Hey! We mixed up our links today, 5/20/15. If you’re looking for the post on what teens on tumblr are saying or about the call for diversity and having limited spaces to call home, check out Tumblr Teens: BookMad For Diversity. If you want an editor’s perspective on why he’s going to stop using the phrase “just happens to be gay” and what he’s looking for in queer YA, read on!
by T.S. Ferguson
You may be aware of a conversation that happened in April focusing on the phrase “just happens to be gay.” The conversation was started by an author I am lucky enough to work with, Robin Talley, author of LIES WE TELL OURSELVES and the upcoming WHAT WE LEFT BEHIND. What the conversation essentially boiled down to is this: saying you want to read a book where the character “just happens to be gay” can be harmful to members of the queer community, as it comes across sounding very much like “I don’t mind if a character is [insert queer identity here], as long as I don’t have to see it.” There was more to the conversation, but that seemed to be the biggest takeaway. Now obviously not everyone who uses that phrase means it that way, as Robin and those who agreed with her acknowledged, but it becomes difficult to distinguish a person’s intentions, especially on the internet. Therein lies the problem.
As a queer editor who has said he is looking for books where the character “just happens to be gay” I had to really do some self-analysis when this conversation began. I’m also guilty of saying “there are too many coming out stories in the market,” another statement that was discussed as frustrating and harmful. Obviously as an open and proud gay man, and an editor who is actively seeking more GLBTQIA+ fiction for my list, I don’t want a character’s sexuality erased from the story. So I thought a lot about what I meant to say when I said these things and how I could say them better.
As a reader I was never the kid who yearned to see himself in books. I didn’t read a book full of straight characters and feel like I wouldn’t fit in. I always found a way to insert myself into the story using my imagination, but when I got older and started hearing about my friends’ desires to see themselves in the stories they read, it immediately made sense to me. There’s no doubt how important it is to so many people to see themselves in the stories they experience. And it’s also no doubt how large a role sexuality can play in a teenager’s life. So what did I mean when I said I wanted to see books about characters who “just happen to be gay”? When I asked myself that question, I immediately thought of one of my favorite lines from Orphan Black, spoken by queer clone Cosima: “My sexuality is not the most interesting part about me.”
As a reader and an editor, I adore LGBTQIA+ characters, but I am drawn most to stories where they get to be more than their sexuality. I love Cosima, for example, not just because she’s gay and in an on-screen relationship with another woman (two facts that make me love this show to pieces even more than I already did), but because she is an incredibly smart, ever-curious scientist, a dreadlocked weed smoker, and the most chill and friendly clone on the show. These are the characters I’m drawn to—characters who are queer but who are allowed to be defined by (and whose stories are defined by) more than just the fact that they’re queer. The fact that they’re queer is very important, don’t get me wrong, but equally important is the fact that they can be so much more. Their queerness is part of what defines them, not the whole. And to be clear, that queerness, whether it’s central to the plot or not, should be on the page and not just implied or mentioned in a throwaway line that never comes up again. No Dumbledores need apply.
That’s a personal preference. I spent the 5 years between when I came out in high school and when I moved to New York City to pursue my publishing career being defined by my queerness, at least according to everyone around me. I wasn’t T.S. back then; I was Tom, a name and identity I never felt attached to and changed as soon as I was able. But when I came out in high school, because I was tall and South Park was in its heyday, I was Big Gay Tom. I was “the gay guy” or “my gay friend Tom.” Because I was out in settings where there were no other out gay people around, I was defined by my gayness by the people around me, and I didn’t realize how much it weighed on me until I moved to New York City, surrounded by artists and hipsters and queers of all shapes and sizes that I was able to identify the feeling. I was no longer defined by just my sexuality. I finally felt normal. So as a reader, I gravitate toward those stories that allow a character to be more than their sexuality, because to me, just being queer isn’t enough to grab my attention for an entire story. If the entire storyline is centered around the fact that the character is queer, that’s not going to be enough for me. And again, that’s just me. Other editors, other readers, will feel differently.
Of course, with me, there are always exceptions. I’m not going to be saying I want to see characters who “just happen to be gay” anymore, but I still want to be grabbed by a story. So if you’re writing a story centered around a character’s queerness, here’s how to capture the attention of an editor like me:
- Come at the story from a unique perspective. Write about queer kids of color, queer kids with disabilities, queer kids from different economic classes. It doesn’t always have to be about middle-class white kids (although in my opinion, this is true across any genre). Add to the conversation, rather than re-hashing what is already out there. Robin Talley, for example, has a book coming out in November (WHAT WE LEFT BEHIND) featuring a genderqueer protagonist and when she told me she wanted to write it, it was an immediate YES from me because I hadn’t heard about any other YA books being published yet that feature a character who identifies as genderqueer.
- Make it feel relevant to teens today. There are a lot of coming out stories out there, which is why many editors say we don’t need them anymore. But the experience of coming out, and the details around that experience, change with the times. If you’re writing a coming out story, make sure it feels different from what is already out there. Make it feel authentic to teens today, rather than what it was like for teens 5, 10, 15 years ago.
- Remember that, even if you’re writing a story that is centered around the character being LGBTQIA+ and how that affects them and the people around them, they can be defined by more than just that one aspect of themselves. Queer-centric stories are interesting and important, but don’t forget that just because the character is going through something directly related to their queerness, doesn’t mean they’ve lost the rest of themselves in the process. There needs to be more to the story and to the character to give them depth. There are many incredible authors out there doing just that—find them, read them, and learn from them.
So here’s where I’m at on my introspective journey: I’ll no longer be saying I want books with characters who “just happen to be gay.” If that phrase hurts just one person, then it’s not worth saving, especially if it discourages someone from writing the queer story they have inside. I’m still going to look for queer stories that give me more, whether that be a different perspective on the queer experience, or a story that features prominent, on-the-page queer characters who gets to be more than “the queer one.” I’ll just have to find a better way to ask for them.