by Ryy Dickerson
When people halfheartedly say that Young Adult literature is extremely white, I laugh. Being a person of color and queer means often times I find myself in a young adult book either as the gay character or the character of color. Not too often do I get a chance to see myself as both, and if I do it is through the lenses of a white gaze; meaning the black queer character is a side kick or a vague love interest to the white protagonist. I remember after finishing GIOVANNI’S ROOM by James Baldwin (Not YA) I did research and realized that the decision for the main character to be white was ultimately due to the idea that a main black queer character wouldn’t sell to the public. Now this book was written many moons ago, but that realization had followed me into my reading journey where I tried to focus on finding Young Adult books with characters I can relate to. However, I find myself having to do ten times the research in finding good books with accurate representation. On one hand, I find amazing YA novels that have a great way of showcasing what it means to a member of the queer community. At the same time the novels tell it from a White cis perspective, which is fine but that’s not me. The way white gay man operate day to day and the privilege & oppression they deal with doesn’t fully reflect me or all members of this community. On the otherside of the coin, being a person of color and reading novels about straight characters of color is also difficult because that too is not fully me, and it sells a narrative that I know I’ve never lived. If we look at books like ARISTOTLE and DANTE, MORE HAPPY THAN NOT, JULIET TAKES A BREATH; books that have been receiving a lot of conversation lately, it’s because they involve characters if color who are also queer. We realize that the praise (outside of it being because they are all amazing books) is because they also involve representation that people don’t often see. I imagine it can be refreshing for white readers to read books with characters of color as the protagonist, as it is very much validating for the readers of color.
We spend a lot of time calling for more diversity in young adult literature and challenging norms but in doing so we might be ignoring a new norm developing — one that causes books that involve characters who are both queer, gender non-conforming, or trans and of color to be viewed as a rarity. There is a quote floating around twitter by the author of CLIMBING THE STAIRS and ISLAND’S END, Padma Venkatraman. “If you’re only reading white LGBTQ characters, perhaps you’re perpetuating another stereotype.” I would also like to tact on the idea that if you’re only writing white LGBTQ characters you’re perpetuating another stereotype as well, one that forces white, typically cis characters to the forefront as poster children for queer lit in young adult. This phenomenon of centering whiteness happens often in the queer community and across all platforms, just recently there was a movie made that pushed real queer and trans people of color to the side the tell the story of stonewall through a cis white gaze.
It’s always really weird when I find a black character who is queer – or straight — in a young adult novel, because many times we are side characters, like a checklist. I wanna get to a point with queer literature in the Young Adult category (but also across all categories) that I’m at with white gay male protagonist. Before, I used to have to search high and low for book with a queer protagonist, and now, I have to search high and low for a book with a queer protagonist of color. I know that libraries will have an lgbt section that will give me shelves upon shelves of white protagonist to pick from, and I want to be able to have the same amount of options when it comes to characters of color, in particular African American characters, who are allowed to be unapologetically queer and black and be the center of attention.
It’s exhausting not being able to see myself in literature, so when I find books like PROXY and when countless other people of color find books with characters of color who are queer, and closely relate to them, we have to hold these books near to us because we know deep down that we are typically not what people mean when they speak about wanting more LGBT representation in YA; and even with this YA short story I’m writing I find it so refreshing when I go back to reread for edits because I know it’s about Queer people of color. I know it’s more me than many books I’ve read.
I think it makes a lot of people comfortable to apply cis and white characters to the role of LGBT as a whole, both white and persons of color. Which to me seems like hiding behind the privilege and security that will come with having a queer white character as the protagonist; the same security and privilege that made James Baldwin make his character, who I argue was a reflection of his journey through Paris, a cis white male. Ultimately, my fear is I do not want the call for diversity within young adult literature to be seen years later as something that pushed white queer, typically male characters the forefront of what we were asking for. There should be enough room on bookshelves for everybody.
Ryy Dickerson, known as DemBooksDoee on the internet is a book blogger who is (finally) on his last leg of undergrad double majoring in sociology and English with a double minor in performance theatre and dance. He is crazy about queer representation and has a soft spot for classic LGBT novels and authors who paved the way for he and so many readers to have the books they have today. When he isn’t reading he’s out traveling, running around to auditions or sharing his poetry and short stories to anyone who will listen. He hopes that one day the world will be a better, more intersectional & inclusive space for everyone under (and outside) the rainbow. He can be contacted through dembooksdoee.wordpress.com or on twitter @Dembooksdoee