by Steve Berman
There was a time when you could be all alone even when surrounded by dozens, even hundreds, of people. I’m talking about high school and the time before the Internet and smart phones.
Everyone feels isolated now and then, but true isolation, being ignored while the rest of the world goes about its day, is something teenagers face. Especially LGBT teens. We’re the outsiders, after all. Different. Sometimes special, but very different. Where we look we see a world that was built for heterosexuals and cisgendered people. Seeing a film, watching a commercial, noticing a sign that features two boys holding hands or two girls kissing or androgyny–we remember this as the exception to the norm. Our being different is reinforced every day, sometimes every hour.
When I was an adolescent, the isolation was terrible and terrifying. I know that for many kids that is still the case, but I lacked the technology that could soothe my loneliness. I was closeted. There was no option of a gay-straight alliance. I did not know a single other gay kid except the effeminate boy who surrounded himself with a flotilla of girls. I could not relate to him. I could not tell anyone my secret. Being a nerd did not help matters–nerds talk a lot about science-fiction and fantasy back then, but invariably the conversation would turn to talk about lusting after girls. And I became hushed and alone even among the few friends I found.
As a writer, I think about how life as a LGBT teen has changed because of technology. The Internet brings people together. When you’re LGBT, often you need to construct an artificial family because of issues (real or perceived) with you biological family members. I say artificial but I do not mean to suggest that this constructed kin and kith are less valuable. We want our family to shelter us and nurture us. And a family constructed from people from around the world, who we speak to online, can be incredibly caring and encouraging.
An example: I recently watched the film Romeos (which I give two thumbs-up and recommend). The lead is a young transgender man in the midst of transitioning. The emotional toll is devastating but the lead goes online and records his own progress, checks in with others through Skype, and watches videos of those who are both ahead and behind him in the transition process. I’m in my 40s now. I had no idea that this vibrant community of transgender folk (I am sure it’s not just teens) existed and that they did so to help others dealing with gender issues. Sometimes the pain expressed in the videos was almost too much to bear, but then there were moments of joy for the lead, as he could see the aftereffects of surgery.
Back to books and why I am writing this blog: when I was a teen, there was no etheric community I could join–likely anonymously to begin with, then identifying myself as my confidence was reinforced. Gay teens of my generation had to either wait until graduation (cars! college! clubs!) or run away to major cities and find the gayborhoods. If you are writing gayYA and it’s set before the Internet, you cannot avoid the issue of isolation. Except for the boys who were flamboyant and hid behind drama and female best friends, few boys would dare come out of the closet.
But now…now, in contemporary YA fiction, there exists an entire realm of friends and acquaintances that can comfort.
I’m certainly not going to suggest that LGBT teens today no longer have to deal with loneliness or being outcasts. An enormous number of runaway teens are queer. But you cannot ignore the role of the Internet in the everyday life of any adolescent. Tumblr. Instagram. Even those hoary old sites like Facebook. Social networking means that a gay kid can find someone to talk to someplace in the world 24/7. The characters in your novel need to have an online presence. Whether they live in a rural state that is highly conservative and religious and they are afraid to come out or they are fortunate to be in a liberal neighborhood and have parents who love them for who they are, that teen will be socializing online. And not just socializing. How do LGBT kids learn about being…well, queer? Straight kids have the heteronormative world that instructs them how to dress, how to speak, how to ask a boy or girl out, how to make out, how to navigate adolescence. Now some of this is patterned off of media like television and movies and has terrible elements (like misogyny) but they have role models to follow. Gay kids have fewer examples to follow and so they need the Internet more than their straight counterparts. Watching a gay short on Vimeo…following a popular blogger…asking dating advice from friends that they have never even met in person. This is a very real and strange (and wondrous) life for so many LGBT teens.
It may seem silly in a blog post to champion the role of the Internet in your fiction. But take a step back and realize why this blog exists. How are queer kids discovering that books they can relate to have been written? Not every baby dyke’s mom is going to be handing her the latest Malinda Lo book. Not every gay boy is brave enough to ask the school librarian if they have anything by David Levithan. And a teen questioning gender? Likely their first investigations will be made online before they can seek professional and clinical help with the decision to transition.
Your queer kids in the book may be loners, may be introverts, but they will also be using the Internet as a lifeline. Don’t deny them that.