My son came out to me at the age of 15, and I remember feeling totally overwhelmed with fear. Though I could provide safety and acceptance within our home, I felt powerless to protect him in a world I knew could be less than kind to him.
So I became an advocate as well as a mom.
Let me take a moment to make an important point about what advocacy is and what it is not. True advocacy is walking beside a person engaged in fighting for equality. It does not assume that the people we support are powerless or weak, for that too is a form of dehumanization.
I began my journey as an advocate by attending PFLAG meetings. I graduated to marching with my son in Pride parades. I even grew comfortable creating space for conversations about marriage equality and civil rights for the GLBTQ community through Minnesota United and in my day-to-day conversations.
Eventually I tried to advocate for affirmation and acceptance within the Christian community-my community-over the issue of homosexuality, and that meant bringing the conversation to my family members. As the daughter of evangelical Christians, I had inherited a long legacy of literal Biblical interpretation.
That’s when things got difficult.
In fact, while my voice was strong and powerful in so many other venues, within my own family I felt impotent as I watched this issue polarize people I love. Heartfelt conversations failed. Arguments inflamed. Theological debates drove us further apart.
So I decided to write a book for my mother about a boy who falls in love with another boy at Bible camp. I believed that her compassionate heart would be moved if she could only see the world through the eyes of a young gay Christian and hear how phrases like hate the sin, love the sinner hurt.
It was a thoughtful decision to take my advocacy to the page, a decision I later learned was nearly as controversial within the writing community as the topic of homosexuality is within the Christian community.
At the heart of the debate about whether books should or should not carry a message of advocacy is the concern that if a book contains a message we invite all sorts of opinions about what those messages should be. It’s a slippery slide from that good-intentioned place to having books banned by gatekeepers who count swears and get riled up over content.
Content in young adult literature. It’s a big and scary thing in many peoples’ minds.
And yet, as authors of books for young adults, we have one job and only one job: to provide our readers with the very best books possible.
That means we must write books that are relevant and so we frequently find ourselves writing content with sexuality, violence, profanity, or drug use in our fiction because such things exist in our readers’ realities. Our dedication to this pursuit is so deep that we risk censorship in order to give our readers one of the greatest joys of life: that of reading a book which has translated some aspect of their day-to-day life into art.
And so a book that actively seeks to include a message can be viewed as an open invitation to the gatekeepers to voice their opinions about what that message should and should not be within young adult literature.
I understand this concern.
I agree with this concern.
But the core definition of young adult literature as depicting a journey toward manifesting authentic identity, when paired with the realities of the lives of GLBTQ characters, requires me to take a stand at the intersection of art and advocacy.
For example, in Caught in the Crossfire (Bold Strokes Books, June 16th, 2014) I faced questions that forced me to make decisions that inherently communicated a message:
· How should I depict the Christians in my novel? As clear antagonists or
as people of devout belief, capable of inflicting harm through good
· Should I include an affirmative view of the Christian faith to balance
the fundamentalist view?
· Do I allow Jonathan Cooper, my main character, to integrate his sexuality
with his spirituality or do I leave him in agonized conflict?
· What plot point would trigger Jonathan’s faith crisis? If it is a sex
scene, how detailed should I write it?
The very nature of writing about a sixteen year old Christian boy awakening to his same sex attraction placed me firmly in the middle of this debate, and I spent many hours thinking about the role of advocacy in the art form of young adult literature and the potential censorship my books might face. Believe me. Many, many hours.
Ultimately, I saw my way through to the right choices. But in order to do that I needed to walk away from this whole discussion and return to my most fundamental job as an author:
TO WRITE THE EMOTIONAL TRUTH OF THE STORY.
I did my best to write Jonathan’s journey as honestly and fearlessly as I could, and yes, Caught in the Crossfire does follow the arc of moving away from repression and toward acceptance and woven into the very plot is a message of affirmation. So while I agree with my colleagues who defend young adult readers’ right to read relevant, realistic fiction, I find that I’m also willing to include a message of advocacy within my books.
Because EVERY reader-adult or young adult, straight or gay-deserves the joy of picking up a book and finding a bit of his/her life within the pages. And because a book, if written with enough heart and honesty, has the power to transport a reader into a fictional world that will leave that same reader feeling stronger and less alone in this world.
Minnesota writer Juliann Rich spent her childhood in search of the perfect climbing tree. The taller the better! A branch thirty feet off the ground and surrounded by leaves, caterpillars, birds, and squirrels was a good perch for a young girl to find herself. Seeking truth in nature and finding a unique point of view remain crucial elements in her life as well as her writing.
Juliann is a PFLAG mom who can be found walking Pride parades with her son. She is also the daughter of evangelical Christian parents. As such she has been caught in the crossfire of the most heated topic to challenge our society and our churches today. She is drawn to stories that shed light on the conflicts that arise when sexual orientation, spirituality, family dynamics and peer relationships collide. You can read more about her journey as an author and as an affirmative mom on her blog, The Rainbow Tree.
Juliann is the recipient of the 2014 Emerging Writer Award from the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival and lives with her husband and their two dogs, Mr. Sherlock Holmes and Ms. Bella Moriarty, in the beautiful Minnesota River Valley.
Check out our review of Caught in the Crossfire!