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.