by John Hansen
By most standards, I’ve won the queer lottery. I live in one of the first U.S. states to have legalized gay marriage; I have parents who went through only a minimal learning curve when I came out to them; I attend a high school that not only has a gay-straight alliance, but whose gay-straight alliance is active enough that the school newspaper often reports on its activities. I’m lucky. I know that.
And yet, here I am: seventeen years old, proudly queer, out to everyone I know online—but I’m still beyond terrified to tell anyone in school of my sexuality. Skipping over the inevitable self-torture (“If you can’t even come out here, how are you ever going to live out of the closet at all?”), I think it’s safe to blame my fears on friendship.
Here’s the thing: most of my friends are straight guys. And in high school—and possibly everywhere—being gay, bisexual, pansexual, or otherwise Not Straight while remaining close friends with straight people of the same gender is often really, really hard. And it’s not for any one reason, except maybe some combination of a) excessive hormones and b) people’s lack of exposure to actual same-gender relationships. But it’s always there—this unspoken agreement that being gay, while not explicitly bad, is weird, something meant for only one kind of person in a place that isn’t here.
Though within my social circle I only occasionally hear homophobic jokes made, the otherness of who I am slips into seemingly every conversation—like how discussing a recent Game of Thrones episode sends me into an internal panic when one person mentions how unnecessary and gross “those gay scenes” are, or how another has to preface his reluctance to talk to a girl he likes with “I’m not gay, but…,” or how people use the phrase “this is an accepting school” as a punch line rather than as a motto.
And, look, if I were to come out tomorrow—just leap up onto the dining hall table and shout “I DECLARE MY HOMOSEXUALITY!!!!!”*—I doubt I’d lose more than a single friend. I doubt many people would stop talking to me, because this is an accepting school, because I don’t have to fear for my safety, because I’m lucky. But it would be… different. Even at my school, most people really don’t understand m/m attraction. Mostly, I think this is for the obvious reason—when you tell a group of straight high school boys that you’re interested in guys, their minds automatically go to the whole sex part. Equally unhelpful is how some people instantly connect a same-gender friend being gay or bisexual with the fact that the friend could now be attracted to them, and then totally change how they act around him because of it.
That is what scares me: friends suddenly becoming hyperaware of everything I do and say for fear that I’m attracted to them.
I don’t think my feelings are irrational, either. I mean, there’s a reason why every single guy who has come out at my school is friends with almost all girls.
And it’d be so easy for me to say that my fears exist because my friends are bad, or because they’re shallow, or whatever it is, but that’s just not true. These kids, they are funny and cool and intelligent and self-aware and—yeah—they also really don’t have a problem with someone’s sexuality. I can name maybe one person within my social circle who I think would actually be upset. But there is still this general acknowledgement that straight is the strict default, and that queer people only exist “somewhere over there.”
To me, this has always been the hardest thing about being gay in high school—trying to grapple with the fact that even people as awesome as my friends might look at me differently after knowing this one part of who I am.
I tell you this because I want to illustrate the way in which being queer influences my everyday life. In large part because of my sexuality, I’m constantly questioning the value of my friendships, constantly feeling isolated by my own “otherness.”
After coming out, in itself such a huge and terrifying moment and one that we always need more YA books to cover, for me and for many other queer teens I’ve talked to, a hell of a lot of our struggles seem to revolve around friendships. But in queer YA, just like in straight YA, a lot of times complex looks at friendship get passed up in favor of more screen time for romantic relationships.
And including romance is great—one can never have too much kissing, especially of the queer variety, and I really hope the recent increase in queer romance books continues. But although romance is a big deal to a lot of us, it’s also not usually the most pressing issue. As much as I sometimes wish it were, my sexuality is not a nice little box that I can slap a ribbon on and push aside when I’m bored. Rather, it seeps into everything I do, and it makes something as basic as maintaining positive friendships with straight people of the same gender a constant struggle.
The YA category is famously riddled with the “Gay Best Friend” trope, where the straight hero has a queer friend/sidekick. In this trope, the hero usually affirms once or twice how totally cool with their friend’s sexuality or gender identity they are and then drops the subject in favor of, like, fighting bad guys and toppling regimes and stuff. And I think that’s good—that the main character is accepting, yeah, and also that the book has some form of queer representation.
But it’s also so rare for us to get the story from the point of view of that gay best friend—to hear about all of the times the straight hero said something homophobic to him without realizing, how many times the friend opened his mouth to point it out and then psyched himself out of it, and how often moments like these have made him feel different, and other, and alone.
And I look at that, that gay best friend trope, and I think: this is my life. The struggles that kid must go through every day—that’s what I deal with, too.
What I’d like to see—and what I hope to write—is more YA books along these lines, books that take hard looks at sexuality in the context of high school friendships and at the myriad of little internal conflicts that result from them.
Struggling with friendships is also in no way limited to a) males and b) sexuality. (I focused on these aspects only because they’re my personal experience.) It extends to all genders and to people all across the queer spectrum. From what I’ve heard, many, many LGBTQIA+ people have a hard time navigating their friendships, and I think it’s hugely important that we have books to guide us.
I mean, reading YA has already helped me immensely in understanding who I am. As far as I’m concerned, there is nothing queer YA can’t do.
*By the way, “I Declare My Homosexuality” is going to be the title of my tell-all memoir. Look out, publishing world.
by Bill Konigsberg
With my new novel The Porcupine of Truth, I tried to be brave.
I decided to do the one thing that writers talk about as being among the most challenging things an author can do. To give a realistic interior to an “other.” To write across a boundary such as sexual orientation.
I wrote from the point of view of a straight male character.
I know, I know. I should probably get a medal. But I did it because I fully believe that straight guys deserve the same rights and privileges I’ve been afforded.
They were born that way, after all. I truly believe that.
I joke, I joke. But there’s a kernel of truth (a Porcupine, if you will) in there. My first two novels, OUT OF THE POCKET and OPENLY STRAIGHT, were both from the point of view of a gay male character. With this book, my two main characters are a straight white male and a gay black female. I am neither.
And yet. Carson Smith and Aisha Stinson, who meet in Billings, Montana, and wind up on a life-changing cross-country road trip together, are the two most emotionally “like me” characters I’ve ever written. Carson, like me, uses humor to mask his emotions and will never be quite as normal as he wishes he were. Like me, Aisha has a firm, somewhat rigid understanding of right and wrong and doesn’t believe there’s anything more important than being exactly who she is at all costs.
Perhaps it sounds like a stupid question, but as I wrote the book, I wondered: is it harder for a straight person to write an LGBT character than for an LGBT person to write a straight character?
Think about that for a moment. If we think it’s easier, does that mean that straight is like a base condition from which we LGBT people stray? That I have a frame of reference that a straight author, for instance, might not have in writing a gay character? Or if we think it’s exactly the same, does that discount the first 13 years of my life, when I believed I was straight because that’s what society told me I (and everyone around me) was?
It’s actually a little bit complicated. Did I understand Carson’s interior as a straight white male because I thought I was one? Or did I understand it because we are all the same inside?
Or is it possible that I understood Carson’s interior because of heterosexism? After all, I’ve been considered straight at all times when I don’t say otherwise. In my life, when straight men haven’t known I was gay, I’ve been invited into their culture. That probably doesn’t happen so often in the reverse, though I assume there are probably some straight people who have been invited to be part of LGBT culture, through assumption, or perhaps through family.
Regardless, I admit I didn’t focus on Carson’s straightness that much. I knew he was in love with Aisha, who is not available. I was able to hone in on what it feels like to be in love with someone who doesn’t love me back without too much trouble, sadly.
What I focused in on instead was Carson’s joy and pain. What does Carson love? To feel connected to others, as it turns out. What brings Carson pain? Feeling unloved and uncared for.
Perhaps there’s a lesson in there. For all the talk about how careful we need to be writing across these boundaries—sexual orientation, race, class—perhaps all we really need to be focused on is creating a realistic interior. Is it possible that it’s that simple?
I am fully in favor of writers attempting these sorts of endeavors. I think on a personal level, striving to give a believable interior to a “not me” character is the surest way I can grow and evolve. In the process, I learn the ways that humanity puts its stamp on all of us. And also, I learn the ways in which human experience differentiates us from each other.
And also avoiding the pitfalls helps me grow, too.
For me, a pitfall a straight person might fall into in writing an LGBT character is oversexualizing that character. In the same way M-4-M romance is somewhat fetishized these days by straight female readers, I think it’s potentially problematic to think that a gay character, for instance, is somehow more sexual simply because they happen to be attracted to people of the same sex.
I suppose time will tell whether there were pitfalls in writing a straight male character that I fell into! We’ll just have to wait and see.
The Porcupine of Truth hits store shelves 5/25– Buy your copy today!
by Libertad Araceli Thomas
As an aspiring writer, over the past year I’ve heard and read perhaps a dozen reasons why some writers are reluctant to incorporate queer narratives in their work in progresses. I mean, I get it, writing characters outside of your comfort zone isn’t always easy. What do they always tell us, write “what you know”.
As unreal as it sounds a lot of people don’t know any Queer people personally and want to hold onto that excuse but in order to unlock something deeper from your writing, I think it can be a learning experience writing what you don’t know.
Don’t get stuck in a rut with bogus cop-outs. Let me share with you the most common excuses I’ve heard and some pointers on how to overcome them.
1.) I’m not sure I can make a queer person believable.
Wait a sec…Is that all? If this is your biggest issue allow me to politely tell you that it’s called research for a reason. This one is actually the easiest and funnest to fix.
Expand your world. Introduce yourself to some new people. Take a genuine interest in befriending people of different backgrounds with different experiences from your own. Chances are the only thing you’ll discover is that Queer folk are no different from straight ones.
Don’t we all stress about the future? Don’t we all have an unhealthy obsession with Doctor Who?(No??? Okay maybe that’s just me, lol) One thing is definitely for sure is that we all have dreams and aspirations. Don’t let the sexual orientation of your character/s hinder your chance to make an amazing story that doesn’t settle on stereotypical portrayals.
Sometimes working a queer presence in your manuscript is the easy part. Finishing that baby? Now that’s the hard part.
2.) My main character’s a POC/Disabled/Non-Christian. It seems like too much stuff for one book.
Sadly, I’ve heard thus more than once. The reason why it’s problematic is it assumes that only white, able bodied Christians can be queer. By excluding queer culture from a “non-default” narrative is to erase the struggles of a POC/Disabled/Non-Christian character dealing with sexual identity.
There are plenty of people that can identify with all four. Trust me when I say this, It’s not too much. Books that center on an Intersectional queer protagonist are few and far between. Instead of following “trends”, why not be a trailblazer? I promise that if you did, I’d be your number #1 fan.
3.) My story doesn’t call for it.
So what you’re saying is that your story demands that everyone be straight?
If your answer is yes, then there’s a huge chance your work in progress is “fantasy”, because no world that exists today is made up of only straight people.
If your answer is no then go back and ask yourself. Do all my characters have to be straight? After all, you do want your book to be realistic, right? Help normalize Queer identities the way we do straight ones and then just maybe this won’t have to be a thing that stands in your way in the future.
4.) I’m afraid of offending people who identify with the LGBTQIA+ community.
This one is reasonable. It’s something even I struggle with. There’s a certain level of fear that comes along with including narratives you don’t normally identify with yourself. Maybe you’ll write something that lots of people connect with and that’s all we want to do, right? Yet there is still a small chance you’ll make the mistake of upsetting a lot of readers and that’s not a fun experience.
The way I felt when I picked up a book called The Sisterhood by E-Fierce is a feeling I can hardly describe in just a few words. The main character was Afro-Latina, like me and was questioning her feelings for girls just like I did at that age. I can’t begin to imagine the impact that book could have made had It had been around when I was younger and I’m so glad it’s out there because often the Afro-Latinx narrative is missing from books.
Sexuality isn’t something we talk about in Latinx culture so girls like I was at that age have few outlets to express their feelings. So in conclusion to my point, there is no growth without the risk.
Tons of readers would rather someone try than to exclude it altogether. If you miss this time, who knows maybe your next swing could be better(Who am I kidding, it’ll definitely be better!) and I don’t know a reader alive who wouldn’t appreciate the effort.
Libertad Araceli Thomas is one half of Twinja Book Reviews, a book blog that celebrates diversity. Between mastering her handstands and perfecting her butterfly kicks, she can be caught reading and promoting a good book!
by emily m. danforth
It’s nearly summer, and for me that always means more time to read and write: long mornings spent at my desk followed by endless hammock-afternoons spent with a stack of novels and a pitcher of iced coffee kept close. But in our house, summer also means movie nights. Lots and lots of movie nights. (I tend to indulge my love of horror films in the summer—I save them up all year and binge in June, July, and August. Usually my wife will not watch these particular movies with me, which means I end up scaring-myself alone.)
Cam Post, the first-person narrator of my first novel, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, is also a committed movie-buff. Though, for a variety of reasons, Cam’s tastes are wide-ranging and not always very discerning: she’ll rent just about anything from her local video shop, and she’ll probably end up watching it on repeat while she works on elaborate diorama scenes in a dollhouse her father built for her before his death.
It’s the late 1980s, very early 1990s, in that novel, and Cam’s only choice is to rent the movies she wants to see—streaming them onto a computer in the privacy of her bedroom is just not yet an option. And renting is something of an act of public declaration, in her small town: people, at least some people, know what she’s watching. And what she wants to watch, most, is queer content. In short: she wants to find more films about girls who like girls, or at least films about girls who don’t only like guys (romantically/sexually)—girls who break gender-norms; girls who might serve as a mirror for her own burgeoning identity.
Because of a long history of both overt-censorship of queer cinema and dollar-driven studio control of commercial filmmaking, there just aren’t all that many queer films for Cameron Post to choose from—at least not those available in her small town. And there are none (that she can find) about lesbian or bi-sexual or even questioning teenagers. Zero.
If you’re interested in a really fascinating and entertaining (and sometimes heartbreaking) look at the history (and censorship) of queer cinema, check out the documentary: The Celluloid Closet (based on Vito Russo’s books of the same name).
Of course, things have changed considerably (and for the better), in 25 years since Cam (and I) roamed the aisles of a small town video store. There are more LGBTQ characters on screens large and small—films, television series, web series—than ever before. Certainly there are still sometimes issues of problematic representation in some of these portrayals, but more and more, queer filmmakers and artists are finding ways to create and distribute moving-images that are true to their visions. Most of this work is still independently funded, and so sometimes the production values might not be what you’re used to—especially if you spend most of your time watching big-budget, Hollywood films; but the heart and singular, necessary voices in these films usually makes up for any technical deficiencies.
So, keeping all of that in mind, here’s my list of 10 personal favorite films and/or TV series featuring high school/early college-age girls who are in the process of discovering their lesbian/bisexual/queer/questioning identities and relationships. Some of them are quiet; some of them might now seem a little dated (but you can have fun mocking the fashion choices); some them are campy/silly; all of them are good options for summertime (or anytime, really) viewing. You should be able to easily find all of them online—many of them on Netflix.
Finally, many of these films contain brief scenes of nudity and/or sexual activity; they all also contain some profanity. You can find specific content breakdowns at IMBD.com if you’re curious/unsure if a particular film is a good fit for family viewing night, say. Most of them are unrated or rated PG-13, but both But I’m a Cheerleader and Pariah are (unnecessarily, frankly) rated R.*
*Note: You can learn more about the very problematic history of the American movie ratings board (and its continued bias against queer content) in the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated—which, unsurprisingly, itself is rated NC-17, because in order to discuss why certain films have been rated certain ways by the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America), the filmmakers had to use explicit clips from those films in their own film.
- Show Me Love (Fucking Åmål) (1998) directed by Lukas Moodyson
A personal favorite teenage, girl-girl love story—probably because it’s the first film I saw that got it, for me, right. It’s Swedish, but even if you’re anti-subtitle, give this one a try. Show Me Love is a remarkable, quiet, beautifully constructed film about two teenage girls stumbling around questions of identity, social-expectations, labels, and, of course, love. (Also—it features a rather kick-ass (if ridiculous) 1990s soundtrack of pop-tunes, including the title track, Robyn’s infectious and oh-so-poppy, “Show Me Love.”) It’s just a sweet movie with a lot of heart.
- D.E.B.S. (2004) directed by Angela Robinson
Prep school girls trained as spies? A villain named Lucy Diamond? An illicit Sapphic romance between spy and con-woman? What’s not to love? D.E.B.S. is silly and campy and just a lot of fun. It’s also directed by a black, lesbian filmmaker who has consistently explored issues of queer sexuality/identity in her work.
- Girl Trash: All Night Long (2014) directed by Alexandra Kondracke (2014)
A musical! Also campy and a bit silly (written as a prequel to the web series of the same name). (Angela Robinson wrote this one.) The songs are very sing-a-longable and this one’s got a little of everything: rock bands and crime bosses and lots of girl-crushes. (And you’ll recognize the two stars of South of Nowhere—a 3-season TV series also on this list.)
- Mosquita Y Mari (2012) directed by Aurora Guerrero
This is a quiet, beautifully shot coming-of-age film about two Chicana high schoolers growing up in immigrant households in Los Angeles. This film deals with issues of class, cultural expectation, familial-ties, and the confusing and intense feelings of a powerful connection between two (at first) unlikely friends.
- Itty Bitty Titty Committee (2007) directed by Jamie Babbit
Directed by out filmmaker Jamie Babbit, this one explores a recent high school grad’s first experiences with radical feminism and political activism. (Though there’s plenty of time for romance along the way.) Some of the monologues in this film are a little heavy-handed, but it’s also a funny/angry/energetic (and sometimes tender) look at an activism-centered life.
- But I’m a Cheerleader (1999) directed by Jamie Babbit
Babbit’s first film, this is sometimes recognized as a “new-classic” of lesbian cinema. In it, high school cheerleader Megan is sent to a “sexual redirection” program to “learn to be straight.” There she, of course, falls in love with a girl. While much of the movie is played for laughs (it’s very campy—RuPaul even plays one of the counselors), Megan’s feelings of confusion and uncertainty—and her crush—are very real.
- Pariah (2011) by filmmaker Dee Rees. (*Rated R—this film includes scenes of homophobic violence, as well as several scenes of somewhat explicit sexuality/nudity)
The title tells you a lot. I debated including this film, given its intense emotional drama and difficult/dark subject matter. However, it’s a profound and very real examination of a teenager coming-out as queer in a black, Christian home in Brooklyn. It’s such a necessary film—and an exceptionally well-acted/well-shot one at that. To my mind, Alike’s coming-out scene is among the most powerful ever put onscreen.
And, just for fun, 3 TV series:
- Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)
I mean, I had to include it, right? It was groundbreaking in its portrayal of complicated teenagers (and a host of hell-mouth monsters!) I say you binge all the seasons—and have fun laughing at the datedness of the early episodes, especially. But you can start on season 4 and Willow’s burgeoning relationship with Tara, if you’d prefer. (It begins in the episode title “Hush.”)
- Skins (UK)—season 3
I’ve not watched the US version, but the Naomi/Emily storyline in season 3 of the UK version blew me away, when I first watched it, with its authenticity and tenderness.
- South of Nowhere—all three seasons
So-Cal teen soap opera with plenty of lesbian/bi-sexual romance. What more do you need?
by Vee S.
Authors, editors, and readers are important to the Queer YA community, but there’s another group that matters too: reviewers. We are lucky that there are so many fantastic reviewers reading, loving, and reviewing Queer YA books. But a growing number of reviewers have adopted a “code of silence” around queerness in the YA books they review. They are well meaning, but that code of silence is putting queer YA in the closet.
thingslucyreads posted this excellent video on what she calls Booktube’s “code of silence.” Luce says in her video that she’s noticed that in reviews of queer books, some people don’t mention the characters in them are queer. She’s talked about extremely popular books like Everything Leads to You on her Twitter and had others say, “what? that book has queer characters?” She goes through a number of reasons why this is a big problem. (Two other booktubers, Sam from Thoughts on Tomes and Adriana from perpetualpages have responded with videos of their own.)
This is such an important conversation to be having.
There are very few readers out there that know about all the great queer books that are available to them. There are a lot of people, including everyone here at GayYA, who are working to raise more awareness around those books. But there’s only so much that specific groups can change. The best way to really make a difference is equipping everyone in the book community with the tools to help support these books, and get the fact that they include queer characters out into the world. And it’s as simple as mentioning a character’s queerness in book reviews!
It seems like there are three big things that are stopping people from mentioning queerness.
- “It’s normal:” People have said that they don’t mention a character’s queerness because they see it as normal, not as something that attention needs to be called to. Unfortunately, we live in a world where it is not normal to see queer characters in mainstream media. Denoting a character’s queerness in a review is not pointing at them and saying “this isn’t normal!” it’s pointing at them and saying “this is normal but there isn’t enough of it, so I’m taking the opportunity I have to raise awareness around this book because it includes it.”
- Spoilers: There are definitely times when I like going into a book not knowing all of the character’s orientations and then discovering there’s a trans side character or the main character is gay. But there are two things that are more important than that enjoyment. When the character’s identity is treated as a spoiler, it sends the message that it should be seen as shocking. And when it’s made into something shocking, it suggests people need to be tricked into reading about someone who identifies that way. Sometimes a character’s identity is actually revealed in a book as shocking twist—that makes it easy to continue this cycle in reviews. In addition, not revealing an identity for fear of spoiling erases any likelihood of a queer teen finding this book who might desperately need it. There’s no need to go in depth about how that character identifies, how it impacts the story, or even who the character is. Just specify that there is a LGBTQIA+ character in it, and how they identify.
- Changing Minds: Another reason people decide not to disclose a character’s identity is the possibility that a bigoted person might end up picking up the book unknowingly, and have their mind changed. I unfortunately think this is very unlikely. When I was still bigoted about F/F relationships (I was confused about my own sexuality and didn’t want to accept that I liked girls), I read The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner. It was a good book and I enjoyed it and I connected to the characters, but as soon as it started leaning towards an F/F love story, I dropped it like a hot potato. What made the difference for me was entering into a community that talked about queerness openly and without shame. Though I am queer, I think the same thing would hold true for bigoted straight people. Though some of my discomfort stemmed from my not wanting to accept that I liked girls, much of it was solely from the anti-queer messages I got in my upbringing. Talking about these books openly and showing that you don’t think it’s wrong or something to be hidden, is a MUCH better form of combatting homophobia. Talking openly about queerness not only sends the message loud and clear to bigots that their viewpoints are not welcome, it’ll be making it possible for queer people to find these books. You’ll be prioritizing them over the bigots.
So, why is this such a big deal? Why is mentioning when a major character is queer so important?
There’s this idea that queerness doesn’t sell. This is a pervasive idea engrained in us all, and where this whole “code of silence” thing comes from. It’s not just on Booktube. It’s not just in book reviews. It’s everywhere.
But it’s funny though, right? Because there are actually legions of people out there, LGBTQIA+ identified and not, that are frantically searching for these books. Who want them because they’re queer. (And who really, really want gay dragons. ) And yet, queerness is continuously erased, by editors, publicists, booksellers… and by us.
Our culture perpetuates the idea that all that is all there is out there for queer representation is sadness and angst, and uses this to justify the belief that queerness doesn’t sell. But sad and angsty stories are not all that is out there (anymore). And reviewers have the power to open people’s eyes! Recent releases like Everything Leads to You by Nina Lacour, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz, More Than This by Patrick Ness have more than sadness and angst. These books are really really good and have gotten a lot of acclaim in the book community. We really need to get the fact that these books have queer characters out to the world.
So we need to start spreading awareness in the book community about the fact that these books have queer characters. Because so many people want them, and aren’t finding them. So many people want to support them, but don’t know that they exist. So many people still aren’t able to find themselves represented. And so many people desperately need these books.
Reading a book that has someone like you in it is miraculous: it makes you realize you’re not the only one experiencing what you’re experiencing, and it gives you a chance to see what your life might be like beyond what you’re going through now. And, if it’s sci-fi or fantasy that’s inclusive of queer characters, you get a chance to escape! For queer teens, many of whom deal with unsupportive parents, bullying, or mental health issues, having that validation and the belief that there can be something better can be lifesaving.
I and many others are doing all we can to help bring awareness to great queer YA books, but to really make an impact, the entirety of the book community needs to hop on board. I’m not sure if denoting a character’s identity is the be-all-and-the-end-all of fixing things, but I think it’s a solid start. And, I’m so glad people are starting to talk about this. Thank you to Luce for courageously broaching this topic, and to Sam and Adriana to building off of it!
If you have more thoughts on this, drop them below! I look forward to conversing further.
Vee S. spends their time writing, reading, hunting through queer book tags on tumblr, and keeping up with school. They’re a passionate feminist, a huge fan of actual representation in books and TV shows, and a lover of theatre, mythology, and biology. Vee is the admin and co-founder of GayYA.org. Find them on Twitter, Goodreads, or Tumblr.
by Adam Silvera
When my agent and I went on submission with More Happy Than Not, I expected editors to reject the book. I wasn’t wrong.
I’m not some pessimist who believed publishers would pass on my book simply because it was my book. This certainly isn’t the case for all the editors, but a couple of them—their names and houses to remain unnamed—didn’t think the character’s homosexuality was really the best move for this book and essentially wanted me to rewire my narrator’s heart.
In case you’re on the fence on why this really, really sucks, here’s my elevator pitch: 16-year-old Aaron Soto is considering a memory alteration procedure to forget he’s gay because being straight would prove less difficult in the South Bronx. If we strip away my character’s homosexuality, what’s left of Aaron’s story? We’ll be left with yet another amnesia book about a straight boy, that’s what. While I grew up on those novels, that’s not what I set out to write. It’s funny how those editors wanted to straighten out Aaron since it’s very reflective of what Aaron wants for himself within the book, and his insecurities were born because of outside pressures as such. We ultimately told those editors that Aaron stays gay and moved on.
Maybe I’m alone in this thought, but I understand I’m not writing books that are expected to become New York Times bestsellers because the life of a teenager confronting his sexuality just doesn’t have the same appeal to the masses as boy wizards and dragons do. This takes a lot of pressure off me as a writer, but that’s only because I’m on the other side of the gate with my book soon to be published. Before I got my book deal, there was definitely a temptation to write something more commercial (the dreaded C word of publishing). Writing about straight boy wizards and straight dragons would’ve been less stressful, I bet. (We’re to assume the dragons are straight, aren’t we? There’s no way in hell are people buying a book about gay dragons, nope, never, don’t even try it.)
If you’re like me with a story that was born from your own personal experiences, my big piece of advice to you is to never sellout your heart. There’s an alternate universe where Aaron Soto’s story was rewritten so he’s a straight boy due to Alternate Universe Adam’s impatience to be published or wanting a higher advance, and that makes me cringe like whoa. That alternate universe is especially hellish because this edition of More Happy Than Not that will be on shelves will be heartless, and Alternate Universe Adam won’t get a do-over to publish the story he first wanted to; once the book is on shelves, the book is on shelves.
I’m not promising happy endings in your journey to be published by simply being brave enough to write your story, but I am applauding you for battling through those doubts and temptations because we definitely need your voice added to the chorus. Rejections may be disheartening, but selling out is heartbreaking.
More Happy Than Not will be GayYA’s June Book of the Month! Preorder a copy now (and get it personalized!), or make sure to pick one up when it hits stores June 2nd!
“People talk about coming out as though it’s this big one-time event. But really, most people have to come out over and over to basically every new person they meet. I’m only eighteen and it already exhausts me.” – Everything Leads to You by Nina Lacour
This ongoing call for diverse characters—of all races, of all genders, of all sexual/romantic orientations, anything you can name under the sun—isn’t so widespread because readers are hungry for new and interesting characters to paint the ever-changing, complex fictional worlds they’ve built inside their heads. It runs much, much deeper than a natural curiosity or a desire for a change of scenery from the usual white/cis/straight oriented characters we’re all so accustomed to.
As a primarily YA book blogger, I get asked for book recommendations on a daily basis. The preferences of young readers have turned from generic lists of categories like “romance,” “adventure,” “paranormal,” “contemporary,” and “fantasy” to “What about books with asexual characters?” “What about books with male/male romance?” “What about books where the protagonist identifies as trans*?” “What about books with Mexican characters?” “What about books where the protagonist has bipolar disorder?” “What about books where the female protagonist likes to kiss girls and boys?” “What about books where the protagonist isn’t so sure of their romantic orientation?” And the list goes on and on for miles.
They all scream the same exact heartbreaking things.
“What about books that have characters like me?” “What’s wrong with me that I’m not like any of these characters?” “Am I not important enough to be represented?”
So no, this loud call for diversity isn’t about wanting our every whim catered to.
This is about changing lives.
This is about teaching self-love among the masses of people (especially teenagers) who go to bed every night feeling like they’re alone in the world because they’re perceived as “different” by their family and peers.
This is about opening minds.
This is about encouraging basic human empathy towards your neighbors—all of your neighbors.
This is about teaching acceptance of all identities, no matter which area of the person’s life it applies to.
This is about showing that a character doesn’t need to be white/cis/straight in order for them to be relatable—that readers can relate to someone regardless of the harmful stereotypes they may have built up in their minds about whatever race/gender/sexual orientation/etc they have hesitations about.
This is about proving to others that the accepted norm is not necessarily the default.
This is about being able to look around ourselves and realize that the world is so incredibly colorful and diverse and, as such, should be reflected within fictionalized worlds.
Growing up, fiction—especially young adult fiction—didn’t just give me a new and stimulating world to escape into for a few hours at a time. Young adult fiction helped me grow into the person I am today, and the few books I read with LGBTQA+ characters provided me with a sanctuary where I finally felt understood on a much more fundamental level. Most of all, those books helped me understand myself enough to embrace all the parts of myself that everyone around me seemed to be condemning without a second thought. For once, LGBTQA+ YA fiction gave me a place that I could call “home” even when I didn’t feel at home inside my own body and mind.
You think you’re exhausted from the constant call for diverse books?
Imagine how exhausted we are of having limited spaces to call “home,” when it seems like everyone else has a nice, comfortable space to call “home” almost everywhere they turn.
“There are worse things in the world than a boy who likes to kiss other boys.”
-Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Find Manda on her tumblr, BookMad.
Hey! We mixed up our links today, 5/20/15. If you’re looking for the post on what teens on tumblr are saying or about the call for diversity and having limited spaces to call home, check out Tumblr Teens: BookMad For Diversity. If you want an editor’s perspective on why he’s going to stop using the phrase “just happens to be gay” and what he’s looking for in queer YA, read on!
by T.S. Ferguson
You may be aware of a conversation that happened in April focusing on the phrase “just happens to be gay.” The conversation was started by an author I am lucky enough to work with, Robin Talley, author of LIES WE TELL OURSELVES and the upcoming WHAT WE LEFT BEHIND. What the conversation essentially boiled down to is this: saying you want to read a book where the character “just happens to be gay” can be harmful to members of the queer community, as it comes across sounding very much like “I don’t mind if a character is [insert queer identity here], as long as I don’t have to see it.” There was more to the conversation, but that seemed to be the biggest takeaway. Now obviously not everyone who uses that phrase means it that way, as Robin and those who agreed with her acknowledged, but it becomes difficult to distinguish a person’s intentions, especially on the internet. Therein lies the problem.
As a queer editor who has said he is looking for books where the character “just happens to be gay” I had to really do some self-analysis when this conversation began. I’m also guilty of saying “there are too many coming out stories in the market,” another statement that was discussed as frustrating and harmful. Obviously as an open and proud gay man, and an editor who is actively seeking more GLBTQIA+ fiction for my list, I don’t want a character’s sexuality erased from the story. So I thought a lot about what I meant to say when I said these things and how I could say them better.
As a reader I was never the kid who yearned to see himself in books. I didn’t read a book full of straight characters and feel like I wouldn’t fit in. I always found a way to insert myself into the story using my imagination, but when I got older and started hearing about my friends’ desires to see themselves in the stories they read, it immediately made sense to me. There’s no doubt how important it is to so many people to see themselves in the stories they experience. And it’s also no doubt how large a role sexuality can play in a teenager’s life. So what did I mean when I said I wanted to see books about characters who “just happen to be gay”? When I asked myself that question, I immediately thought of one of my favorite lines from Orphan Black, spoken by queer clone Cosima: “My sexuality is not the most interesting part about me.”
As a reader and an editor, I adore LGBTQIA+ characters, but I am drawn most to stories where they get to be more than their sexuality. I love Cosima, for example, not just because she’s gay and in an on-screen relationship with another woman (two facts that make me love this show to pieces even more than I already did), but because she is an incredibly smart, ever-curious scientist, a dreadlocked weed smoker, and the most chill and friendly clone on the show. These are the characters I’m drawn to—characters who are queer but who are allowed to be defined by (and whose stories are defined by) more than just the fact that they’re queer. The fact that they’re queer is very important, don’t get me wrong, but equally important is the fact that they can be so much more. Their queerness is part of what defines them, not the whole. And to be clear, that queerness, whether it’s central to the plot or not, should be on the page and not just implied or mentioned in a throwaway line that never comes up again. No Dumbledores need apply.
That’s a personal preference. I spent the 5 years between when I came out in high school and when I moved to New York City to pursue my publishing career being defined by my queerness, at least according to everyone around me. I wasn’t T.S. back then; I was Tom, a name and identity I never felt attached to and changed as soon as I was able. But when I came out in high school, because I was tall and South Park was in its heyday, I was Big Gay Tom. I was “the gay guy” or “my gay friend Tom.” Because I was out in settings where there were no other out gay people around, I was defined by my gayness by the people around me, and I didn’t realize how much it weighed on me until I moved to New York City, surrounded by artists and hipsters and queers of all shapes and sizes that I was able to identify the feeling. I was no longer defined by just my sexuality. I finally felt normal. So as a reader, I gravitate toward those stories that allow a character to be more than their sexuality, because to me, just being queer isn’t enough to grab my attention for an entire story. If the entire storyline is centered around the fact that the character is queer, that’s not going to be enough for me. And again, that’s just me. Other editors, other readers, will feel differently.
Of course, with me, there are always exceptions. I’m not going to be saying I want to see characters who “just happen to be gay” anymore, but I still want to be grabbed by a story. So if you’re writing a story centered around a character’s queerness, here’s how to capture the attention of an editor like me:
- Come at the story from a unique perspective. Write about queer kids of color, queer kids with disabilities, queer kids from different economic classes. It doesn’t always have to be about middle-class white kids (although in my opinion, this is true across any genre). Add to the conversation, rather than re-hashing what is already out there. Robin Talley, for example, has a book coming out in November (WHAT WE LEFT BEHIND) featuring a genderqueer protagonist and when she told me she wanted to write it, it was an immediate YES from me because I hadn’t heard about any other YA books being published yet that feature a character who identifies as genderqueer.
- Make it feel relevant to teens today. There are a lot of coming out stories out there, which is why many editors say we don’t need them anymore. But the experience of coming out, and the details around that experience, change with the times. If you’re writing a coming out story, make sure it feels different from what is already out there. Make it feel authentic to teens today, rather than what it was like for teens 5, 10, 15 years ago.
- Remember that, even if you’re writing a story that is centered around the character being LGBTQIA+ and how that affects them and the people around them, they can be defined by more than just that one aspect of themselves. Queer-centric stories are interesting and important, but don’t forget that just because the character is going through something directly related to their queerness, doesn’t mean they’ve lost the rest of themselves in the process. There needs to be more to the story and to the character to give them depth. There are many incredible authors out there doing just that—find them, read them, and learn from them.
So here’s where I’m at on my introspective journey: I’ll no longer be saying I want books with characters who “just happen to be gay.” If that phrase hurts just one person, then it’s not worth saving, especially if it discourages someone from writing the queer story they have inside. I’m still going to look for queer stories that give me more, whether that be a different perspective on the queer experience, or a story that features prominent, on-the-page queer characters who gets to be more than “the queer one.” I’ll just have to find a better way to ask for them.
by Dahlia Adler
I’ve spoken a lot about how Under the Lights wasn’t originally a f/f romance. I had always planned to write one, but my very first was going to be the YA I’m actually drafting now, which is a contemporary inspired by the historical War of the Roses. (It’s still f/f – not to worry!) But when I was drafting UtL, I really, really struggled with the romance I was writing for Vanessa with this boy, and why there was zero story and zero chemistry. I was talking to one of my critique partners about it, and I said in frustration, “I feel like I just want to make her a lesbian,” and it was like being struck with a lightning bolt. Further confirmation? I went back through the words I’d written to see just how much of her POV I’d have to strip out in order to do this, and saw that the only person with whom she had any chemistry was a waitress with whom she’d inexplicably flirted to no end. So that waitress became Brianna in disguise, and voila.
Technically, you could say this was the very first “choice” I made with regard to Under the Lights as LGBTQ YA, but the truth is, it didn’t feel like one; I don’t think I could’ve finished the book if I’d ignored her voice telling me, “There is a reason I am impressed by this waitress and so very not impressed by this dude you’re trying to make me like.” But other things…those are choices. And when you write LGBTQ YA, there are some very specific ones you have to make. For me, some of them were easy, some of them were influenced by outside information, and some of them changed along the way, but none of them were made casually.
1. How your character is going to self-ID, if at all – this was one of the harder ones for me. On the one hand, I didn’t want to push Van into a box too quickly. There’s a scene where she contemplates (out loud to Bri) whether maybe she’s bisexual, but by the time I finished the book, I just knew that she wasn’t, that for her, it was kind of a desperate grasp (especially in context) to have an area in which she could maybe “pass” in a way she obviously can’t with her race. However, originally, I wasn’t sure I was going to have her state it at all; in a sense, I wanted to buy her more time to grow comfortable. But, while I was still in the decision-making process of this, Ellen Page came out, and it inspired my (author of the superb f/f Black Iris) friend Leah Raeder to write this incredible blog post, and I saw what a difference it made to have a celebrity stand up and actually say the words. So, even though obviously Van’s not anyone’s celeb role model in real life, I wanted her to be someone who could potentially have that kind of influence on someone in her world.
2. How your love interest is going to self-ID, if at all – this one was actually much easier. In the aforementioned scene where Van flirts with a waitress, the waitress refers to her “ex-boyfriend.” When that waitress turned into Brianna, I knew that line was meant to be kept intact; she was bisexual from the second of her inception. The fact that it’s stated plainly was also always my intent, but after hearing my friend Tess Sharpe (author of the fabulous Far From You) say she’d heard many times how important it was to readers that she used the word “bisexual” in her book, I really went through and probably hit readers over the head with it. OH WELL.
3. If you have a bisexual character, are you going to acknowledge relevant topics like biphobia or bi erasure? – When Bri and Van have their real Big Talk, Bri shares something with her that’s implicitly about having her bisexuality erased, although it’s not the focus of what she’s talking about, and originally I didn’t place emphasis on that at all. Then I saw a lot of bi erasure in action, and it inspired me to make that bit way more explicit. So it’s only a few lines (albeit important ones!), and it was one of my very last edits, but it’s there. (For a book that is waaaay heavier on talk against biphobia/bi erasure, I could not more highly recommend Hannah Moskowitz’s Not Otherwise Specified.)
4. To HEA or not to HEA – No. Freaking. Brainer. There is a frustratingly tremendous amount of Tragic LGBTQ YA, especially on the f/f front. The girl isn’t gay after all! One of them is killed! Bullying tears them apart forever! Even if you do get a girl at the end, you’ll be destroyed by a different one first! I mean, don’t get me wrong, these books are still good and realistic and important, but I tried to imagine growing up as a queer teen and my f/f selection being what it is right now and it broke my heart. (Dating Sarah Cooper by Siera Maley does an excellent riff on this throughout. It also has a delightful HEA, FYI.) What kind of message does it send to queer teen girls that brutal heartbreak is literally inevitable? Which isn’t to gloss over the challenges ofbeing a queer teen girl – like I said, of course there’s realism there – but like, I would’ve thought it was hopeless. So, UtL was always going to be a super fluffy HEA, exactly as the cover would suggest.
5. S-E-X – This is the decision every YA romance author has to make, and it’s one I make for every single one of my books. (Spoiler: I always choose Yes.) With Under the Lights in particular, though, I was extremely determined to really, really show it. There’s something damagingly heteronormative in the portrayal of sex in YA right now, this idea that nothing “counts” but a penis in a vagina, and WTF does that say to people who are not interested in having sex with those parts? Especially between girls, for whom sex is often something considered foreplay by hetero couples, it seems to invalidate the idea that a queer girl can have a real first time. I am still floored by how little on-page sex there is between two girls in YA; the aforementioned Far From You and Sarah McCarry’s upcoming About a Girl have by far the most I’ve read outside of UtL, and both are wonderfully written but pretty brief. And of course that can be author choice or editor choice or publisher choice – I have no idea – but my choice was to go all out with a girl-girl sex scene and brace myself for a fight with my editor. That fight never came. Instead I was told, “We didn’t change any of it, and feel free to add more kissing throughout. Consider anything you want to add on that front pre-approved.” So, that was pretty damn cool, and I went ahead and added as much as I could. Whether or not I succeeded, I definitely aimed for an experience that was a true “first time,” right down to a certain parallel with the first book, which I won’t spoil.
Queer girls deserve a book to keep under the mattress as much as straight girls do, and that is first and foremost what I wanted this book to be. So if you hate 99% of the book but you want to reread that first kiss or sex scene over and over? I consider it a success.
by Nita Tyndall
I was twelve the first time I realized I was queer. Back then, I identified as bisexual. Although I didn’t think I was a lesbian (even though I’d never felt attracted to boys), I wanted to keep my options open. And when I was twelve, those were the only two words I knew—lesbian and bisexual, though neither of them felt right. Gay didn’t, either, because I’d always associated that word with gay men, and I wasn’t one of those. So from twelve to thirteen, I was bisexual.
When I was in high school and started really being interested in and attracted to girls, I went with lesbian. It was the only word I knew, and by then I knew I didn’t like boys at all. But it still didn’t feel quite comfortable, like an itchy sweater that’s a size too small, but you wear it because it’s the only thing that’ll keep you warm.
And at the time, I thought, maybe I was a lesbian. I’d tried to get my hands on the few YA books I knew of with lesbian protagonists, because whenever I had a problem I needed to solve, I turned to a book. Books never failed me, they offered insight and the hope that everything would turn out right in three hundred pages or so. The lesbians in those books seemed as confused as I did, but more often than not they knew what their label was, what their identity was, and even if they had angst about coming out, everything turned out all right. But the way they felt about girls and the way I felt about girls seemed similar in theory, though not quite as much as I wanted.
Later on in high school, though, I joined Tumblr. And through Tumblr, I not only became more of a feminist, but I learned that there were more identities than gay or bisexual or lesbian, identities like trans or genderqueer or asexual.
I went to AVEN and read about asexuality, and a small spark went off in my brain, a spark that had slightly started in middle school when I identified as bisexual, when I realized I could be attracted to girls at all. The spark grew into a flame when I read more definitions and found the word demisexual:
Someone who can only experience sexual attraction after an emotional bond has been formed. This bond does not have to be romantic in nature.
Oh! That’s me.
I wanted to burst into tears because at last, here was a word that fit, here was a label that felt right, that encompassed what I felt. No longer did the sweater feel itchy or too small, no longer did I cringe when I identified what I was, because here was a word that could encompass all of my complicated feelings towards girls, here was a label I could cling to.
Because as pervasive as the idea is that labels are for soup cans, not people, there’s something so relieving in finding a word that wholly encompasses, or at least starts to encompass, the experiences you’ve been having. Finding the right label or word for your sexuality can be validating—at last, here is a word to sum up and explain what I’ve been feeling, a word that fits!
And I wonder how much less time I would’ve spent wondering where I fit if I’d read a book with a character who identified as asexual or demisexual, how much less stress it would’ve caused if I could have seen that honestly and accurately reflected in the media I consumed, not as a punchline or stereotype. How much better, easier it would have been to have a character to point to who identified like me, to say, if this person identifies this way, why can’t I? To have that character whose problems are resolved in three hundred pages, who finds love and fights dragons and goes on adventures, and who also is genderqueer or panromantic or, yes, asexual.
I think it would have helped a lot. At the very least, it would have helped me feel less alone.
Nowadays, I identify as queer, because I like the ambiguity of it and because homoromantic demisexual is too long to fit in a Twitter bio. I like queer because of the possibility it can encompass, the ease of saying it. But I am still demisexual, and that label, the knowledge of that word, carries a lot more hope and acceptance in it than I ever thought to find. I know some people may not need labels and some people may choose not to use them, and that’s absolutely fine, but you cannot underestimate the importance, the relief of finding the right one.
Someday, I hope there are more books with demisexual characters, or asexual characters, characters who struggle with finding the right label, because right now there’s a teen out there who has no clue what they identify as, a teen who won’t know what they are until they read a book and something clicks and that tiny spark goes off in their brain and they’re able to say—
Oh! That’s me.
For more information on asexuality, please visit http://www.asexuality.org/home/?q=general.html#def
Nita is a tiny Southern queer YA writer with deep love of sweet tea and very strong opinions about the best kind of barbecue (hint: it’s vinegar-based). She’s currently in college obtaining an English degree and is a contributor for TheGayYA. You can find her on tumblr at nitatyndall where she writes about YA and queer things and reblogs pictures of elephants, or on Twitter at @NitaTyndall. She is represented by Emily S. Keyes of Fuse Literary.