by Andrew J. Peters
Note: Suicide content warning
Writing fiction started out as something I did privately as an outlet for self-expression. For most of my career, I worked at an LGBT youth organization. I think that certain values have always been a part of my writing, such as a belief in the essential dignity of everyone. But when I used to sneak away to write, it was mainly a pleasurable escape from day-to-day realities that were hard to leave behind in the office.
It has gotten better for LGBT teens since I started as a social worker in the mid-90s, but at the time it often felt like a neverending battle against apathy, homophobia and outright ignorance. I remember distinctly an incident from early in my career.
A young man who was getting beat up at school because he wore make-up and “girl” clothes wrote a goodbye note to his mother and laid down on the commuter railroad tracks to kill himself. The community was shattered by his suicide, but it was a silent shatter. News traveled by word-of-mouth rather than the media. Suicide was a nearly untouchable topic back then. It still is to a degree. Add to that what everyone knew about the victim’s flamboyance and his suffering at school, and there was no news outlet that wanted to report on the story.
I was shocked that some weeks later, the young man’s school principal called me for advice on what to do to prevent such tragedies in the future.
The principal was so scared and embarrassed to be talking to an LGBT rights advocate, he was literally whispering on the phone. He said he wanted to change the attitudes of his students which led to violence and suicide, and he wanted to know how to do it without actually mentioning the words homophobia or gay.
I told him that I didn’t believe that could be done unless he named the behaviors he was seeing and the students who were being hurt. That principal agreed to visit another school where I was speaking about homophobia to see if he would be comfortable bringing me in to talk to teachers and students.
He showed up at my talk with his vice-principal and his superintendent. Afterward, I received another pressured and practically whispered phone call. The principal told me that my presentation was “too progressive” for their school community. He worried that it would be perceived as encouraging students to be gay and that religious teachers and parents would be offended. Over the years, my staff and I would hear from kids in that school district who were terrorized by bullying and feeling desperate and alone. Some even sent us letters through the mail because they were afraid that the phone number of an LGBT organization would show up on their parents’ phone bill.
That story has a bit of a happy ending, some fifteen years later. Well behind the national curve, that school now has a Gay-Straight Alliance, and due to state legislation in no small part, provides diversity training to teachers and students. LGBT students still face challenges, but some of them feel safe enough to be out.
Because of my work with teenagers, people ask me if I write about those kind of stories. Mainly I don’t. I’m a fantasy author. I write about young gay people, but I like exploring mythological worlds and I don’t think my work lends itself to the category of “issue books.” I wouldn’t have a problem with that. Some of my favorite authors like Peter Cameron and Shyam Selvadurai write about contemporary teens and their struggles growing up. Those kind of stories just don’t capture my personal writerly imagination as often.
When I embarked on writing for publication, I was happy to discover a community of LGBT YA authors and readers. Naturally, I was drawn to the activism in that community such as campaigns like the Hop Against Homophobia and Transphobia and #WeNeedDiverseBooks. When my hometown high school invited me to speak to students about my book The Seventh Pleiade, I talked about the broader world of LGBT characters in YA literature, and the relationship between cultural equality and political equality. Though I don’t write about the fight for social justice, I like to think that telling stories about gay boys becoming heroes against the odds helps teenagers feel better represented, and inspired in some small way. I like to think that maybe those stories can help a kid who is facing the nightmare of bullying and ostracism to persevere.
It’s an exciting time for LGBT YA. Book covers that depict same-sex affection are gaining acceptance among mainstream publishers. Young adult librarians across the country celebrate Pride month with displays and programs. Online retailers and e-books have made books much more accessible to young people who are coming out.
Still, there are challenges. Books like David Levithan’s “Two Boys Kissing” have stirred up controversy in parts of the country like Fauquier, Virginia where some parents wanted the book banned just this past spring. Getting LGBT-themed books into the mass market is still an uphill battle for authors and publishers, and there’s still a need for stories about the underrepresented portion of our QuILT-BAG community: people of color and transgender people among others.
I’ll continue to fight for LGBT youth to be represented in YA while supporting the organizations that make their lives better in the real world. And meanwhile, I’ll be quietly writing about the fantasy worlds that fill my imagination.
Andrew J. Peters is the author of The Seventh Pleiade and the Werecat series. He grew up in Amherst, New York, studied psychology at Cornell University, and has spent most of his career as a social worker and an advocate for LGBT youth. Andrew has written for The Good Men Project, YA Highway, La Bloga, and Dear Teen Me among other media. For more about Andrew, visit: http://andrewjpeterswrites.com or find him on Twitter @ayjayp or Facebook.