US authors say publisher told them to ‘straighten’ gay character

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

Two authors who wrote a young adults’ post-apocalyptic novel say a publisher offered them a deal on the basis that they turn ‘straighten’ a gay character.

Sherwood Smith and Rachel Manija Brown’s book Stranger has five main characters, one of whom, Yuki, is gay and has a boyfriend.

They said that an agent from a major literary agency offered to sign them “on the condition that we make the gay character straight, or else remove his viewpoint and all references to his sexual orientation”.

The pair did not name the agency but said it represents a bestselling YA (young adult) novel in the same genre as their book.

Ms Manija Brown says she responded to state that the authors would never alter the character’s sexual orientation. In reply, the agent said that Yuki could become gay in a sequel if the book was popular.

The authors wrote: “We knew this was a pie-in-the-sky offer – who knew if there would even be sequels? – and didn’t solve the moral issue. When you refuse to allow major characters in YA novels to be gay, you are telling gay teenagers that they are so utterly horrible that people like them can’t even be allowed to exist in fiction.

“LGBTQ teenagers already get told this. They are four times more likely than straight teenagers to attempt suicide. We’re not saying that the absence of LGBTQ teens in YA sf and fantasy novels is the reason for that. But it’s part of the overall social prejudice that does cause that killing despair.”

Ms Smith and Ms Manija Brown added that this was not the first time publishers had asked them to remove gay characters.

They wrote: “This isn’t about one agent’s personal feelings about gay people. We don’t know their feelings; they may well be sympathetic in their private life, but regard the removal of gay characters as a marketing issue.

“The conversation made it clear that the agent thought our book would be an easy sale if we just made that change. But it doesn’t matter if the agent rejected the character because of personal feelings or because of assumptions about the market. What matters is that a gay character would be quite literally written out of his own story.”

The pair said they would not name the publisher who spoke most bluntly, because “naming names can make it too easy to target a lone ‘villain’, who can be blamed and scolded until everyone feels that the matter has been satisfactorily dealt with.”

Other authors, including Jessica Verday and Nicola Griffith, have told of run-ins with publishers over gay characters.