On Queer Characters of Color

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Black Lives Matter Series: Day 3 – Previous Posts: Black Lives Matter, But Where Are We? – I Was Made To Believe There Was Something Wrong With Me – Introduction to Black Lives Matter Series

by Aleah

Things have grown and changed drastically in the literary world over the years, leading authors to write characters with more racial and sexual freedom. As a straight African-American young woman in support of Gay Rights, I love to see YA novels featuring intertwined sexual and racial diversity. Sadly, while the publication of LGBTQ books is constantly on the rise, those featuring teens of color are few.

(When I say “of color”, I mean people from various cultures and racial backgrounds.)

The lack of queer African-American characters in particular is partially due to sexual stigma in the black community, but that’s just one piece of the puzzle. It’s pretty much the only thing I hear about when I ask other people what they think the problem is. So, I’ll talk about some of the effects of this stigma and others on YA lit, and some things I think we can do to help fix the problem.

 

Marginalization & Relatability

As a general rule, novelists want people to read and buy their work. If they decide to write a gay, black, protagonist they likely go in knowing that will define their book, whether they specifically want it to or not. That’s the book with the gay, black, main character, they’ll think. Or alternately, the gay, black, supporting character.

Because of this, some people will not want to read these books because they feel the characters aren’t ‘relatable’ to them. As if the book is somehow not for them because the characters aren’t necessarily like them.

This seems pretty ridiculous to me. A girl in one of my writing classes said it best: “Everyone isn’t straight and white in real life, so why should they be in our books?”

One of the best things about reading is being able to slip into other people’s worlds. To see through the eyes of someone who isn’t you. Yet, we still find ways to relate to characters who are unlike us in many ways. Because we are people, and that’s what we do. Being black, just like being gay, is one of those things that just is. It isn’t an undesirable personality trait or annoying character flaw. It’s just as relatable or un-relatable as anything else, and certainly shouldn’t stop people from reading about them.

 

To Talk or Not to Talk

There are plenty of people who have views or ideas they don’t share with everyone. Many people simply don’t like to make waves. What books are you reading? What books are your friends reading? Whose tastes are lacking diversity in one way or another? Plenty of people don’t like to ask themselves these questions, let alone their friends.

People can frequently jump to feeling defensive or offended when asked, when it’s easily fixable.

For example: Somewhere along the line, certain people figured that being told they’ve made a racist comment is the same as being told they’re a racist person. This is not true, especially if the speaker can and is willing to admit the wrongness of their actions and apologize.

Sometimes it takes putting yourself and your views under a microscope to see what the problem is, and how to fix it. While it might not be the most comfortable experience, learning to recognize racism, intentional or unintentional, will definitely be worth it in the long term.

 

The People Who Don’t See the Problem

There will always be the people who say things like:

“What’s wrong with the way things are now?”

“There didn’t even used to be books about gay people or people of color.”

Or even, “Why does it matter?”

As if every detail of a character has to be vitally important to the story to matter. In our society, white is the default. If a character’s race/appearance/skin tone isn’t properly described, readers will assume that character is white. That is a fact. It’s the same with sexual orientation–straight unless otherwise stated. To create a truly diverse literary landscape, these things have to be fleshed-out, important to the plot or not.

I realized a long time ago that there are people who don’t care about this, and will never care. I don’t let it discourage me from speaking out, and you shouldn’t either. Diversity is important, and things are only going to really begin to change after we’ve opened up a conversation.

 

As you go about diversifying your reading list, think on this: You shouldn’t only think about reading these books for their diversity; you should read them because… they’re good books. These days, not all stories featuring people of color are about race, just as not all books about queer characters are coming-out stories. Just like other books, there are good ones and… less good ones. Look for books that aren’t riddled with stereotypes, though they’ll be a bit more difficult to find. Talk up the good, discard the bad, and most importantly: keep reading.

 

Looking for more?

Finding the diversity you desire may be a difficult task, but someone’s gotta do it.

Besides the fabulous Gay YA,

There are excellent sites like Diversity in YA:  They focus on all kinds of diversity: race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability.

They’ve even got a post about stuff you can do right now to help things along.

Here’s a post by Lori Lee over on Book Riot about Diversity in fantasy novels.

As a self-professed fantasy geek who has always wanted to be an elf, I think this is particularly nice to see. *coughs* Moving on.

And finally, a list on Queer Book Club with books from 2013 featuring queer people of color

Aleah is a lover of words, daydreaming, and drinking tea. When not writing, she can be found people-watching, sifting through her large music collection, and pondering situations that could require the use of Shakespearean insults.

Black Lives Matter But Where Are We?

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Black Lives Matter Series: Day 2 – Previous Posts: I Was Made To Believe There Was Something Wrong With Me – Introduction to Black Lives Matter Series

by Aliya

As a black girl, when I was younger I rarely saw myself.  Whether it was in books, on TV, or in movies, I noticed that girls like me were always the sidekick, the supporting character, or the antagonist.  I felt like they were all the same character just in a different story line, that they were two-dimensional characters that were loud but never really had much to say.  Whenever I did stumble upon a book or show that had a black main character that I could relate to, I clung to it with all my life.  I loved the idea of being a part of something.

Ask the PassengersAs a queer girl, when I was younger I never saw queer characters in the media so I didn’t know they could exist.  For a long time, I had never heard of the LGBT+ community except for vague rumors that would be whispered around school and the negative connotation my parents had given it.  It wasn’t until one day when I was twelve that I became really interested in learning more about it after reading Ask the Passengers by A.S. King, a coming to age story about a girl in a small town who was trying to figure out who she was and happened to have a secret girlfriend.  I have always enjoyed reading a book about teenage romance but it wasn’t until I read Ask the Passengers that I had read a book about a romance that was anything other than heterosexual.  Reading about a relationship between two girls pulled my heart strings in a different way than any of the other books I had ever read before and made me want to read more.  Queer YA books have helped me find out more about myself and, honestly, still are now.

As a queer black girl, I am very happy to see that the amount of black and queer characters that have shown up in YA books over the past years but I have noticed that it is still very rare to find a character that is both queer and black.  I have always wondered why there are so few black queer characters in YA LGBT+ books because black queer people do exist in real life but somehow we are invisible.  I want to be able to read the stories of characters that are queer and that have also experienced life in a way I can relate to, with a background similar to mine.  I want to read about a character who is queer and also has to deal with the things that many other people of color face.  I think it’s important to put queer black characters in YA books because in some ways a queer black person’s experience can be totally different from a white queer person’s and our stories deserved to be told too.

We are constantly being told to choose between our Black identity and our queer identity because people never see us as both.  It seems as if we can’t be one without having the other invalidated.  Creating more characters in YA books that proudly identify as both black and queer would make reading a more diverse representation of how the world really is and show others that we are not invisible, show us that we are not invisible.  Black lives matter and it’s important that we see ourselves and that others see us too.  The lack of Black representation in YA is a problem that needs to be addressed and needs to change.  Black Lives Matter needs to be more than just a trending hashtag for a week, more than just a weak string of words that will break apart when it’s cut with a pair of safety scissors.  If Black lives matter, then where are we and where are our stories?

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I’m Aliya, a queer identifying black girl living in south Texas.  I can usually be found at the nearest bookstore, listening to music or on my blog where I usually am posting about social justice or just anything I like.  My plan is to become an illustrator and possibly a writer for YA and children’s books in the future.

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I Was Made to Believe There’s Something Wrong With Me: Why #BlackLivesMatter in YA Lit

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Black Lives Matter Series: Day 1 – Previous Posts: Introduction to Black Lives Matter Series

by Nakiya

I’ve been reading LGBTQ YA fiction for almost five years and I’ve never read a book focused on a black LGBTQ woman.

When I was in elementary school, one of my favorite books was Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor. In middle school two of my favorite series were The Babysitter’s Club by Ann M. Martin and Animorphs by K. A. Applegate, both of which had a central black female character. I grew up in a town that was ninety percent white and I was desperate for stories like mine, so if a book had a black girl as a main character I wanted to read it.

I started deliberately reading LGBTQ focused books shortly after I realized that the feelings I had for the girl I ate lunch with weren’t simply feelings of friendship. Initially I was reading basically anything I could get my hands on, from Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan, to Far from Xanadu by Julie Anne Peters, to The Bermudez Triangle by Maureen Johnson. Last summer I hit a breaking point, frustrated with white narrative after white narrative. I read Ash by Malinda Lo, Boyfriends With Girlfriends by Alex Sanchez, and Down to the Bone by Mayra Lazara Dole. Each of those books had a woman of color protagonist.

None of them were black.

Through extensive searching recently I’ve found a grand total of four novels about black queer women. The House You Pass on the Way by Jacqueline Woodson is the only one of the four available at my local library. I found it and the books Orphea Proud by Sharon Dennis Wyeth and M+O 4evr by Tonya Hegamin on a list about racial diversity in LGBTQ books compiled by Malinda Lo. The last book is Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley, who wrote a blog post for Diversity in YA.

Sadly, this didn’t surprise to me. White stories sell. There’s this pervasive idea in society that white stories are relatable but stories about people of color are about race. It’s similar to the ideas that stories about men are relatable but stories about women are about gender, or that stories with straight characters are relatable but LGBTQ characters change the focus of a story.

The current state of young adult fiction says that as a queer black woman, my story isn’t important.

And I’m privileged, in all honesty, because it’s worse for trans women. All of the black women in the four books I found are cis. Black trans women are disproportionately victims of violence and police brutality. In fact, the majority of LGBTQ murder victims are black trans women. Many of them don’t get justice for the crimes against them. Society says their lives aren’t important.

Why is fiction restating that?

Diversity is important because it lets us know we’re not alone. So why is LGBTQ fiction lacking diversity? Why should I be expected to relate to white gay men when in reality the issues I struggle with in relation to my queerness also intersects with my gender and race? Why don’t I have a true range of novels to choose from when I want to read about girls like me? Why don’t black trans girls have any?

It’s not about having a character that’s exactly like me. I don’t truly expect anyone to come out with a book about a hella queer and hella ace and hella aro black daughter of Nigerian immigrants who also deals with mental illness and trauma. But asking for a book in which a queer girl is also black and has to deal with the intersection of misogynoir (antiblack misogyny) and heteronormativity shouldn’t be too much. It’s about having stories in which I can understand their lives and that give non-black or non-female or non-queer individuals a chance to understand mine.

Representation is important because it gives us hope that people like us can make it through horrific circumstances. But until all of us have the chance to glimpse that hope, there’s a huge problem.

I wanted to write a happy and hopeful piece, but the last few weeks have sapped me of most of my optimism in regards to life in the United States as a black person. This is the reality that millions of us are facing right now, a reality that almost all of us were made aware of as young children. It’s louder at this moment of time and more visible for everyone, but we’ve known.

We’ve known that it’s not safe to exist here, that we have to work harder to succeed here, that racism is inescapable unless we live under our covers.  Even though America has moved forward as far as race relations go, things are still pretty terrible.

We chant that black lives matter because we’ve grown up in a society that insists otherwise.

We cry that black lives matter because our existence and importance is constantly ignored and downplayed.

We scream that black lives matter because if we don’t, no one else will.

Black lives matter. Black queer women matter. Black trans women matter.

And we deserve better.

Nakiya is a black, queer, greyromantic and asexual college student who currently lives in the Pacific Northwest. When she’s avoiding grad school preparation she can be found on Tumblr at lemonyandbeatrice where she blogs about diversity in media, asexuality, trauma, and mental illness. Oh, and lots of Marvel.

Introduction to Black Lives Matter Series

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As I set up this series, I had a number of people ask me “what made you think of connecting what’s happening to queer YA?” I want to address this question before we get into the actual posts.

My intention with the Black Lives Matter series is not to connect police violence with queer YA—that would be impossible and inappropriate. Rather, I want to vocalize the Black Lives Matter phrase for our community. YA is extremely white, and queer YA is no exception. GayYA.org is a site that seeks to be a welcoming and inclusive space for everyone. Queer YA needs more black representation and GayYA has too few black contributors. After the non-indictment in Ferguson it became clear that it is past time to focus on this.

Running this series is far from the only thing that needs to be done to improve our community, but I hope it will move us towards better inclusion of the black members in it. And I know it will shine a light on how desperately needed queer black representation is.

Lastly, I am white. While I’ve spent a large amount of time educating myself, I know that I will never stop learning, and am prone to doing problematic things. I know my white privilege enables this. I also know it is my responsibility to educate myself, but GayYA is a space for everyone. So if I do something problematic, or a post on this site or something we post on social media is upholding racist narratives, makes you uncomfortable, or uses the wrong language please let me know. You can contact us via the social media, or email me at vee@gayya.org.

GayYA Community Survey

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Hey everyone! It’s almost the end of 2014 (??!?!?!??!?!!!!!). We’re looking ahead at the new year, and planning out what 2015 will look like. GayYA is driven by the community, and we want to go where your interests are. To do that, we need to get some basic info from ya’ll, and feedback on things that are and are not working for you, and things that you’d like to see in the future.

Go here and answer these 10 questions to help make 2015 an awesome year for GayYA!

Also: if at any time you have have any comments, concerns, or ideas, email me (Vee) at vee@gayya.org. Doesn’t matter if you’ve only found us yesterday or have never been in contact with us before. GayYA is for you all, and we seek to be an inclusive and actively supportive space and resource for everyone– so hearing from you is vital!

 

The Question of Queering the Mainstream Novel: A Conversation with authors Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith

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The story behind the story is sometimes, as they say, stranger than fiction.

Stranger is the title of a Viking November release by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith and, if you read this book, as I did (when Rachel asked me, in my paranormal YA novelist persona Tate Hallaway, to blurb it,) you might not think much more beyond how awesome and captivating a story of superpowers and survival in a post-apocalyptic future it is.

Stranger (Viking Juveline, 2014)

Stranger (Viking Juveline, 2014)

This book, however, almost didn’t get published.  Sure, okay, you’re thinking, lots of great books don’t get published, what’s the big deal?

I’ll let Rachel and Sherwood tell you, shall I?

Lyda: First of all, congrats on the release of Stranger!

Rachel: Hi, Lyda! Thank you very much!

Lyda: This is a book that was in the news a lot several years back because”New York,” aka the mainstream publishing industry (including literary agents), wanted you to change something fundamental about one of the main viewpoint characters.  Do you want to shock our audience by telling them what this was?  Because, really, I think they’ll be amazed to discover the extent to which this is still a thing in the 21st century–especially once we get to the part where we tell them all the other amazing, wonderful things you got away with, which includes, among others, a central polyamorous relationship.

Rachel: We had an agent offer to represent the book on the condition that we change the sexual orientation of one of the characters. You see, one of the main characters is straight. The agent told us that the book was unsaleable unless we either made that character gay or took out his heterosexual romance and never mentioned that he was straight– just kidding! But I wanted to highlight the outrageousness of the actual offer, which was to represent the book on the condition that we either make a gay character straight, or else remove his romance and all references to his sexual orientation.

The character was Yuki Nakamura, an aspiring explorer who loves horses, his pet rat, and his boyfriend Paco Diaz. Since you’ve read the book, you know the importance of his romance with Paco. Can you imagine Yuki’s story without it?

Lyda: I can’t (and actually I ADORED Yuki’s rat nearly as much as Paco and Yuki as a couple.)  As a lesbian reader/writer, I find that I often really latch on to queer characters of any variety.  This has been true from when I was a baby reader of SF and first came across Theodore Sturgeon’s “World Well Lost” in an anthology in my local library to today.  I NEVER stop needing to see queer in the things I read.  I mean I can read books without it, but when it’s there for me, it’s IMPORTANT, you know?

But, I think, in particularly in the world that you and Sherwood invented, the absence of a queer character would have stood out very starkly.  So many other types of people–people from so many different ethnicities and religions, etc.–banded together in this harsh dystopian Wild West-type future.  If there were no queer people, I think I would have felt… targeted.  Like you two were INTENTIONALLY excluding queers for some reason.

Which, of course, would have been the case if the agent had gotten their way.

Rachel: That’s a really interesting point – and a self-evident one, once you put it that way.

We knew from the get-go that there would be queer characters because, well, queer people exist. Quite a lot of them, even! Arguably, quite a lot of us. I’m in the highly populated gray zone of mostly-straight women with bisexual leanings. I don’t often get crushes on women, but it has definitely been known to happen. When I write about a girl having sexual or romantic feelings for another girl, I’m not just using my imagination – I know what that feels like.

Lyda: Why do you think that queer is still so scary to mainstream/New York publishers? (Because I have stories to tell too, though nothing like what happened to you both.)

Sherwood: In my experience, to this and to similar questions (such as whitewashed covers) I’ve heard variations on “Well, I am personally all for people doing what they want, but we are in the business to sell books.” Which I feel is copping to loud conservatives who would like to return us to the cultural milieu of the 1950s.

Rachel: I think mainstream publishing hasn’t caught up with mainstream culture. That’s not to say that homophobia has vanished from America – obviously not! But in my own experience, larger inroads have been made into the culture overall than have been reflected in publishing. Especially among teenagers.

When I went on my first LGBTQ rights march, back in the early 90s, same-sex marriage wasn’t anything anyone in my social circles expected to have happen in their lifetime. Now it’s legal in more than half of all US states.

Ten years ago, the usual time I saw teenagers coming out was eighteen. They often knew earlier, but didn’t feel safe or comfortable coming out earlier. Now I see teenagers coming out at thirteen. Some of them have faced homophobia as a result. But many of them haven’t. At least in some areas and some contexts, teenagers can come out without causing more of a stir than if they announced their heterosexuality in the way that one declares things considered the norm, by simply dating the person they like.

Publishers may know this about teenagers, but fear that book buyers or parents may still be homophobic. In some cases, they are probably right. But not all of us are homophobic, not all of are straight, and not all of us are unwilling to read about people who aren’t exactly like ourselves. And that even goes for book buyers and parents.

Sherwood, I feel like you and I have switched writerly places – you wrote one pithy paragraph, and I wrote an epic. ;)

Sherwood Smith

Sherwood Smith

Sherwood: Well, I agree with everything you said, so we’re good!

In my own experience (in my family and among friends) there are gay people. They were called “bachelors” or “spinsters,” often with that little smirk and roll of eyes indicating something indelicate meant, that decent persons didn’t refer to.

This went on until the seventies or so. Late in the seventies, I had to lie and pretend to be the fiancée of a gay friend teacher who was afraid to lose his job when a local politician (later discredited in a very sordid affair that showed just how real his “family values” were) tried ramrod an anti-gay proposition through.

When I realized how much they had had to effectively erase themselves in order to bow to mainstream sensibilities, it made me sorry, and finally made me angry.

I did not want to write coming out stories. That was not my experience, or my story to tell. I wanted to write stories in which everyday acceptance was understood: I wrote about the world I wanted to live in.

Lyda: My experience was, I’m sure, tempered by the fact that I was writing books that were also traditional NY published novels, but also marketed to straight romance readers.  However, in some ways, I think the whitewashing there felt almost as insidious because it fed into that destructive idea that somehow simply by existing GLBT people ruin the straight experience of love and romance.

What happened to me was that in one of my paranormal romances, I wrote in a superpower by which the heroine could see people’s inner deities.  The idea was that everyone had a kind of inner patron that reflected something about the nature of their souls.  You can probably see where this is going, right?  Well, exactly.  In my original draft, I took one of the main characters (a fan favorite, actually), a straight-acting/presenting guy, and had my heroine see his inner Goddess. I wasn’t even trying to say that this character was bi or gay.  I just wanted his soul to be represented by a female.  I thought it suited him.  I didn’t think I was saying anything particularly radical.

I was asked to change that.  Because gods forbid a genderqueer character exist.  I mean how could a straight woman fantasize about that?

Rachel: This pre-emptive gatekeeping is so frustrating. We will never know if readers would have had a problem with that or not, because the readers never got to see it.

Lyda: Yeah, I was like, really?  I know that the stereotype of a romance reader is that she’s an unintelligent, horny housewife, but I think that’s just as destructive a stereotype as the crap they were handing me.  I am a lesbian; I read straight romances. I also read gay porn.  I found it hard to believe that I was so strange–that there weren’t other women, straight women, who could be turned on by any number of different kinds of sexual situations.

Rachel: I’m guessing a lot, based on the comments to the Genreville article. A number of authors chimed in with their own similar experiences. And that’s not even getting into how many writers never even tried writing queer characters (or queer protagonists rather than supporting characters) because, based on their reading experience, they assumed that would make their book unpublishable.

Lyda: But, I will admit to caving. What did I really know about mainstream straight romance readers?  I was already feeling like I was invading their space as a lesbian.  Plus, I was under contract and I wanted to be able to keep writing for this particular publisher because, despite this, they’d been very good to me.  (I sublimated by adding a number of insider jokes–one of my heroine’s female best friends wore “comfortable shoes,” drove a truck, and owned a big dog.)  They also capitulated a little and allowed Garnet, my heroine, to see an inner Goddess in a male waiter (which was it’s own kind of horrible stereotype, but I was like throw me a damn BONE at least, and they did.)

To which I want to say that I’m impressed that the two of you held your ground and stuck to your artistic vision.  I think that’s actually far harder than people might give you credit for.

This is why this is a story that needs to be talked about.  We have no idea, for instance, how much queerness has been written out in the pre-publishing stage.

Do you think that this is why we’re seeing so many more small press/self-published books take off and do really amazingly well?  Because they make room for the reader (of whatever orientation) with expansive tastes?  Not just in romance/romantic stories, but in all things?

Rachel: Yes, I think so. I see it as a similar phenomena to gay and lesbian small presses, which have always had (and still have) very devoted audiences. I have a friend who owns literally every book Bold Strokes Books has ever published.

I self-published some lesbian romance under the pen name Rebecca Tregaron, and it did quite well – even though I didn’t advertise it at all! People who wanted to read it found it.

YA authors Zetta Elliott and Neesha Meminger, among many others, also took up self-publishing in order to connect with the readers who wanted to read what they wanted to write. If you click on their names, you will find interviews they did about why they self-publish.

Rachel Manija Brown

Rachel Manija Brown

On the one hand, it’s wonderful that writers and readers can now connect via self-publishing. On the other hand, self-publishing should not be the only option for writers trying to portray something other than the straight white experience.

Lyda: Also, at some point I want to come back to the idea, that, in your book, the hate was focused on the gayness, and no one raised a fuss about a relationship that reads to me as polyamorous.

Rachel: We did get a fuss about that! A completely different agent told us in email that it was totally unacceptable in YA to have a boy openly dating two girls, but that if we wanted to preserve that storyline, we could have him do it in secret and lie to them both. So cheating and lying is fine, but consensual non-monogamy is banned.

Sherwood: Oh, yeccch, I’d forgotten that. Ugh.

Rachel: In real life, relationships are often different from the “one man and one woman being completely monogamous starting from their first date” standard that’s acceptable in fiction.. Sometimes people casually date several people before settling on one. Sometimes people have committed relationships with more than one person. Sometimes people have open relationships. I’m really uncomfortable with the idea that certain types of consensual relationships cannot be depicted in fiction, and even more uncomfortable with the idea that consensuality makes them worse!

Sherwood: I suspect that the agent who objected to the gayness didn’t see the poly possibilities in the one relationship. And there was no hate expressed: when we said it was important for Yuki to be gay the agent waffled, saying that maybe Yuki could discover his gayness in book three or so, after readers were already invested in the series. Other agents had said we had too many POVs and it was Yuki they wanted cut. To give them credit, it could be that they didn’t like the way he fit into the narrative, but overall the impression I got was not anti-gay so much as a generalized fear that “they” would not buy the book with a major gay protag.

Lyda, I am sorry about that experience with the inner Goddess. I can bet that was tough, and I believe the story would have been that much richer if you’d been permitted to explore their gender fluidity. But yeah, in my experience, romance readers can indeed get really nasty about Teh Gay creeping into their world of straight cis-gendered romance. I was surprised by the dog-piling of horrible reviews on a popular romance writer who had dared to make her heroine bi.

So this is where small press and indie comes in. Maybe the big romance publishers are giving their readers exactly what they want. But that doesn’t mean there are not a whole lot of readers out there turning away from romance *because* it sticks to a determinedly binary world.

The problem here is that indies and small presses don’t have the budget to get the word out there. I think the readership exists, but only if they can find the books. That’s why I’m glad to see people tweeting and recommending on Goodreads and other book-oriented sites small press works that they loved. Word of mouth is a powerful resource.

Lyda:  It is, but is it enough? I mentioned “World Well Lost” by Theodore Sturgeon earlier in this interview and I want to come back to it by way of saying that I found that short story (which was written in 1953, btw.,) at my local library when I was small town girl only just starting to explore any kind of sexuality/sexual expression.  Later, in high school, I read Elizabeth A. Lynn’s DANCERS OF ARUN, which features a gay (male) hero but which also has a fantasy world populated with lesbians, etc. In fact, I like to tell people–in a very tongue and cheek way–that science fiction and fantasy made me gay.  Of course it didn’t, but what it did do for me was give me options to consider in nicely/safely removed fantasy and science fiction settings.

Do you have books like that?  Mainstream published books/ short stories that blew open your mind, particularly when you were teens/young readers?

Rachel: What was actually most influential that way when I was a young reader was nonfiction. I read a lot of Indian history books and comic books that did not erase the role of women in history, and actively celebrated their roles, whether that was as a queen, a war leader, or a poet. Since my social setting was otherwise very sexist, those helped me stick to the idea that a woman could do anything a man could do (only with her baby strapped to her back as she rode into battle.)

Sherwood: I think, reflecting back to the lily-scrubbed fifties and early sixties, and the limited choices at our branch library, that actually, my earliest influence was that pile of Wonder Woman comics at the orthodontist, when I was seven and eight. I pretty much breezed past the usual crime-and-pow stories. What I remember being utterly enthralled with was when Wonder Woman went home to her paradise with all women.  I was already secretly writing my all-girl gang adventure stories. But something published! I couldn’t believe my eyes! For years after I tried to find those comics again: nada.

Lyda: Awesome. You know, comic books were a excellent source of strong women for me, too. Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, some stuff is cringe-worthy, but Chris Claremont‘s X-Men were huge in terms of ‘women can do anything’ for my development too. Similarly, I have to say that I always felt that the whole Legacy Virus storyline was about the X-Titles dealing with AIDS. Hell, the X-Men kind of seems like a big gay metaphor a lot of times, but particularly in the 1980s.

Uncanny X-Men (written by Chris Claremont and drawn by John Byrne, 1974- 1991)

Uncanny X-Men (written by Chris Claremont and drawn by John Byrne, 1974- 1991)

This is kind of the issue with SF/F. I feel like we can talk about GLBT issues, but often to get past the censors, we have to hide in these kinds of metaphors…. at least with popular stuff.

I was wondering, actually, what your thoughts are about whether or not this kind of whitewashing/censoring is happening more in YA now, in this supposedly modern age, because YA is such big business?

Sherwood: I don’t know. YA has indeed become so big that it is impossible to keep up with it all. I used to be able to name pretty much everything that came out, and read most of it, save when I knew it wasn’t my cuppa. BR (Before Rowling) YA was, oh, a small-sized terrier next to the gorillas of mainstream and romance, etc. But now, I’m lucky if I’m seeing the elephant’s ear.

From what Malinda Lo has published, counting up how many recent YA books have gay protagonists, the number has doubled . . . from less than 1% to less than 2%. Of course we don’t know what has happened in the editing process; it could be that books with gay heroes and heroines don’t make it to the contract stage.

Rachel: Chris Claremont’s X-Men run was also very important to me as a teenager. I actually named myself after Rachel Summers – the traumatized time-traveller from a future that never happened, the ultimate stranger in a strange land. The metaphor of difference, and how it was both a source of pride and wonderful in itself, but also something that made others prejudiced against you, was very resonant for me.

It was genuinely diverse in many ways, so it wasn’t one of those stories where vampirism or some other fantasy element was metaphoric for being a minority, but all the heroes were white Americans who weren’t any other sort of minority. Kitty Pryde is still one of the very few fictional Jewish characters in a story that isn’t about the Holocaust. (Magneto’s story, which largely is about the Holocaust, was sensitively handled, I thought.)

I don’t think Marvel writers were allowed to explicitly portray gay characters in comics at that point, but there was definitely some queer subtext. There was an issue where Storm went to Japan and bonded with Yukio, a female thief and adventurer. As a result of Yukio’s influence, the formerly calm and tightly controlled Storm cut loose and got a Mohawk! After an entire issue of them running around together having sexual chemistry, they ended up on a roof. Then the scene cut to them lying together on the roof smoking [presumably post-coital] cigarettes. I can’t imagine that was anything but intentional.

 

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Rachel Manija Brown also writes urban fantasy for adults under the pen name Lia Silver, and lesbian romance (also for adults) under the pen name Rebecca Tregaron. When she’s not writing, she works as a therapist, specializing in the treatment of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder.)

You can write to her at rachelphoenix2@yahoo.com. You can also visit her website.

 

Sherwood Smith was a teacher for twenty years. Now retired, she writes full time, and lives in Southern California with her family and several rescue dogs. Visit her website here.

 

Rachel Manija Brown & Sherwood Smith

Rachel Manija Brown & Sherwood Smith

 

Where to buy STRANGER:

 

 

 

 

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Lyda Morehouse leads a double life.  By day, she’s a mild-mannered science fiction author of the Shamus and Philip K. Dick award-winning AngeLINK series.  By night, she’s the bestselling paranormal romance and urban fantasy writer, Tate Hallaway.  She’s written and published over a dozen novels (five as Lyda and nine as Tate).  She is happily married to the woman of her dreams and they have an eleven-year old son, four cats, a gerbil, and a fish.

Lyda writes best selling paranormal romance as Tate Hallaway, and award-winning science fiction as Lyda Morehouse.

 

 

How Do I Love “Teeth”

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by Chiara

Teeth (Simon Pulse, 2013)

Teeth (Simon Pulse, 2013)

How do I love Teeth? Let me count the ways.

I love Teeth with the depth of the oceans, and the force of its waves.

I love Teeth for the pain he took and the pleasure he gave.

I love Teeth as the sun glints on scales.

I love Teeth and his awful, ugly tail.

I love Teeth with all his tortured innocence.

I love Teeth and his voice’s dissonance.

I love Teeth for all the pain in his eyes.

I love Teeth because of how hard he tries.

I love Teeth and his inner beauty.

I love Teeth because he loves Rudy.

I love Teeth for what he does not know.

I love Teeth and watching him grow.

I love Teeth with the power of the turning tides.

I love Teeth for his strength inside.

I love Teeth and all his confusion.

I love Teeth because he’s not human.

I love Teeth when he’s hurt.

I love Teeth even more when he’s curt.

I love Teeth for everything he is.

I love Teeth because he protects what’s his.

I love Teeth and his use of ‘whatever’.

I love Teeth and darn, I’ll love him forever.

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Teeth is the character and namesake of Hannah Moskowitz’s novel Teeth.

Chiara Sullivan is an Australian self-proclaimed bibliophile with an incurable book buying addiction. She is constantly in the midst of writing LGBT+ YA novels and hopes that one day they’ll appear on shelves so that people can read (and hopefully fall in love) with the words inside. When she’s not reading or writing you can find her tweeting, blogging about books, or watching Merlin.

Call For Black Lives Matter Series Guest Bloggers

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We are looking for up to seven guest bloggers to write posts for a Black Lives Matter series. Topics can range from what Black Lives Matter means to you in relation to queer YA, to fave queer Black characters to improving queer literary spaces to anything else you may be interested in or passionate about. Only caveat is that it must somehow be related to queer YA.

Please email me (Vee) at victoria@gayya.org with a topic idea, and a little bit about yourself.

Deadline for submissions is the 5th of December. We’d like to start the series on December 15th. Please be aware of this when sending in your submission!

If you need help coming up with a topic or don’t have any writing samples but would like to write, please email us anyways.

 

Hey, Dollface: Pushing the Boundaries of YA in 1978

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It was around then I began to realize that there was some current between Chloe and me that was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before; it was a vague, clouded feeling that I couldn’t quite place or identify. It didn’t happen all of a sudden; it was more like moments of dim awareness, followed by a gradual recognition that it was there without my understanding what it was.

Deborah Hautzig’s Hey, Dollface, written while she was a student at Sarah Lawrence College, was originally published in 1978, one of the first books of its kind. I’ve only ever seen it on one list of LGBTQIAP+ YA, although it was just reprinted in 2010 (and subsequently released as an ebook) — it’s been largely overshadowed by Nancy Gardner’s Annie on My Mind (which deserves the recognition it gets). I would most likely never have found it if my father hadn’t left a copy of it on my bed in mid-2011. It’s a very short read: my paperback copy from 1980 is only 118 pages.

The cover of Skyscape's 2010 reprinting of Hey, Dollface. There's also a new audiobook (Brilliance Audio, 2012) and a paperback edition (Skyscape, 2014).

The cover of Skyscape’s 2010 reprinting of Hey, Dollface. There’s also a new audiobook (Brilliance Audio, 2012) and a paperback edition (Skyscape, 2014).

Our protagonist is Valerie, a Jewish girl living in New York City, about to start her first year at a new school. Val is a quirky narrator, but without ever seeming artificially quirky. She’s just Val — odd, charmingly idealistic Val who assures herself she’ll “never get jaded”. And she doesn’t, either, even faced with the disappointment towards the end of the book — Val never gives in to cynicism. At school, Val quickly bonds with Chloe Fox, who in another book might risk becoming, as she occasionally imagines herself to be, “some mythical mysterious girl that everyone wonders about”. Given that this is posted on Gay YA, I’m sure you can see where the story is headed from here.

Homosexuality is evoked at several points early in the book (i.e., even before Val starts to realize that she isn’t straight), both subtextually (Val’s vague feeling of “What-will-people-think” when  walking around the city with Chloe) and explicitly (as when Chloe suggests they “pretend [they]’re gay” to avoid unpleasant encounters with men as they walk back to Val’s house one evening), and eventually Val and Chloe discuss it specifically. This conversation ends on an ambiguous note:

“Do you think homosexuality is a sin?” I said.

“I don’t know. I mean, I don’t feel like it’s a sin. I really don’t know.”

“I know what you mean. I don’t feel like it is, either. But….”

The main drama of the book is, of course, Val’s growing attraction to Chloe. She wonders if the relationship she and Chloe have is normal, she daydreams about the two of them, she weighs the pros and cons of telling Chloe she dreams about the two of them. During a particularly intense moment on a hillside in Massachusetts, the moment seems almost right:

I tell her everything else. Why can’t I tell her this? Would she tell me? Our heads were so close I could see the pores on her nose. We stared at each other in silence for a long time. What’s she thinking about? I wondered. […] What would she think if she knew I’d been having weird daydreams about her? Or that I’d thought of touching her? Would she be disgusted, or would she want me to?

Then, of course, Val’s father interrupts.

After an awkward night at Chloe’s house where nothing quite happens but also something happens, everything starts to fall apart. Val wonders, “Did I do something wrong? Why didn’t you call me? Do you feel guilty, too? Or just scared of me?” Finally, they manage to have a real conversation. It doesn’t go quite as Val might have hoped, but (and this is especially striking to me in a book from 1978) it ends with a reconciliation of sorts:

“Chloe? Remember before I said I was sorry about what happened?” She nodded. “I’m not. I’m not sorry about anything.”

“Me neither.”

The question of sexuality aside, it’s not an easy book. Val watches her mother’s struggle with grief in the aftermath of her grandmother’s death and does her best to help support her through it (even as she herself is grieving), and then has to find a way to help Chloe through her father’s death (“Why do people say, ‘It’s okay’?” Val asks herself). She grapples with love, sex, and romance (with insightful help from her mother), and with the realities of being a woman in a world where women are constantly subject to sexualization by men. She finds herself subject to unwanted attention from her babysittee’s middle-aged father.

The cover of my 1980 Bantam paperback edition. More adventurous than the 2010 reprint cover.

The cover of my 1980 Bantam paperback edition. More adventurous than the 2010 reprint cover.

Judaism permeates the text, without the book ever becoming a story about the “conflict” between religion and homosexuality, in contrast to a lot of contemporary LGBTQIAP+ YA where religion is foregrounded (and where the religion is usually Christianity, usually some variety of Evangelical Protestantism). When Val muses on the morality of homosexuality, it is with reference to Anne Frank:

I remembered reading in The Diary of Anne Frank about how Anne wanted to feel another girl’s breasts and offered to let the other girl feel hers, but the other girl didn’t want to. I guess if you’re cooped up all the time and miss out on everything you start doing with boys when you get to be the age Anne Frank was, it’s okay, I thought. She had an excuse to want to do it. But what about people who don’t have any excuse—they just want to? Do I want to?

The generational trauma of the Holocaust and contemporary antisemitism are also frequent low-level presences in the story, whether in Val’s memories of her grandmother:

[Grandma] had made me certain that there was a God; she was history, and tradition, and culture, she cried on the holidays, her very existence was proof that God was there and that being a Jew meant believing this.

or, subtextually, in her mother’s insistence that Val has a “nice nose”. I don’t remember how much I noticed this Jewish-ness the first time I read it, but this time it really stood out to me.

I should attempt to wrap this up, so I’ll leave you with a concluding thought. A number of Goodreads reviews said the book felt dated, and to a limited extent I agree, in that I don’t think you could tell this kind of story with these (white, private school-attending, middle- to upper-class) characters, set in New York City in 2014. But it’s not set in 2014: if nothing else, as my father pointed out to me, Hey, Dollface is a reminder that there have always been people willing to push the envelope of “acceptable” YA fiction.

If this post has felt a little dry, it’s because I’m struggling to put my feelings about this book into words. I can only imagine what this book would have meant in 1978, but I know that it rings true for me still (despite not being Jewish, a girl, or in any doubt about my sexuality) thirty-six years later. I hope other people will find the same.

Nathaniel Harrington was born and raised in suburbs of Boston, studied (comparative) literature in college, and is currently improving his Gaelic on the Isle of Skye. He has been writing gay YA since 2008 and reading it since 2009; someday he hopes to be able to share it with others in a format that isn’t half-finished NaNoWriMo first drafts and miscellaneous fragments. He enjoys working out the details of magic systems, doing citations for academic papers, reading in several languages (although he has yet to read any LGBTQ YA in a language other than English; suggestions are welcome), and obsessively categorizing books he reads on Goodreads.

Shadowplay by Laura Lam: Review

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by Georgie

Having read Laura Lam’s Pantomime – and loved it – I was super excited to read its sequel, Shadowplay, which follows Micah Grey’s journey as a fugitive after the tragedy at the end of the last book.

Shadowplay-144dpiPantomime’s closing moment saw Drystan, the white clown from the circus, telling Micah that he knew a magician who they can trust. At first their only problem is being on the run from the policiers, but more dangerous things soon start to happen. Micah’s being tracked by a Shadow who is absurdly skilled at following him. And when they get to the Kymri Theatre where the magician Jasper Maske lives, he starts to have visions of another time. The world-building in this novel was absolutely stunning, and every single page was full of colour and mystery and tiny hints that led up to one of the most shocking endings I’ve read in a long time.

Seriously, the ending. My mouth was genuinely hanging open. Just as I thought that all the problems had resolved themselves, more danger came into the picture, and all the little clues fell into place to reveal a darker, more sinister picture than I’d expected. This book managed to be haunting and enchanting at the same time, with Micah and Drystan’s romance woven into the heart of the story alongside mythology and magic. My only quibble with Pantomime was that it felt quite densely written which made it hard to follow at times – but, happily, Shadowplay was gripping from the first page to the last, and continued to have an exceptionally strong narrative voice that stands out from the rest of the YA market.

Again, the fact that Micah is intersex was clear throughout the book but really wasn’t made prominent at all, which was wonderful. There are so many LGBTQIA+ novels where the author has obviously tried too hard to tick that diversity box by including queer characters, but it gets awkward and forced and that character only has one dimension which is their sexuality or gender (or both). Laura Lam has done an awesome job in making Micah’s attitude to his gender realistic: he’s self-aware, but at the same time doesn’t dwell on it because it’s something that he’s dealt with for his whole life.

If you liked Pantomime, you’ll fall in love with Shadowplay. Almost like actual love. You’ll think about it the whole time and maybe dream about it a little bit. It’s one of those possessing books where the world it’s set in is so carefully and imaginatively built that it seems like a real place, and this novel is your route to get back there.

I suppose I could sum up this review by saying that in my head, I compared it to Narnia.

So that’s really all you need to hear.

Georgie Penney is a teen writer and bookworm from England. At the moment she’s working on a gay YA novel of her own and can be found procrastinating on Twitter (@missgeorgie) or else ranting on her blog (georgiepenney.weebly.com).

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