by Ellen Hopkins
I write contemporary young adult fiction. To date, I’ve published eleven bestselling YA novels-in-verse, and each storyline is unique. I’ve written about addiction, abuse, suicide, prostitution and the drive for perfection, both internal and external—issues that touch teen lives every day. The books are diverse, but they all have in common queer characters somewhere in their pages.
Sometimes they’re main characters. Other times, they’re peripheral or barely seen. For instance, in Burned, Pattyn has a gay uncle who’s been shunned by his ultra religious family. We hear the reasons she’s never met him, and they are integral to the overall story arc, but he doesn’t actually walk on-stage until the sequel, Smoke, where he becomes an important player. I didn’t plan the sequel originally, so his being in Burned was intuitive, and I was happy to bring him to “flesh-and-blood” life later.
He’s not the only queer character to walk out of my brain and into the story uninvited. They find their place, settle in, and let me know just why they belong there. Usually, though, my LGBTQ characters are quite consciously created. I think it’s important to include them as part of the teen landscape because LGBTQ people are part of our world. They are members of our communities, our schools, our churches, our families. To not include them would feel absolutely wrong, like something vital was missing.
The result was coming to sincerely care about my LGBTQ characters. From Cara (Perfect), who defies her parents to embrace who she is, to Tony (Impulse), who defines “questioning,” to Shane (Tilt), who falls hard for a boy with HIV, they’ve become some of my favorite people I’ve written. And the biggest gift they’ve given me, within the writing and beyond, is true appreciation and sympathy for the very real issues affecting LGBTQ people here in America, and around the world.
In fact, I’ve become an outspoken gay rights advocate. Yeah, I’ve taken heat for it, too. Recently, I posted angrily (very!) about a special election in Springfield Missouri where voters were encouraged from some pulpits to overturn LGBTQ protections already in place. A Springfield TV station took a screenshot and created an entire “news” story about my post in relationship to a long-planned visit. In the aftermath, I was uninvited from speaking to one of their high schools (“We can’t be sure of what she’ll tell our children”) and vilified on social media. It got ugly. Some guy told me, “Go back to your Bible, bitch.” One person called me a skank, another a whore, and a few demanded I keep my “ugly old ass” out of Missouri.
On the upside, I also found strong supporters and new readers (after the newscast, a man emailed to say he’d never heard of me before, but he was going to buy my books because I sounded like “a kick in the pants”), and it was standing room only at the library appearance I made, thanks in no small part to the Springfield LGBTQ community. Barnes & Noble sold out of my books and had to order more, and after my presentation at the other high school, the library couldn’t keep them on their shelves.
And that is what’s most important, because when readers devour my books, they are meeting queer characters, learning about the problems they face, and developing empathy. Many will that carry out into the real world. Society’s view of the LGBTQ population is changing in positive ways, and books can play a very big part in that, especially those consumed by young adult readers, who will lead the future charge toward equality for all.
So I’ll keep writing YA, and my books will have queer characters in large or small roles. I’ll keep facing book challenges and taking heat for my vocal support for the LGBTQ community. Because if my words can help build a tomorrow defined by acceptance and compassion for every human being, regardless of how they look or who they love, I’ll have spent my time on this planet well.
Ellen Hopkins is a poet and the award-winning author of eleven bestselling young adult novels and two novels for adult readers. Her third adult novel, Love Lies Beneath, will publish July 2015, and her next YA, Traffick, follows in November. She lives near Carson City, NV, where she founded Ventana Sierra, a nonprofit helping at-risk youth into safe housing and college. Find her here.