on the rise for years, do we need queer books more than ever?

Queerness Is Still a Minority in Media

One of the reasons we need queer books is that queerness is still represented in a fraction of media. While representation has increased—and become generally more neutral or positive—since the 1990s, heterosexual characters still outnumber queer ones. It’s not unusual for shows to include a “token queer.” In reality, queer friend groups tend to have the “token straight”—one straight person.

Meanwhile, polls suggest that more people than ever are identifying as queer. There are many reasons for this. One is that younger people—millennials and Zoomers—are more willing to identify as queer than their older counterparts.

This has much to do with increased acceptance for queer people in the last forty years. Basically, Boomers and Gen X changed legal and social frameworks. The result is that being queer is not something to be ashamed of. They invited queers to be “out and proud”—something younger generations have taken up with aplomb. In short, younger people feel safer identifying themselves as queer.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t as many queer people in the Baby Boom or Gen X. It simply means those people were discouraged from identifying themselves as queer, for any number of reasons.

More representation is one way that the message has been relayed to millennials and Gen Z. Yet, as noted, queer characters are still firmly in the minority when it comes to movies, TV, and books.

That’s one reason we need queer books—and more of them—in 2024.

Queer People Are Probably the Majority

The rising numbers of people who identify as queer in younger generations points to another reality. Queer people are probably the norm, not the exception.

Three people lying in bed together under a white duvet; two appear to be masc-presenting, while one is femme-presenting.
At least two of these people are some flavor of queer. (cottonbro studio / Pexels.com)

Society has long held that straightness is more common than queerness. That has a lot to do with power and politics, rather than cold, hard science. If we follow the idea that sexuality and gender identity occur on spectrums, then there are going to be more individuals who fall in the middle of the scale than at either of the poles. That means the majority of the population—queer or straight—will tend toward some sort of bi/pansexuality. In short, the number of people who experience some kind of queer attraction will always be higher than the number who are “exclusively” straight or gay.

That means we should see a queer majority—not a minority—in our media. There should be the token straight in the queer friend group, rather than vice versa. Creatives should increase the number of queer characters in their works, so those works more accurately represent reality.

That’s Not What the Numbers Say

You might note that research doesn’t show queer people equalling half the population, let alone a majority. While the number of people identifying as queer has been on the rise in recent years, it’s not even close. Most people still identify as heterosexual.

The key here is that people are asked to identify themselves. Many people experience queer attraction, but they don’t consider themselves queer. Think about sorority girls who are almost encouraged to “experiment” with other girls. They then go on to settle down with a husband and have kids.

Those people do not necessarily identify themselves as queer, for a variety of reasons. Yet they are queer in some ways. At the very least, some of their behavior is queer. If we were to take a sample of people who have ever experienced some sort of queer attraction—versus asking about who identifies as queer—we’d see a much higher number.

Again, this comes back to queer oppression. Society maintains the myth that queer people are a minority in order to oppress them. People who experience queerness have varying reactions to it. Many deny that they are queer. They may be worried about losing their family, they might have religious concerns, and so on.

This is another reason queer books matter so much. They show us that queerness is, contrary to popular belief, both natural and normal. Society needs to destigmatize queerness, and one of the best ways to do that is to increase representation.

Seeing Is Believing

Another interesting reason for the increase in people identifying as queer is the widened scope of queerness. There are many more identities today than there were in the 1970s and 1980s. You can simply look at how the acronym LGBT has evolved into today’s “alphabet soup” to see that at work.

What this represents is a recognition of the breadth of queer experience. New terms aren’t invented to be trendy or cool; they’re invented to give experience a name and a shape. In the twentieth century, you won’t see much talk about “asexuality. Yet you will hear about men who were prescribed medication for “low libido” and women who were “frigid.”

The common denominator there is that these people did not experience sexual attraction like most of us. They were declared “abnormal” and even medicalized. Today, we recognize that this experience is much more common than once thought—and it is, much like being gay or trans, completely natural and normal. There’s no reason for someone with “low libido” to be on medication (unless they absolutely want to be).

Recognizing and Celebrating a Wider Range of Experience

Thus we can see asexual individuals have been with us all along. The experience is not new; the terminology, however, is. That evolving terminology allows more people to identify with queerness. In the past, asexual individuals would not have identified as queer, because they didn’t necessarily see their experience represented.

Two women, one white and one Black, cuddle together on a bed with white linen. The white woman rests her head on the Black woman's shoulder as the Black woman reads from a book. Queer books can act as a mirror for people to see their own experiences reflected.
“Hey babe, it’s us!” (Monstera Production / Pexels.com)

Queer books can help us increase representation and visibility, showcasing different queer identities. That, in turn, can help individuals who are struggling with their experience relate to characters who share in that experience. It also gives them the terminology to label their experience—and labels can help us understand ourselves and our world.

Queer media and queer books in particular are important because they help people see and make sense of themselves. Seeing a character on the page can make an abstract concept come to life.

Queerness Is Still Oppressed

Perhaps the biggest reason we need queer books, now more than ever, is that queerness is still oppressed. There are many ways queer people experience oppression. An example might be bi or pan individuals who experience micro-aggressions. People will question if they’re “really” queer unless they’re with a partner of the same sex. Asexual individuals are often banned from queer circles, with people arguing that they’re not oppressed—especially if they’re in a heterosexual-presenting relationship.

Other forms of oppression are more prevalent. We may think of it as something that happened in the past, but gay-bashing is on the rise again. Trans individuals are under attack by many governments, groups, and individuals. This oppression ranges from people arguing that gay people are being convinced they’re trans or children are being brainwashed, to bathroom bills that legislate who can use which bathroom in public places or laws that allow for the inspection of athletes participating in women’s sports.

Even Progressive States Are Oppressive

Hard-won rights are also under fire, with political groups taking aim at marriage equality. News stories about gay people who aren’t given the same reproductive privileges as their straight counterparts are still popping up in supposedly “progressive” states. And we can’t forget book bans that take aim at queer representation.

The picture is stark. After twenty or so years of increasing visibility and acceptance, we’re seeing backlash against queer communities and people. Certain political groups are trying to push queer people back into the closet—and worse.

In this climate, books that showcase and celebrate queerness in all its messy forms are incredibly necessary. They’re also radical. In a world of increasing hate and fierce moves toward increasing oppression, we need queer books that showcase hope.

In short, queer books offer us an antidote to the hateful poison that pervades society in the form of queer oppression. Queer books push back on heteronormative narratives. They give people tools to recognize themselves. They demonstrate that queerness isn’t “unnatural” or “abnormal.”

So now, more than ever, we need queer books—and this will be true for years to come. We are never going to stop needing queer books, not even if queer oppression ends, because queer books represent a quintessential part of the human experience.

And, after all, that’s what books—and indeed, all art—are meant to illustrate.

About the author

By Cherry

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