Congratulations to Jessica Pelton, one of the recipients of the 2023—24 Ooligan Press Diversity Scholarships!

We are honored to share Jessica’s application essay here:

It is unsurprising to anyone who knows me that books played a significant role in my process of realizing that I am bisexual. However, it is also true that I likely would have come to that realization much earlier in life, and with less resistance, if I had been exposed to more positive queer representation in books when I was younger. Although I grew up a voracious reader, I hardly ever found stories that centered queer experience. The few I did come across were almost exclusively focused on the pain and trauma that comes from being a part of a marginalized group. As essential as those stories are, when those are the only stories you have, you inevitably come to build a negative association with queerness. Without that negative association, my own self-realization journey may have been a bit less fraught.

In recent years, though, the publishing industry has been evolving to give a voice to a much fuller range of queer experience. Nowadays I can walk into any Barnes & Noble and find at least a few romance novels celebrating queer love, or a couple of fantasy stories with an LGBTQIA+ hero at its helm. These stories aren’t exactly dominating the shelves, but they are persisting. Every day I see more published books that address the full range of queer experience, from the joys found in self-expression and community to the pain of marginalization. At the same time, there are an abundance of stories punctuated by two-dimensional stereotypes in lone queer side characters, or romance novels written by straight women who are fetishizing relationships between queer men. The publishing industry has historically promoted the invisibility of LGBTQIA+ identities by allowing them to remain underrepresented while also often promoting harmful stereotypes when queer people are mentioned. However, there are more books published by and for queer people every year that are turning that tide. The publishing industry certainly has a lot of progress to make when it comes to queer representation, but there is a bit of hope in that, too. Room for progress means room for opportunity and growth, and I aim to contribute to that growth as I enter into the publishing industry.

My central professional goal is to become a fiction editor, and I plan to use that role to promote books featuring positive and constructive LGBTQIA+ representation. To me, positive and constructive representation consists of stories and characters that are not reduced to one type of experience. Queerness has an inherent resistance to definition and constraint– that’s why there is a plus sign at the end of LGBTQIA+. To highlight stories that reduce queerness to stereotypes and fetishization, or to define queer people only by their pain, is not only harmful, but also a gross misrepresentation of what it means to be queer. Experiences of queerness contain exquisite joy as well as trauma, community as well as isolation, and celebration as well as invisibility. That is why queer stories deserve to be told within the full scope of emotion that literature is capable of. In doing so, books give voice to the full range of experience of a group that is so often silenced. These types of stories, which depict queerness in all its diversity, have the power to redefine and recontextualize queer experience in the minds of readers of any identity, queer or not. These types of stories also provide a sense of community, support, and understanding for queer-identifying people (including, at times, myself) who may lack those essential qualities in their lives. I look forward to seeing the publishing industry grow in its depiction of positive and constructive queer representation, and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to contribute to that change as I enter into the industry.

The 2023—24 Ooligan Press Diversity Scholarships are awarded in honor of Indigo: Editing, Design, and More and poet Wopashitwe Mondo Eyen we Langa. Scholarships are awarded annually to incoming students to the Ooligan Press Master’s in Publishing program at Portland State University. Learn more here.