by Shaun David Hutchinson
To say I’ve been overwhelmed by the response to my latest book, We Are the Ants, is a bit of an understatement. I didn’t start out writing books with queer narrators. It wasn’t until my third book that I worked up the nerve to do so (and that courage came in part from splitting with my first agent and feeling like my writing career was all but dead, and therefore I had nothing left to lose). My first two books had queer characters in them—a gay best friend that comes out in Deathday, and a gay couple in FML—but I didn’t really embrace writing queer characters and owning my identity as a queer author until The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley.
Part of what held me back was my fear of being labeled a “gay author.” When I was a teen and struggling with my sexuality, I sought out books with characters whose experiences were similar to my own. I was a voracious reader of fantasy and science fiction back then, but the only books I found (and only by accident) were Mercedes Lackey’s The Last Herald Mage Trilogy. Occasionally I would sneak around the bookstore trying to work up the courage to peek at the Gay & Lesbian Fiction shelf (or rather one small section of one shelf), but most of what I found were non-fiction books and erotica anthologies. My fear of being labeled a “gay author” was that my books would be relegated to that small shelf where the queer or questioning kids who needed them might never find them and the kids who might learn from them would never bother to go.
Five Stages and We Are the Ants both wound up on the regular YA shelves alongside the YA books with queer and non-queer characters alike, but I still found myself being labeled a “gay author.” At first, I shied away from it, but I eventually embraced it. I am, in fact, gay, and I am (despite my imposter syndrome) an author. I’m not ashamed of being either.
But, beginning with Five Stages and continuing with Ants, I noticed a pattern that bothered me. I would read reviews of both books that were wonderful and made my heart sing, but often contained a statement along the lines of, “will appeal to gay readers.” And every time I read those words or words similar to them, I felt like I was being shoved to the back of that Gay & Lesbian shelf where no one would ever find me. As if only queer readers could be interested in reading books about queer characters.
Later today I’m on a panel called Dudes Write. Dudes Read. Cheers for Men Writing for (Primarily) Boys, and I’m kind of nervous about it because it seems like the kind of panel that’s going to focus on how there aren’t enough books out there for boys to read and relate to, and assumes no boy could ever relate to a book written by a woman or featuring a female protagonist. I’m uncomfortable with the panel because A) the assumptions it potentially makes are dangerously wrong, and B) because it hits so close to home regarding my own fears about writing queer lit. (The panel actually went really well, and didn’t even come close to wallowing in any “woe is me, where are all the books for the boys” nonsense. Whew!)
I’m thrilled beyond measure at the attention queer YA has been receiving lately, and the success of books with queer narrators. Books like recent Lambda Literary Award winner Alex Gino’s George, Adam Silvera’s More Happy Than Not, and Becky Albertalli’s Simon VS. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, just to name a few. But I fear we’re still at a place where these are viewed as “queer” first and anything else second. Where More Happy Than Not is a gay book rather than a book about a young man struggling with his own grief and insecurity. Where Henry’s story in Ants is seen as a book about a gay boy rather than about boy trying to figure out what in his life is worth living for. I hate that because it often feels that only straight, white, cis male characters get to have stories that extend beyond their identities. Why is it African American Literature or Latino Literature or Disability Literature or Women’s Literature rather than just plain literature? If I ever win an award, I want it to be because I wrote a great book, not because I wrote a great gay book. But while we’re making strides with more visible representation, queer books are still often seen as books for queer readers.
This worries me because I’m scared diversity might be just another trend in YA literature. Like we’ve moved from vampires to dystopians to diversity, and that when people tire of it, they’ll move onto something else. That’s the danger of viewing books with queer characters as “queer books” first and everything else second.
Though I’ve embraced the label of “gay author,” I don’t feel like I write queer books. I write weird books. Contemporary, mostly-realistic books that sometimes have a sci-fi angle. I write books that deal with mental illness and are usually character driven. I write books with frustratingly vague endings. I also write books with queer characters. And I do want readers to know that. I want it to be easy for teens who are looking for books with queer characters to be able to find them. But I also want readers searching for weird books to find them, and readers searching for character-driven contemporary books to find them.
Books with queer characters don’t appeal only to queer readers any more than books with vampire characters appeal to vampire readers, but that’s often the message I see being put out there, and it’s the wrong message. The surge in the popularity of queer books is encouraging, but I worry it’s a bubble because the focus is on the queerness of the books rather than the books themselves. I’m not suggesting we hide a book’s queerness or that the characters’ queerness is incidental to the rest of the book, but rather that we stop treating queerness in books as something that will only appeal to queer readers.