By definition, LGBT representation involves having characters of the LGBTQIA spectrum play a leading role in a story—or all of the roles. LGBT folk tend to travel in packs (I can say this from experience) so it’s pretty easy to write them in. Proper LGBT representation means making your queer character overtly queer, even if your book doesn’t hinge on it. You can center the plot around their LGBT identity or not; that’s entirely up to you and the type of story you want to tell.
Currently, we’re seeing a much greater push for characters whose LGBTQIA identity is evident, without being the basis for the plot. For example, you have a main character who’s a bisexual man, but the story centers around him solving crimes as a PI in a corrupt town where the cops can’t be relied on because they’re crooked as hell. The main character in this case is queer, but the book is not a coming-out story or an issues book (a story that revolves around confronting the numerous problems present in and around the LGBT community). An example of an issues book would be a story where the main overarching conflict centers around the lead character’s struggle with being LGBT.
If you can’t tell a character is gay without the author saying so during an interview, that’s not representation, and they’re not writing a diverse book. Their queerness has to be present within the text, not just a footnote the author keeps in mind.
An obvious example of a series with no LGBT representation is Harry Potter. Dumbledore doesn’t count as queer representation if none of us knew that he was gay until JK revealed in an interview that he was in love with Grindelwald. That would have been a huge addition to the series, but it’s never brought up within the context of the story, so it doesn’t count as queer representation. Leaving it ambiguous—e.g., the character does not have a history of queerness nor is the sexual identity explicitly stated—also does not count. This follows the same vein of leaving someone’s skin color entirely unsaid. The idea that the reader will assume the character looks like them is false: readers will almost always assume a character is straight, cis-gender, and white until proven otherwise, because this is the type of person they are used to reading about. The lack of diversity in publishing throughout history has created this trap, and to ignore it is to play into it.
One of the biggest gaps we are trying to fill presently is the absence of LGBTQIA male characters in genre fiction. This is due to an age-old stereotype which persists today: queer women are more masculine, and therefore can take on roles in SFF and action-adventure, while queer men are more feminine and thus relegated to roles in rom-coms. This is a problem that exists across the market. As an LGBT writer, I often catch flack because my series—which is LGBT paranormal action-adventure—does not feature romance. My gay men are a little busy saving the world to fall in love. And yet I get asked how, without that romance, can my gay men really be gay? If Alan doesn’t show evidence of having relationships with men and women, is he really bisexual? If Yulian doesn’t make out with a guy, is he really gay? At what point can we say that gay men do not have to be falling in love with someone to be considered gay within the context of the story? At what point can we finally say, without question, that queer men don’t exist just to tell rom-com stories?
This is why LGBT representation matters. In putting out book after book after book with cliché queer male characters, publishing makes it harder for those who are queer to be able to divorce sexuality from gender stereotypes. The two are not the same, nor do they necessarily influence one another. Gay men are not necessarily feminine. Gay women are not necessarily butch. Not to mention the fact that there are numerous gender identities between the two, because gender is not binary. And yet, publishing outside of young adult literature has yet to wrap its head around this fact. As I’m writing this, there is a professional publishing conference going on with a workshop centered around writing novels specifically for a cis-het audience, with exact beats, simply to sell more books. (Picture a skeleton for a book—you already have the structure and you’re just picking out the flooring and fixtures.)
I wish I was making that up, but here we are. It’s 2019, and we still have to explain to industry professionals that a large number of readers will not be straight. That a book can feature LGBT characters without it being an issue, or becoming a book about issues.
LGBT representation matters because queer characters have other stories to tell, and queer men in particular have lives and identities that exist outside of romance. They don’t need to look a certain way or talk a certain way or have a favorite member of the Fab Five. Having an LGBT lead will not subtract from your work of kick-butt genre fiction. It adds. Diversity shows us human beings, and that makes the story real. It lets it resonate and hit home. It makes the impossible, probable. If you want to write a great story, then fill it with whole, fully realized characters, across the spectrum of gender and sexuality.