by Elizabeth Wein

rose under fire

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein (Hyperion, 2013)

Occasionally, in the heat of a conversation and unable to quickly recall this week’s in-favor politically-correct acronym, I find myself saying, “So, I heard about this new LGBT-QRST book…” Then I think, OMG, that’s not right! What did I forget? Someone is going to be so offended!

My problem with labelling is that I don’t like boxes. I don’t like age-banding of books, and I don’t like genre categorization – I don’t like being branded. I write historical/fantasy/adventure/spy/Arthurian/mystery/war novels. The hero of four of my early books is mixed-race – half British, half Ethiopian. I was as astonished as anyone else to learn that my novel Rose Under Fire had been honored with the Schneider Family Book Award, which “embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience.” At the lunch given for the winners, I confessed to a committee member that it had never occurred to me to think of the characters in Rose Under Fire as disabled. Her answer was, “That’s what makes them so wonderful.”

The same holds true for the sexuality of my characters. I don’t think of them as one thing or another. All my invented characters hold their cards very close to their chests, and that’s because they, like their creator, consider their sexual orientation to be a private thing. To me, what matters most of all in the sexuality of the characters I write about and read about, is not that they fall into any particular category, but that they be open and able to make their own choices – and to be able to make new choices. Not just one choice for all time, but appropriate choices as long as they live.

What I’d love to impress on young readers is that sexuality is not always clear-cut. I spent a healthy part of my teenage years in the headspace of my fictional male characters, to the point of dressing like them in daily life. It never occurred to me I was cross-dressing; if I wanted to be a boy, in my head I was a boy. One of my characters, a young magician, literally changed sex according to his or her current mission. It is true that people thought I was a little wacky when I’d come to school dressed as Norélon Enlé or Twill Devon or Mordred or whatever, but curiously, my own sexuality never came into question.

I have been in a heterosexual relationship for over twenty years, don’t really think of myself as gay or bisexual, and yet don’t feel I can ever rule out the possibility of a same-sex relationship. My grandmother, who died earlier this year at the age of 98 and was happily married to the same man for 46 years, said to me several times throughout her life, “I think we all have the potential for attraction to either sex.” My father, who was happily married to my mother for eight years and unhappily married for a further two, lived the last ten years of his life in an openly gay relationship with a considerably younger man. My father was Jewish, his partner African-American. Their relationship defied categorization. They made a sensational team.

alice and freda forever

Alice + Frida Forever: A Murder In Memphis by Alexis Coe (Pulp/Zest Books, 2013)

But – it’s understandable that we keep trying to define ourselves, because it wasn’t so long ago that we didn’t even have the freedom or the language to talk about these things.

Alexis Coe’s Alice and Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis (San Francisco: Pulp, 2014) is an unusual work of non-fiction aimed at young adults, beautifully illustrated by Sally Klann. It looks at the passionate and ultimately doomed relationship between two young women in the late nineteenth century. An extract from the jacket flap tells you what an incredible situation this must have been at the time: “Nineteen-year-old Alice Mitchell had planned to pass as a man in order to marry her seventeen-year-old fiancée Freda Ward, but when their love letters were discovered, they were forbidden from ever speaking again. Freda adjusted to this fate with an ease that stunned a heartbroken Alice… On January 25, Alice publicly slashed her ex-fiancée’s throat.” A trial ensued and was sensationalized in the press; Alice was imprisoned and eventually remanded to an asylum. Don’t come to this book expecting a happy ending.

But what I find so amazing about this true story is the resource of the two young women before their relationship went wrong. They met at school, decided they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together, and formed a plan that they thought could make it work. It’s easy to write them off as being delusional. But how incredibly brave of them to try! Without any kind of political, intellectual or emotional support for their love, without even the language to define themselves, how I admire them for their determination! I leave you to read the book yourself and make your own judgment as to whether, in our changed world over a hundred years later, they could have been happy together.

Just remember: words don’t define who you are. YOU define who you are. You don’t need a category to make true and right decisions about who to love. And don’t forget to stay open-minded about other people’s decisions as well.

(P.S. By way of happy contrast with this tragic love story, try Stranger by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith – dystopian YA fiction with a range of appealing characters who are comfortable and diverse in their sexuality. We’ve come a long way.)