stack of books with asexual pride flag

Romance is for Everyone: Asexuality in Romance Publishing

A core tenet of the romance genre is the emotionally satisfying ending or the Happily Ever After. Romance publishing, like much of the publishing industry, hasn’t always been inclusive about who is participating in these happily ever afters, however. It has taken a long time for romance publishers to seek out, acquire, and promote books with central LGBTQ+ storylines, and even though this is changing, the genre still does a lot to position straight relationships as the default. Even more pervasive in the romance genre is the assumption that sexual attraction and relationships are the only way to have a successful romantic relationship. The positioning of allosexual relationships as the last word in romance contributes to the invisibility of asexual people and relationships.

Asexual characters didn’t really start making an appearance in fiction until the mid-2010s, according to Lily Herman, a writer for Bustle Magazine. Even when these books began to appear, they were mostly put out by smaller presses or self-published. Content writer and blogger, Dianna Gunn, laments that “a lot of the media offered to us presents really narrow definitions of what constitutes a strong, deep bond. Too often, sexual and romantic relationships take the center stage as the most meaningful relationship you can have.”

Arguably more harmful than erasure of asexual identities in traditional publishing is the outright misrepresentation of ace identities and experiences that exists in older novels and persists in more recent portrayals. According to Lynn O’Connacht, asexuality is often conflated with either aromanticism or celibacy. In many cases, a character’s disinterest in sex cuts off their possibility for a relationship at all and in some cases, a character’s implied asexuality is intertwined with implications that are dehumanizing. Rebecca Burgess, author of the graphic memoir How to be Ace, points to Sherlock Holmes in the BBC original Sherlock, whose sociopathy and disinterest in sexual (or romantic) relationships are conflated. Although she qualifies Sherlock’s sexuality as something that is presented and not explicitly confirmed, there’s enough support within the context of the show to suggest that creators include Sherlock’s ambivalence to relationships under the umbrella of his sociopathy. Burgess writes, “It’s hardly the main problem, but it does contribute to the cultural ignorance of what asexuality is exactly . . . and people’s idea of what a healthy relationship should look like.”

But some novels hit the nail on the head. Burgess raves about Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, in which two ace-coded main characters develop a relationship. Discovering Good Omens was a pivotal moment for Burgess. “I saw my exact experience,” she writes, “And it didn’t need kissing or touching to be considered real, or written off as unhealthy. It was a happy, positive love story.” Although this example is from a fantasy novel, it provides a powerful picture of why representation is important for reinforcing the idea that asexuality is a valid sexual orientation and identity and that fulfilling relationships are absolutely attainable for people who identify as asexual. Author of The House in the Cerulean Sea, TJ Klune has made incredible strides in queer representation in general and ace representation specifically. In interviews and on his blog, he advocates for more representation and remains a beacon of hope to other aspiring writers who want to include ace characters and relationships in their novels, whether they identify as ace or not.

Even though romance publishing has a lot of ground to make up for when it comes to who gets their Happily Ever After, readers who are interested in reading more stories that include ace characters and experiences have a lot available to them if they’re willing to do a little digging. Listicles featuring recommendations for asexual romances or book featuring asexual characters are becoming more common, like this one on BookRiot or this one on Tor’s website, and the Aro Ace Database allows you to search for characters who are coded ace or aro (aromantic) in all genres of fiction.

rainbow coming out of dark clouds

Double-edged Sword: The Erasure, or Harmful Portrayal, of Bisexuality

When it comes to the discussion of LGBTQ+ inclusion within literature, we can see that progress has been made, albeit not nearly enough. With the expansion of queer inclusion in literature and digital media, new issues arise, such as perpetuating stereotypes. Speaking in terms of specifically bisexual characters, these issues often result from them being portrayed as a means of creating a specific type of character rather than for the purpose of positive representation.

It’s fair to say that coming out in any aspect totes along its own unique and frustrating labels and assumptions from those outside of the community. In my experience, the bisexual identity comes with being ostracized, not only from the straight, cis-gendered community, but also from their LGBTQ+ family as well. One of the biggest stereotypes is that bisexual individuals are “promiscuous” and, likely, unloyal. While this is not the case, the portrayal of bisexual characters across different media platforms only serves to preserve these damaging reservations about the orientation.

On the other hand, there is yet another negative form of stereotypes. Where there is no general sexual frivolity in a bisexual character, there may instead be the assertion of “confusion.” This is particularly true in cases where the audience is led to believe (not know, as this usually happens through suggestion instead of saying the words out loud, which is a whole other issue in and of itself) that a character is bisexual, but they tend to end up with the opposite gender. While this is fine in theory, the issue we’re faced with is the perpetuation of the stereotype that bisexuals are just “confused” or “experimenting,” and that when they settle down, they will inevitably choose a “straight” relationship. For a recent example, I think back to the Marvel/Disney show Loki. The Disney+ show led some fans to think that Loki might (finally!) end up in a relationship with another male character (although, I hold my reservations about Owen Wilson being a match with Tom Hiddleston—but that’s neither here nor there). However, what ended up happening was the rug being pulled out yet again for hopeful, queer audience members and pandering to the straight, cis-gendered community (I’m trying to be vague so that I don’t give any spoilers). Even though many people know that Loki is bisexual, there is a blatant lack of that part of his identity in his character’s representation, which is problematic, especially from such a large platform as Disney.

Literature can be just as challenging. Consider the novel Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult. The story revolves around Zoe, a bisexual woman who eventually becomes estranged from her husband. In the resolution, Zoe falls in love with another woman. And while this certainly happens in real life, the problem with this novel is that, rather than restating Zoe’s bisexuality, she is instead described as just being a lesbian all along, or worse, having been “turned gay”—which is even more disheartening.

While it is clear that the world is not the same as it was twenty or thirty years ago when it comes to acceptance, we still have a long way to go. All members of the queer community still have to face external biases against their orientation, internalized homophobia, transphobia, and more; however, there is a double-edged sword that bisexuals face between those inside their community and those outside of it. The stereotypes that come along with the orientation led others to mistrust them, and it negatively affects their ability to have stable relationships. Only through changing the script when we represent the LGBTQ+ community can we come closer to a world where we not only accept, but also truly celebrate, all identities.

streamers displayed in rainbow order connecting to a brick building

 LGBTQ+ Book Recommendations

If you’re part of the LGBTQ+ community, you’re probably eager to get your hands on any piece of queer media you can; if you’re not part of the community, maybe you’re looking to broaden the scope of your reading experiences. There are so many queer books out there, but it can be hard to keep up with new releases and titles that have already been published. We have put together a list of LGBTQ+ reads to add to your TBR list, whether you’re reading by yourself or with a book club.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles is a very popular retelling of the Iliad, focusing on the story of Achilles and Patroclus, told from the latter’s point of view. This book follows the two from childhood to the Trojan War, chronicling their growth and their romantic relationship. It is a very touching read, and it’s perfect for fans of Greek mythology.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe follows two lonely teenage boys who meet one another during the summer and become fast friends. Over time, and over a distance, the two discover romantic feelings for each other. This beloved novel has a sequel that was just published too!

Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

This is the sequel to Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, and it is a highly-anticipated sequel to boot. Having just been released, this book is on many a TBR list, but early reviews are giving it a glowing recommendation.

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

Cemetery Boys went viral thanks to TikTok, and it’s for good reason. Sixteen-year-old trans boy Yadriel is on a mission to prove to his traditional family that he is a man by way of a brujo ceremony. Typically performed as a family celebration, Yadriel invites his cousin/best friend, Maritza, to attempt to summon their murdered cousin to set his soul free. Yadriel mistakenly summons the ghost of newly-dead high school bad boy Julian Diaz, and he refuses to leave Yadriel alone until the pair finds out what happened to the murdered boy. The longer the two spend together, however, the less they want to leave.

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

Cynical August moves to New York City where she waits tables at a twenty-four-hour diner and lives with way too many people. She has given up on romance and is determined to live the rest of her life alone. One day, she meets Jane on the subway and is stopped in her tracks. Slowly but surely, August begins to believe in love and the impossible.

While not an exhaustive list, I hope you’ve found a book (or two, or five) to add to your list. Happy reading, and enjoy these highly-praised queer love stories!