Untitled (A Textile Exploration of Gender Representation in LGBTQ+ YA Novels, Pt. 1), 2021 Esther Davis & Gavin Shelton
Our first data set is from YA author Malinda Lo analyzing representation in LGBTQ+ YA literature published in 2018. Lo's research showed that, of 108 LGBTQ+ YA titles published in 2018, 83% of these stories had a cisgender primary character and 4% had a gender expansive primary character. None of the titles published in 2018 with a single primary character featured a binary transgender primary character, but there were three novels with a binary trans character among a group of main characters.
We contextualized this data set by combining it with a 2020 research brief from The Trevor Project on pronoun usage among LGBTQ+ youth (aged 13-24). This survey shows that 25% of LGBTQ+ youth use gender expansive pronouns.
These two data sets combined highlight the incongruity between the media TGNC teens consume and their lived experiences. Although fully a quarter of LGBTQ+ youth use gender expansive pronouns, these stories are massively under-represented in LGBTQ+ YA fiction, which continues to privilege cisgender teens' stories. YA fiction erases and ignores the existence of gender-expansive teens, rather than highlighting the abundance of TGNC identities, expressions, and voices.
Inclusive fiction can act as "mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors" (Sims Bishop), helping marginalized youth to imagine joyful futures and new possibilities for themselves. In this way, TGNC YA literature offers gender expansive readers affirmation and validation of their identities and experiences, and enables them to imagine beyond transphobia and cisnormativity.
Although representation can affirm and expand, not all representation is inherently beneficial. When the same few stories are shown over and over in literature, this representation can actually inhibit our understandings of ourselves and one another. A body of TGNC fiction that only highlights identities and experiences that align with transnormative expectations--or prescriptive understandings of how trans people move through the world--prevents youth from seeing new possibilities for their lives and reinforces transphobia.
The weaving represents the kaleidoscopic reality of gender among LGBTQ+ youth in the United States, as shown in The Trevor Project 2020 survey. Gender identities and expressions are limitless, creating a colorful tapestry of gender expansive possibilities.
Although the weaving visualizes the vast array of trans possibilities, the frames represent the limited capacity for fiction to act as windows when fiction only shows a select few stories. The largest frame is a teal color and represents the 83% of LGBTQ+ YA books published in 2018 that had a cisgender primary character. When held as a lens, this frame shows most of the tapestry behind it, representing the way that a wide variety and number of stories can amplify voices and experiences. The smallest frames represent the few titles with trans or gender expansive major characters. These frames obstruct the weaving behind them, forcing the viewer to focus on only a small section of the weaving, much as these few titles offer readers a glimpse into only a portion of the complex realities of trans stories.
Additionally, the largest frame has crocheted embellishment along the exterior, whereas the small frames have none. This speaks to the way that, when authors are forced to write the single story on a marginalized community--when an author knows they may be writing the only book about a trans character that a reader may encounter--their creativity is also constrained. When there already exists an expanse of stories, however, authors have space to embellish and create, to add new ideas and details that are otherwise absent.
In our initial ideation phases, I had envisioned crocheting a doily, where the gaps in representation are part of the pattern and speak to structural forces that perpetuate limited understandings of TGNC identities and stories. However, the floppiness of a doily didn't seem conducive to creating a multi-piece artefact, so I pivoted to making frames, inspired by Rudine Sims Bishop's discussion of multicultural literature as windows.
I mostly followed a YouTube tutorial by Rangli Wang (2020), who used cardboard cutouts as a foundation for crocheting frames. I painted the cardboard a similar color to the yarn I used, so that the cardboard wasn't as visible between the strands of yarn. For the smaller frames, I chose to replace yarn with embroidery floss; I found that scaling down the bulk of my materials helped visually reinforce the size difference between the smallest frames and the large frame. Also, as mentioned in a previous section, I opted to keep the smaller frames simpler and to remove the ornamental stitches from the exterior in order to highlight another gap in representation. This detail was suggested by a classmate during a peer review session.
Over a period of three days, I warped my loom, tied on the fringe, and used different colors of roving in a soumak weave to make a braided style for the main body of the piece. The fringe was leftover yarn from a previous weaving, but I saw the rainbow roving on the Instagram page of a weaver and yarn supplier and bought it just for this project.
The materials and the Weaving Basics guidebook I used are from the shop Nova Mercury by weaver Jen Duffin (Duffin, n.d.).
We began by staging the artefact by hanging the frames in front of the weaving, which was minimally effective--the wind blew the frames against the weaving, plastering the multiple pieces together. We pivoted to work with the wind, choosing instead to film with the camera lens looking through the frames individually, representing the limited view offered by the literature. This use of the frames brought a new understanding of the small frames--the smaller scale also offered us opportunities to focus on the small details of the weaving, mimicking the ways that limited and repetitive representation can still offer new insight into and framing of the same experiences.
One of the more obvious actions for librarians is to thoughtfully curate collections that highlight, as much as possible, the limitlessness of gender. Beyond titles on the shelf, however, librarians also need to uplift trans community members, in all capacities available. We must elevate and respect the experiences and expertise of gender expansive youth; take action against anti-trans legislation; dismantle the gender binary within physical library spaces. Regardless of specific actions, we must first and foremost ask trans youth what their needs are; listen when they trust us with their knowledge and stories; and advocate for them and work to meet their needs.
Especially for cisgender librarians: get comfortable with discomfort. Share your pronouns, and stop assuming you know anyone else's. Use the language trans community members tell you to use. Practice pronouns you're not used to when you're alone. Petition political representatives. Embrace radical compassion.