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Why We Need Literary Pride

Wren-James-and-Heartstopper-season-3-script-1080 by 691

June is Pride month where the world celebrates LGBTQ+ communities having the continued freedom to be themselves. To celebrate, we asked RLF Fellow Wren James, (who writes YA as Lauren James) and is a story consultant on the Netflix show based on Alice Oseman’s books, Heartstopper, to write about queer representation in fiction and film and why it matters.

This article originally appeared on our Substack channel, where you can also see photos of Wren behind-the-scenes on Heartstopper.

“When I walk into my local bookshop these days, the shelves burst with a rainbow of queer representation. Every time I scroll through Instagram, there are dozens of recommendations for bright pastel-toned romances featuring characters of all genders and sexualities.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club, a Young Adult novel by Malinda Lo, a Chinese American writer exploring butch-femme culture in nineteen-fifties San Francisco, has recently won a slew of awards. Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston and The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon are perpetually on the bestseller lists.

Heartstopper, the Netflix TV show on which I work as a story consultant and script editor, recently won a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Kids & Family Programming.

Story consultant Wren James on the set of Heartstopper with author Alice Oseman

Wren James on the set of Heartstopper with author Alice Oseman

It tells the story of British teenage boys, Nick and Charlie, who struggle through schoolyard bullying, coming out, mental health and relationship milestones as they fall in love. It has carved out a space for queer representation aimed at all ages.

But when I was growing up there was a dearth of fiction featuring characters like me, let alone ones written specifically for young readers. I used to hunt through my public library for blurbs that gave any hint of potential gayness.”

I obsessed over Fingersmith, a deliciously dark, twist-filled Victorian sapphic heist by Sarah Waters and Crush, an erotically-charged collection of gay poetry by Richard Siken.

I would save up to buy second-hand editions of books only published in the US off eBay, scouring charity shops for the titles I’d found on ‘Gay Classics’ lists online.

Something inside me craved representation, but it was hard to find. The old classics like Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown, Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg and The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall felt unbearably out of date, and practically unrelated to my own experiences of queerness in the twenty-tens. Not to mention, old censorship laws had imposed tragic endings on those stories in a way that made them hopelessly depressing to read.

Even today, there is a trend of diverse character being the first to die. This is known as the ‘bury your gays’ trope, and is seen on TV shows like Killing Eve, Game of Thrones, Supernatural and The 100.

We don’t want queer people to grow up feeling that there is no life for them beyond ‘coming out’ narratives. Even when I was a teenager, I didn’t want to read about homophobia; I wanted stories about people like me finding their happily-ever-afters!

Queer people deserve to see themselves represented in happy stories where they can be loved for being themselves. As Camille Perri, author of The Assistants, says,

“Art and entertainment about happy gay people may not be about politics — but the fact of its existence is political. Just because a story is entertaining and funny doesn’t mean it necessarily backs away from serious issues. A celebratory queer love story in the midst of all the hatred and bigotry present in our daily collective conscious is, as far as I’m concerned, a form of resistance.”

Fortunately, as I’ve grown older, I’ve started noticing how the publishing industry has changed. Queer fiction is now on bestseller lists and displayed front-and-centre in bookshops.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, Nimona by ND Stevenson and Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour have all won awards. And queer fiction is now seen in every genre – historical, fantasy, contemporary – you name it.

These days, I’m a creator of queer content in my own right, writing novels such as The Quiet at the End of the World, about a bisexual girl who is one of the last children born before humans become infertile, and grows up knowing she will watch the human race go extinct. She seeks out her own queer representation in social media archives from past generations, watching long-lost TV shows about bisexual women and longing to be friends with them.

I also pour my own experiences into scenes on Netflix’s TV series Heartstopper, where I work as a story consultant. The TV series is based on the graphic novels by Alice Oseman, which mainly focus on Nick and Charlie’s journey.

Story Consultant Wren James on the set of Heartstopper with author Alice Oseman

Wren James on the set of Heartstopper with author Alice Oseman

However, the show has more space to explore the other characters’ stories, so I’ve helped to create plotlines for characters such as Imogen, Tara, Darcy, Isaac, Tao and Elle.

As a bisexual, non-binary person, I’ve drawn from my own turbulent journey of self-acceptance. From scenes where Nick faces confusion over his bisexual identity, to Elle’s search for new friends exploring their gender expression, it has been cathartic to use my own life in the show – and know that young viewers would find comfort in scenes that mirror their own lives.

The show is unique in its tone of kindness and joy even though it doesn’t shy away from difficult issues. In the writers’ room, Heartstopper creator Alice Oseman always emphasises the importance of having storylines that are drawn from authentic teenage experiences.

The characters aren’t exploited for dramatic effect, but grow at their own pace, with realism taking priority over suspense. There are no love triangles or cliffhanger break-ups; instead, we see smaller slice-of-life moments, rooted in ‘found family’ support networks.

I envy the characters for being able to explore their gender and sexual identity at such a young age. It took me far longer to understand myself. It’s difficult to parse your own identity when there are few queer role models to emulate.

Fortunately, young people today can see a spectrum of identifies, including Nick (bisexual), Elle (transgender) and Isaac (asexual). They can try those labels on to see what fits, without the pressure to conform to any particular identity.

Meredith Russo, transgender author of Birthday, says,

“I think the most important thing about these conversations [about trans issues] is that we need to have them openly, honestly, and gently with one another where young people can see and hear. All it would have taken was exposure to a trans role model or to have a trusted adult mention in passing that being transgender was okay and it would have made a difference in my life.”

Nowadays, my cup floweth over with queer fiction. While writing my latest novel Last Seen Online, which looks at how queerness exists in fandom spaces online, I read Idlewild by James Frankie Thomas and Dead Collections by Isaac Fellman, which look at similar themes.

I ate up The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters and Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Mario Machado, which show an insatiable and unapologetic view of queer female sexuality.

I fell for the non-binary robot assassin in All Systems Red by Martha Wells and annotated notes into the margins of C+nto & Othered Poems by Joelle Taylor and Dykette by Jenny Fran Davis.

There is, of course, still work to be done. We need more transfeminine stories; more stories about older queer characters; more queer representation about people of colour.

As Emily Hashimoto, author of A World Between, says,

“What I’m used to in my own life is folks with different backgrounds of race, ethnicity, economics, folks who are trans, folks who are not trans, queer, not queer. I haven’t seen that without tokenizing.”

But at least children today can finally start to see themselves represented in books, as strong heroes and loved individuals with joyful futures and happily-ever-afters. They will be able to imagine those things for themselves. Representation in fiction is a life-saver, in the most sincere sense.

I’m so glad it’s finally here.

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