Why We Need Queer Escapist Lit

When asking a reader why they spend so much time reading, the most common response seem to be some version of “to escape”: to entertain themselves, to distract themselves, and to immerse themselves in a life that isn’t their own. And although that’s not the primary reason that I would give for reading, it seems to be the most popular one, which got me to thinking… If most people read to escape, why do queer readers so desperately seek queer books?

After all, escapism should just require reading about a life that’s unlike your own, so shouldn’t queer people be able to escape into straight/cis literature? Are these queer readers not reading for escapism? That seems unlikely, given the demand for more queer sci fi and fantasy, the genres most identifies with the “escapist” label.

Or is it that escapism requires a protagonist that is relatable? Do we need to be able to mentally trade places with the main character in order to escape fully? I think there is something to that, but I think it goes even deeper than that, and it’s something I’ve heard mentioned before about people of colour representation in speculative fiction. If you’re reading a book that doesn’t include queer characters, it implies that queer people don’t belong in the story. And this is true of any marginalized group: if a story doesn’t include people of colour, people with disabilities, queer people, trans people, a irrepressible question emerges–what happened to them? (Really, if you’re imagining a future without marginalized people, the implication is genocide–how else would you end up with all cis/straight/white/neurotypical/abled people?)

That’s the thing about “diversity”: it’s reality. Shonda Rhimes at The Human Rights Campaign Gala recently spoke about how she dislikes the term “diversity” and instead says that she is “normalizing” TV.

I am making TV look like the world looks. Women, people of color, LGBTQ people equal WAY more than 50% of the population. Which means it ain’t out of the ordinary. I am making the world of television look NORMAL.

I am NORMALIZING television.

You should get to turn on the TV and see your tribe. And your tribe can be any kind of person, any one you identify with, anyone who feels like you, who feels like home, who feels like truth. You should get to turn on the TV and see your tribe, see your people, someone like you out there, existing. So that you know on your darkest day that when you run (metaphorically or physically RUN), there is somewhere, someone, to run TO. Your tribe is waiting for you.

You are not alone.

And the same is true of books. I think that queer readers have trouble escaping into a world that doesn’t include queer characters, because we know that we wouldn’t be welcome there. In fact, SFF that create worlds without queer characters seem to suggest that we wouldn’t even be able to exist there: our existence is not conceivable in the context we are given. When we read a story that doesn’t include queer people, a world that doesn’t include queer characters, it comes with the nagging implication You don’t belong here.

Whether it’s a horrific dystopia or a silly space romp, that implication makes it difficult to “escape”, because the truth is, we’re already all too familiar with that sentiment.

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20 thoughts on “Why We Need Queer Escapist Lit

  1. Couldn’t agree more! Latecomer to this post (actually just found it through Steven dos Santos). 15 or so years ago in highschool I read Lackey’s _Last Herald-Mage_ trilogy. To read about a gay protagonist in whom I could see something of myself was HUGE for me. Sadly, now when I go back to read it, I really can’t because of how tortured and sad the character’s trajectory is. So often queer characters are relegated to ancillary or sidekick roles, fraught with stereotypes, or serve as negative examples. I really appreciated Dos Santos’ matter-of-fact portrayal in his (soon to be) trilogy and I’m ever on the look out for SFF series that represent us well.

    1. Thanks so much! It’s true, we’re getting by on scraps of representation (side characters and tragic stories). But it is a relief that there are more options out there for people just coming out/coming to terms with their queer identity.

  2. Very true. Escaping into a fiction without diversity is no escape at all! Plus the more queer characters out there, the more our straight friends can find ones they identify with too ;)

  3. Tangentially, one of the reasons I hear from readers who love romance is also to escape. In many cases they’re escaping to a world where love and home for two women are the norm, where feelings are respected and it’s safe to be queer. For too many, that is not the world they live in.

    Great blog, Danika – I hadn’t seen Shonda Rhimes quote, thank you.

  4. While I applaud Shonda Rhimes for “normalizing” TV, I read lesbian fiction because being one part of a large ensemble cast doesn’t give me the relatability I’m looking for. I don’t need the fiction I read to have nothing but lesbians, but I want the main character(s), those who are in every scene to be lesbians. Not just the last five minutes of the show, or a snippet here or there. I want stories led by lesbians, which I guess is an escape because I don’t see that in real life or other forms of entertainment. Long live lesbian fiction!

  5. I agree with this on so many levels! Most recently in TV land, I discovered The Fosters. I couldn’t quite work out why it made me so happy (even though there’s so much teen and life drama) and suddenly I realised its because I see the sort of love and romance between the two mothers that I feel between myself and my partner. It was literally the first time I’ve ever really honestly related to the love between two women on TV. I thought, is this how straight people feel all the time ? Even though I watch tv (and read!) to escape, being able to escape into a relatable character was so refreshing and revealing.

    1. Aw, I can understand that! I remember there were a few conversations between Willow and Tara on Buffy that I just was bouncing up and down watching because it was so familiar to the repartee between me and my partner.

  6. Great article! Escapism and to be able to relate, are indeed two main reasons for many to read, including me, but like you said: only if the world we’re reading about includes us too! It would be a pretty poor read otherwise. We need to feel at home, and also many people enjoy the romance genre and thus what better way, as a lesbian or bi, to read about lesbian main characters when they fall in love? I see a rise in lesbian books and readers in the speculative fiction recently which I think is great. What better genre than sci-fi and fantasy to escape to but also relate with? I’m glad that there are some great authors out there who work hard to create imaginative, but believable, worlds and characters we can feel and care for. I’ve learned a lot from the best and can only hope to be as good and inspirational, and perhaps even life changing, with my stories. It is most definitely the genre I feel most comfortable in. (:

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