Graphic by Kel Yu/OutWrite
Content warning: homophobia, homophobic violence
My first June after discovering sapphic literature was one of eager anticipation. I had loved sapphic novels from the moment I picked up “The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics” the year prior, and waited all year for Pride Month so that I could get new recommendations. Sure enough, they started rolling in! Scrolling through TikTok, I saw video after video advertising “queer book recs.” But what I saw was disappointing at best. In these videos, the word “queer” seemed to be synonymous with male-loving-male (MLM); every single video was full of nothing but MLM novel recommendations.
Where were the novels for us sapphics?
It seemed like this was not an isolated occurrence, since I saw numerous other sapphic individuals (such as @readbyfin on TikTok) complaining about this phenomenon. I started to wonder about the actual reach of this underrepresentation; was this something that extended throughout the medium of literature?
Let’s turn to Goodreads, a popular book review website. Under the tag “LGBT,” only one of the first ten recommended books is sapphic (thank you, “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo.”) Of the first twenty-five, only six are sapphic.
There’s an argument that maybe sapphic books just aren’t as good as their MLM counterparts. But when we look at the novels of Casey McQuinston (they/them), it’s clear this isn’t true. McQuinston is a popular author of LGBTQ+ romance literature, including “Red, White, and Royal Blue,” which was recently made into a movie. But you probably haven’t heard of their two other books: “One Last Stop” and “I Kissed Shara Wheeler,” both sapphic novels.
I’m mainly going to focus on the differences between “Red, White, and Royal Blue” and “One Last Stop,” since both are adult romance novels, which is an important factor in how broad their audiences are. Both novels feature a protagonist surrounded by a cast of other queer supporting characters as they pursue their love interest. The main differences are shown below:
|“Red, White, and Royal Blue”
|“One Last Stop”
|Released in 2019
880,400 ratings on Goodreads
51,700 reviews on Amazon
|Released in 2021
214,861 ratings on Goodreads
9,570 reviews on Amazon
Some may argue that “Red, White, and Royal Blue” has gotten more attention because of its earlier release. However, all of the awards that this book won were in its first two years of release, so it’s unlikely that the majority of this novel’s success was due solely to its earlier release date. Furthermore, “Red, White, and Royal Blue” has more than four times the amount of ratings as “One Last Stop.” The differing media attention, book recommendations, and this author comparison indicate that Western society seems to have a larger focus on MLM literature than it does on sapphic literature. The question, now, is why?
Both sapphic and MLM individuals face discrimination and stigmatization. When it comes to violent crime, LGBTQ+ individuals are nine times more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to be the victims of violent hate crimes. But looking closer at the difference between MLM individuals and sapphics, the authors of a 2019 study on attitudes towards queer people concluded: “First, we found that gay men are disliked more than lesbian women in every country we tested. This reflects previous research findings from the United States. It also supports the idea that in patriarchal societies, women are largely invisible in the public sphere, especially with regard to their sexuality.” In addition, “[e]xtant research suggests that men are not only more likely to be the perpetrators of sexual prejudice but also its victims. Compared to lesbian women, attitudes toward gay men are especially negative, at least in the United States. On a personal level, studies conducted in the United States find that men tend to report more negative attitudes toward gay men (vs. lesbian women), whereas women do not differentiate.” In other words, men tended to be prejudiced against gay men specifically, whereas women were equally prejudiced against both sexual minorities. We turn to history to explain this phenomenon.
Homosexuality has been punished throughout history, often in the form of the death penalty for homosexual men. But in almost every such instance, the law only criminalized anal sex — such as in England’s Buggery Act of 1533. Even during the Nazi regime in 1930s Germany, “female homosexuality was never criminalized.”
This is not to say that sapphic individuals did not also face discrimination — just that this discrimination was not legalized in public forums. This is in large part due to the heavy misogyny that permeated and continues to permeate Western civilizations. Would you really feel the need to include women in the specific wording of the laws that governed your people if you thought they were too stupid to figure out homosexual relationships on their own? Sapphic women did face discrimination; it just wasn’t the kind that left a paper trail to follow throughout history.
Oscar Wilde and Radclyffe Hall’s respective publications of LGBTQ+ novels provide a good example of this discrepancy in public discrimination. Most of us have heard of Wilde’s famous court case and arrest for homosexuality, but many of us haven’t heard of Hall’s sapphic novel “The Well of Loneliness” and the trial for obscenity it faced after publication. Until my editor brought it to my attention, I didn’t even know about it. The public reacted very differently to both of these acts of LGBTQ+ representation. Whereas Oscar Wilde’s case and subsequent arrest received so much attention that we still know his name to this day, Radclyffe Hall’s case and story were swept under the rug. The difference in treatment of these two cases is yet another case of a misogynistic “nobody needs to know” mentality regarding sapphic individuals and their representation.
Think about it: how many times have you heard of a tale of two spinster women who lived together and definitely had something else going on beyond the view of the public eye?
In most western civilizations, men were the ones in power. Men were in the view of the public eye. No laws were made to prevent two sapphics from having a secret affair, so long as they kept to their womanly duties. Try as we might to prevent it, this view has translated to modern life.
Who’s in the public eye when it comes to modern LGBTQ+ representation? Men. MLM individuals are the ones found in the pages of every novel in Barnes and Noble. But they’re also the ones afraid to hold hands on a high school campus, and facing “jokes” disguised as harassment as well as forced social isolation — all forms of discrimination on a very public scale.
And the sapphics? The discrimination they face is mostly behind closed doors: heavy amounts of domestic violence, invalidation, and misogyny. To this day, sapphic identities are ignored as “just a phase” or “how things are these days” instead of receiving the public acknowledgement (both in a positive and negative light) that MLM individuals receive, largely due to the fact that women’s identities and opinions are continually taken less seriously than those of men. There will be no sapphics on the page if society doesn’t take them and their relationships seriously.
The discrimination against both MLM individuals and sapphics carry equal weight in the queer community, and they impact all LGBTQ+ members of our society. I have MLM friends who were afraid to hold hands at school. On the other hand, I didn’t come out until I was sixteen, purely because I never understood that loving women romantically was even an option. My unawareness was largely due to the lack of positive representation; I didn’t see loving, multidimensional sapphic characters on screen. The few that I did see were there for diversity points, nothing more. There were no main characters, no Disney princesses who could exist without their happy ending in the arms of their prince. For many of us sapphics, we assumed that a happy ending with a man was the only option.
Sapphic identities are still to this day underrepresented because of views that have been rooted in centuries of misogyny; stemming from this is a contrast between the treatment of MLM individuals and sapphics in the laws and public perception of LGBTQ+ figures throughout history as well as in the modern day.
I wish I could offer a simple solution to this lasting prejudice. But the answers aren’t so simple. How are we supposed to fight something that’s been cemented into society for years? The best solution I can offer is simple: love each other. Hate isn’t fought with more hate, but love. Accept everyone around you for who they are, and build up the voices of the people who have been kept silent for far too long. Publicly support and validate LGBTQ+ identities, read (and write) some sapphic novels, and put an end to this discrimination. Because, when all is said and done, there should be no hypervisibility of MLM people, no invisibility of sapphics. Everyone — no matter their identity — should be visible as themselves.
Author: Jessica Rose (She/Her)
Artist: Kel Yu (She/Her)
Copy Editors: Niki S (She/Her), Emma Blakely (They/She/He)