“There is nothing”: the need for LGBTQ+ representation in fiction

I chose it, if I’m honest, for its size. Sitting in a quiet coffee shop in Valencia, sheltered from the midday sun, I opened one of the few books written in English that I could find in a nearby bookshop – Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Sipping an iced coffee, I began to read.

Hours later, emerging from the close streets and familiar apartments of Yanagihara’s New York to a waiter letting me know that the coffee shop was closing, I was captivated. Desperate to continue reading, I grabbed my (now warm) coffee and rushed back to my hostel.

Tracking the lives of a group of friends as they move from college and begin to pursue their dreams in New York, Yanagihara takes the reader through the knotty streets of friendship, love and lust. Along the way, Yanagihara tackles the intimate and uncomfortable subjects of depression, anxiety, and abuse – carefully setting a route through these often hidden realities, making them visible and tactile to even the most privileged and protected reader.

The unfolding relationship between two male characters, Willem and Jude, clearly captures Yanagihara’s ability to graciously navigate complex themes whilst also making the reader aware of the lived realities of many LGBTQ+ people. This relationship was, in Willem’s words, “one that wasn’t officially recognised by history or immortalised in poetry or song, but which felt truer and less constraining” than any other that he had experienced before.

Recently, with the release of Russell T. Davies’ new Channel 4 miniseries It’s A Sin, the discussion about the need for LGBTQ+ representation in the media has been re-provoked.

Historically, accurate portrayals of LGBTQ+ people and their lives in literature have been few and far between. In fact, Davies’ Ash Mukherjee – played by Nathaniel Curtis – at one point, when asked to check that there were no books “promoting a homosexual lifestyle” in a school library, exclaims “… there is not one gay man or woman – anywhere. There is nothing; there is nothing.”

Balancing precariously between the need to earn a living and the desire to live authentically, this moment captures Ash’s sorrow and defeat – felt by queer people worldwide – as he realises that his lived experiences are not represented anywhere: “there is nothing”. At the same time, Ash is required to erase parts of his identity – as a result of Section 28 – in order to earn a living and survive. The cycle of disappearance continues.

This active and destructive erasure of the rich lives of LGBTQ+ people cannot persist and literature offers an important tool in halting it.

Fortunately, the number of books that portray LGBTQ+ lives have expanded over the past few years, from books such as Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous to Alok Vaid-Menon’s Femme in Public. Importantly, the diversity of characters is growing and we are beginning to see greater representation of the full LGBTQ+ spectrum.

For me, the need for LGBTQ+ representation in literature is obvious: it liberates. When authors like Yanagihara break free from literary tropes that are built on heterosexual norms, it is truth and freedom that are generated in turn.

There is power in the intersectional lived realities of the characters and voices that live and breathe in these works and many others. These lives enable queer and non-queer people alike to not only see people like themselves, but also to feel seen.

While the life of a character differs from that of a reader, the reader is still granted a small insight into what it might have meant had they been born in a different time, place, or body. Reading about the diverse lives of LGBTQ+ people opens your eyes to new ways of seeing the world, and it changes you.

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Troy Fielder

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September 2021
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