In the past few weeks since the publication of my novel The Split, I have been lucky enough to have countless lesbians and queer-identifying women, who have enjoyed the book, slide into my DMs—“Oh my god,” they say, “the lesbians didn’t die!”
The lesbian protagonist staying alive for the duration of my novel was very important to me for a number of reasons, not least because The Split (pictured right) is a romantic comedy and I really thought it would kill the vibe I was creating if I killed her off. This is not to say that in future I won’t write about a lesbian who dies, or that there is something inherently wrong with that storyline. I love a lesbian tragedy as much as the next person, however it’s become a well-worn trope that when a lesbian is featured in literature or films, she must suffer and her days are almost certainly numbered. I can’t overstate how ready lesbians and queer women are for something different.
Changing the narrative
It should go without saying, but perhaps it is not said enough, that LGBTQ+ people deserve a full range of representation. Yes we grow up, come of age, come out and die—but what about the stuff in between? The nuance? The fun we have? The joy? I love to read about queer characters being treated with kindness, with gentleness and care. I want for readers to know that’s possible too.
I don’t think for a moment that the lack of representation is because LGBTQ+ people are not writing a full spectrum of stories, from memoir to romantic comedies and everything in between. We absolutely are. I believe the lack of representation is because traditionally, LGBTQ+ stories have been packaged by straight people and marketed to straight people, who expect to see suffering, pain and an experience that is “other” to their own.
“Saturday Night Live” recently did a skit called "Lesbian Period Drama", in which Carey Mulligan and Heidi Gardner parody the recent glut of films (like “Ammonite” and “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”) where historical lesbians wear corsets and make eye contact with each other by the sea. Last year, when the trailer for “Ammonite” was released, Daisy Jones wrote a piece for Vice called “Why are all the Lesbian Films Set in the Past?”, in which she notes: “Everything is communicated via intense lingering looks and brushing finger tips, which is also very hot. That said, a few contemporary stories about queer women wouldn’t go amiss either. It becomes tiring, only ever seeing lesbian and bi women within the context of historical oppression. It’s almost as if writers and directors aren’t sure what to ‘do’ with their queer women characters unless there is a dangerous obstacle—such as it being the 1800s—to overcome.”
I think the same could be said for the publishing industry. Perhaps the thinking has been that there is no point in offering up a romantic comedy featuring two women where the plot is not them being lesbians, but being two people who are useless at love, because there isn’t an audience for that. Perhaps there is even a concern that stories about queer people just living their lives, as opposed to being “other people”, is too confronting to a straight audience in and of itself.
When I was growing up I didn’t read a single novel with a lesbian in it until I read Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson at school, and then when I read Sarah Waters' Tipping the Velvet 400 times (and counting). There was nothing else available to me. I was absolutely obsessed with Louise Rennison’s Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging series and it would have been quite literally life-changing for me if I had been able to read something like that with a queer character in it.
Seeing the bigger picture
Fortunately the landscape is changing. If I were a teenager now looking for queer characters, I could read books by Juno Dawson, Bethany Rutter or Jacqueline Wilson. I would be able to read In at the Deep End by Kate Davies and really have my eyes opened. If there is a fear in the industry about selling commercial queer novels, an idea that being queer is somehow too niche or fringe an experience to appeal to a mass audience, I am thrilled to report that the number of people who have contacted me has been overwhelming. There is such a desire to read these novels among the queer community, and I have been so welcomed by straight readers who love the genre, book bloggers who review romantic comedies, and essentially any reader who has gone through a break-up and stolen a pet which, it turns out (however you identify) is actually a universal experience.
Laura Kay is a London-based writer whose work has appeared in Diva magazine and the Guardian. She can be found on Twitter @lauraelizakay and on Instagram @lauraekay.
Laura Kay’s The Split (Quercus) is out now and will be released in paperback in January 2022 (£7.99, 9781529409826). It centres on Ally, who, after being brutally dumped by her girlfriend, is left homeless, friendless and jobless… but at least she has Malcolm. Wounded and betrayed, Ally has made off with the one thing she thinks might soothe the pain: her ex Emily’s cat.