Ellen Wittlinger is the author of Hard Love, Parrotfish, and many other novels for young adults. She can be found online at her website.
In 1997 when I began writing the novel Hard Love, most (if not all) of the YA novels with GLBT characters dealt with the process and difficulties of coming out. But when I looked around it seemed to me that there were a lot of teens for whom coming out was no longer such a big deal—they were past that stage already. I thought it was important to look at the question, “What comes next?” I decided to try writing a character who was moving on, a girl who was out and easy with it, but who had other problems, the same problems most teens have: how to get along with her parents, how to make sense of her heritage and her gifts, how to find love.
And so Marisol Guzman was born: a “Puerto Rican Cuban Yankee Cambridge, Massachusetts, rich spoiled lesbian private-school gifted-and-talented writer virgin looking for love.” In other words, Marisol was a lesbian, but that was not by any means her entire identity. She defined herself in a variety of interesting ways.
It’s probably time now to admit that I am not G,L,B, T or even Q. I’m also not young. I grew up in the Sixties when an admission of homosexuality made you (at least) the black sheep of your family, and very likely caused a more permanent rift with them. Maybe because I had problems with my own family, I felt a strong bond with the gay and lesbian people I met which was solidified by living for three years in Provincetown, Massachusetts, a small, quirky fishing village on Cape Cod that has for decades been a mecca for artists, writers and GLBT people. It was and is a unique place where the locals make room for and celebrate each other’s differences and eccentricities. And it had a profound effect on the way I chose to live my life.
I knew I wanted to include gay and lesbian characters in my YA novels from early on—that was part of the world I lived in. I was not worried that I hadn’t “walked in their shoes.” There are only so many shoes a person can walk in, and if a writer limits herself to only writing about direct personal experience, her stories will be very repetitive. Besides, the way I’d always built my characters was from the inside out—the inside being that small core place in which we are all the same, the outside being all those millions of ways in which we’re all different. To my mind, this is the best way to guard against stereotypes.
Hard Love did well, winning both a Lambda Literary Award and a Michael L. Printz Honor Award from the American Library Association, and some years later I wrote a companion novel called Love & Lies: Marisol’s Story which followed Marisol into her own difficult love.
In 2006 my husband and I moved to western Massachusetts where our daughter had settled after college. Among her close friends was a young man named Toby Davis who I was surprised to learn had entered Smith College five years earlier as a female. Toby was not only an aspiring playwright and novelist himself, but had been—before even meting my daughter—a big fan of Hard Love.
We hit it off immediately, and before long I was dreaming about writing a novel with a transgendered teen as protagonist. Of course, growing up trans was not something I was familiar with at all, so (after doing a lot of research) I asked Toby if he’d help me get it right. And he did. He answered all sorts of personal questions before and during the writing process, and vetted every word of the finished manuscript of Parrotfish. The story is not his, but many of the emotions are.
What I hope to accomplish with Hard Love, Love & Lies, Parrotfish and my other novels with GLBT characters is to normalize homosexuality and transexuality—to make gender and sexuality just two of the many ways in which we’re all different from one another and not such a big deal. Although there is still much to be done, the lives of gay and lesbian people are considerably easier in the twenty-first century than they were in the one just past. I hope the same will soon be true for trans people as well.
A fan—a straight girl–once wrote to me that she had been “afraid of homosexuals” before reading Hard Love. But, she continued, “after knowing Marisol, I know that gay people are just regular, normal people.” She got it. In the same way, I hope readers will come to “know” Grady and lose some of their prejudice towards trans people too.