Much has been made of the increase in queer representation in popular fiction in recent years, and rightly so. After all, “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” as the saying goes. For those of us who grew up with few queer characters in the books we read, it’s heartening to see people of all sexualities and genders getting the representation they deserve – but are some still getting less exposure than others? And if so, why?
Bestselling books with queer protagonists in the young adult fiction market gave rise to the explosion of LGBTQ+ books aimed at adult readers, with novels such as Becky Albertalli’s Simon v The Homosapien Agenda (later adapted into the movie “Love, Simon,”) and Her Royal Highness by Rachel Hawkins becoming crossover hits. Meredith Russo’s If I Was Your Girl and Lisa Williamson’s The Art of Being Normal demonstrated the need for representation of trans characters in Young Adult (YA) fiction, with the former claiming the 2017 Stonewall Book Award in the young adult category and the latter winning the prestigious Waterstones Children’s Book Prize for best older fiction in 2016.
If YA publishers led the way, other markets followed, with publishers such as Mills and Boon putting out calls for submissions including LGBTQ+ characters. While Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name was a noughties breakout success and Sarah Waters has been flying the sapphic fiction flag for two decades, until recently, queer stories challenging the bestsellers lists were a novelty, not the norm. Thankfully, times are changing. From Douglas Stuart’s hard-hitting Shuggie Bain to the trope-fuelled joy of Clare Lydon’s You’re My Kind, queer books are gaining shelf space in bookstores on both sides of the Atlantic and reaching readers of all sexualities and genders.
Yet the representation of bisexual and pansexual characters in fiction can still feel hard to come by. With a 2022 study by Gallup suggesting 4% of US adults identify as bisexual (and 1.3% of the adult population in the UK, according to the 2021 census), the demand is undoubtedly there. Could authors shy away from bi and pan characters for fear of compounding stereotypes, worried that by showing an ability to love people of all genders, they are adding to the narrative that bi and pan people are greedy or indecisive? Or maybe the characters exist but have fallen foul of bi/pan erasure – if they are shown as being in a steady relationship, readers may perceive them to be straight, gay, or lesbian, even if their sexuality is stated as bi or pan.
Overt bisexual representation is out there, as proven by Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper series. Originally a webcomic before being adapted into a series of graphic novels and a Netflix series, “Heartstopper” quickly became a favorite with the LGBTQ+ community for its diverse characters and heartfelt storylines.
And the representation doesn’t stop there. The Two Lives of Louis and Louise by Julie Cohen, longlisted for The Polari Prize, is an ambitious, high-concept novel where the protagonist is bisexual in two different realities and genders. The main character in C.S. Pacat’s Captive Prince series has relationships with both men and women. Ally Sinclair’s A Season for Love is a rom-com with a pansexual lead.
Books with bisexual and pansexual characters are out there but are often less explicitly marketed as queer compared to their gay and lesbian counterparts. You might need to dig deeper to find what you’re looking for, but for bisexual or pansexual bibliophiles it is well worth the effort to see yourself represented on the page.