Ellen Wittlinger is the author of Hard Love, Parrotfish, and many other novels for young adults. She can be found online at her website.
In 1997 when I began writing the novel Hard Love, most (if not all) of the YA novels with GLBT characters dealt with the process and difficulties of coming out. But when I looked around it seemed to me that there were a lot of teens for whom coming out was no longer such a big deal—they were past that stage already. I thought it was important to look at the question, “What comes next?” I decided to try writing a character who was moving on, a girl who was out and easy with it, but who had other problems, the same problems most teens have: how to get along with her parents, how to make sense of her heritage and her gifts, how to find love.
And so Marisol Guzman was born: a “Puerto Rican Cuban Yankee Cambridge, Massachusetts, rich spoiled lesbian private-school gifted-and-talented writer virgin looking for love.” In other words, Marisol was a lesbian, but that was not by any means her entire identity. She defined herself in a variety of interesting ways.
It’s probably time now to admit that I am not G,L,B, T or even Q. I’m also not young. I grew up in the Sixties when an admission of homosexuality made you (at least) the black sheep of your family, and very likely caused a more permanent rift with them. Maybe because I had problems with my own family, I felt a strong bond with the gay and lesbian people I met which was solidified by living for three years in Provincetown, Massachusetts, a small, quirky fishing village on Cape Cod that has for decades been a mecca for artists, writers and GLBT people. It was and is a unique place where the locals make room for and celebrate each other’s differences and eccentricities. And it had a profound effect on the way I chose to live my life.
I knew I wanted to include gay and lesbian characters in my YA novels from early on—that was part of the world I lived in. I was not worried that I hadn’t “walked in their shoes.” There are only so many shoes a person can walk in, and if a writer limits herself to only writing about direct personal experience, her stories will be very repetitive. Besides, the way I’d always built my characters was from the inside out—the inside being that small core place in which we are all the same, the outside being all those millions of ways in which we’re all different. To my mind, this is the best way to guard against stereotypes.
Hard Love did well, winning both a Lambda Literary Award and a Michael L. Printz Honor Award from the American Library Association, and some years later I wrote a companion novel called Love & Lies: Marisol’s Story which followed Marisol into her own difficult love.
In 2006 my husband and I moved to western Massachusetts where our daughter had settled after college. Among her close friends was a young man named Toby Davis who I was surprised to learn had entered Smith College five years earlier as a female. Toby was not only an aspiring playwright and novelist himself, but had been—before even meting my daughter—a big fan of Hard Love.
We hit it off immediately, and before long I was dreaming about writing a novel with a transgendered teen as protagonist. Of course, growing up trans was not something I was familiar with at all, so (after doing a lot of research) I asked Toby if he’d help me get it right. And he did. He answered all sorts of personal questions before and during the writing process, and vetted every word of the finished manuscript of Parrotfish. The story is not his, but many of the emotions are.
What I hope to accomplish with Hard Love, Love & Lies, Parrotfish and my other novels with GLBT characters is to normalize homosexuality and transexuality—to make gender and sexuality just two of the many ways in which we’re all different from one another and not such a big deal. Although there is still much to be done, the lives of gay and lesbian people are considerably easier in the twenty-first century than they were in the one just past. I hope the same will soon be true for trans people as well.
A fan—a straight girl–once wrote to me that she had been “afraid of homosexuals” before reading Hard Love. But, she continued, “after knowing Marisol, I know that gay people are just regular, normal people.” She got it. In the same way, I hope readers will come to “know” Grady and lose some of their prejudice towards trans people too.
I grew up, by virtue of gay friends and family members, bonded to the gay community. I was often the only straight girl in the room.
Emphasis on straight girl.
Now that I’m writing YA, I still feel like I have that taped to my chest like a name tag. I’m not generally forthcoming about my personal life in this respect—for complicated reasons, I would no longer call myself, in any situation, the only straight girl in the room—but I am very clearly not a gay male, and many of my books, particularly by 2012 love story GONE, GONE, GONE, have major gay male characters.
Writing it was completely comfortable, and GONE, GONE, GONE remains one of my favorite things I’ve written. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that what I was doing was wrong. And not in the way you might think.
Because the truth is…I love writing gay characters. And is some of that because I feel much more comfortable writing guys, and this eliminates the need to write a female love interest? Absolutely. Is part of it because I strongly believe that there need to be more gay main characters, not only in YA, but in contemporary fiction as a whole? Of course. Is it because I believe that we need books about gay characters that aren’t coming out stories? Yes. Yes yes and yes.
Is it because I think it’s something I know better than the other amazing YA writers tackling books about gay main characters?
No. How could I? We have amazing gay men writing amazing gay male books. And I write lesbians, too. It’s only very recently that I’ve realized what a zillion people have already figured out; there’s a ridiculous dearth of lesbians in YA. But there are also a zillion women who know more than I do. Who have experienced more than I have.
Who have more of a right to tell those stories.
The feeling that what I’m doing is wrong is a feeling of guilt. That I’m part of the problem. Not the larger, religious right, discriminatory problem, but that same niggling feeling I get when I watch Queer as Folk. I fucking love Queer as Folk. But do I really want to be the girl who squeals over gay guys? Isn’t there something so very straight girl in the room about that?
There’s this feeling I can’t entirely shake, and it’s that I’m encroaching on someone else’s territory.
But the funny thing about books is that it’s pretty impossible to have too many. My stories don’t preclude anyone else’s. We are very far away from having any sort of problem with “too many gay characters” in YA.
So I’m probably delusional.
And I’m probably not stepping on toes.
And as a self-identified queer girl, I should probably shut up and kiss whomever I want and write make out scenes for my boys, because these are my characters and these are the love stories I have to tell.
And I will. But I still wish I could really get rid of the guilt.
by Rachel Caine
When I was growing up, I was sheltered. Really sheltered. I still remember the first book I read that had a different kind of sexual experience in it: Ursula K. LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness, which featured aliens whose sexuality could, and did, change from male to female and back again. It was a shocking, exciting read for me at sixteen, and although it didn’t so much deal with themes of homosexuality, it certainly broke free completely of the restraints of the world I’d always known, in which sexuality was a fixed constant.
And I loved it
Next, I ran into Mercedes Lackey’s Herald Mage books, and absolutely adored them; the gay characters were strong, likable protagonists, and I ached for their troubles and dangers. I later found Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint, in which the two main male characters were lovers; I found Phillip Jose Farmer’s novels, which celebrated all kinds of sexual experiences in a SF/F setting. Theodore Sturgeon fascinated and disturbed me with a variety of tales that questioned the established status quo.
And here’s the funny thing: I enjoyed the books not as messages, but as stories. I neither sought out books with different sexual experiences nor avoided them, because I was fascinated with all types of stories and characters … gay, straight, androgynous, chaste, utterly alien, I was cool with it all. To me, encountering and enjoying stories with a different experience was perfectly normal, because I was choosing stories purely for what they had to offer — whether that was aliens invading, or hobbits questing, or ghosts haunting. I devoured everything, and accepted everything.
And I honestly believe that it was because I’d grown up sheltered. I didn’t have a firm fix on what the world was, really; I had a vast, uncolored canvas of experience, and the books I encountered helped me fill it in, slowly but surely, in the patches where I had no personal experience at all until much, much later.
I am still grateful to Ursula LeGuin, Mercedes Lackey, Theodore Sturgeon, Ellen Kushner, and so many more authors for helping a sheltered, isolated kid learn how to appreciate the vast beauty of human experience, and love. Some day, I hope to be worthy to stand in that company, even at the back, holding the coats.
Until then … I’ll keep working to be braver, and better.
Rachel Caine is the author of the YA series The Morganville Vampires as well as several books for adults including The Weather Warden series and Outcast Season. She tweets @rachelcaine and can be found blogging at rachelcaine.livejournal.com/
As it happens, that character’s coming out was the perfect subplot for a book about secrecy. Coming out is a move from secrecy to openness, from isolation to community. Secrecy doesn’t ever seem to have made anyone straight, but it’s made a lot of people suffer. In The Secret Year, coming out is ultimately a move toward honesty, self-confidence, and happiness. The main character’s secrecy isn’t about sexual orientation, but when he finally faces the limits of his own secret world, he already has a model before him of a more honest way to live.
It’s an interesting question, though: Why does a given character have to be gay? In one sense, a writer knows that every detail we reveal about a character should be both true to the character and relevant to the story. But another natural answer to that question is, “Why not?” YA GLBTQ literature is moving out of the “coming-out” phase, and into the phase of the “incidentally gay” character. While coming out will continue to be an important theme, it is, after all, only one part of a life story. Why can’t the characters—whom we’re following around because they’re solving mysteries or training for the big race or just coming of age with witty observations—also just happen to be GLBTQ?
In books like Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You (Peter Cameron) and Hero (Perry Moore), the characters’ sexual orientation is part of who they are, but the plots are about something more, or something other, than coming out. Gradually, our literature is coming to resemble more closely the real world in which we live.
Jennifer R. Hubbard is the author of The Secret Year (YA novel, 2010), the story “Confessions and Chocolate Brains” (in the YA anthology Truth and Dare, 2011), and the upcoming Try Not to Breathe (YA novel, 2012). She blogs at http://jenniferrhubbard.blogspot.com/ and is @JennRHubbard on Twitter.
We were both really pleased to be asked to write a blog post for Gay in YA and we decided that what we most wanted to talk about were our favorite books. There are many wonderful novels for teens and adolescents with GLBT characters, but if you are a fan of fantasy and the paranormal — as we are — the pickings are slightly more limited. With every year, there are more offerings, but there are also older titles that we come back to again and again.
We selected mostly books published as YA to discuss, along with a few adult books that we feel have crossover appeal. And, although we tried to concentrate on books with GLBT protagonists, we did sneak in two books with secondary GLBT characters that we couldn’t not mention.
1) SWORDSPOINT by Ellen Kushner
Cassie says: I like this book because the relationship between Alec and Richard is complicated and dynamic and interesting and messed-up, but messed up in the way that all human relationships are messed up sometimes. Despite the fact that both of them are flawed characters, you root for them and you want them to be together. Neither is a stereotype — Alec is a dashing student with a death wish, and Richard is the best swordsman in the city. Their relationship is treated with absolute matter-of-factness in a society where everyone’s sexuality is fluid
Holly says: To me, Swordspoint remains one of the few perfect novels I’ve ever read. Beautiful language, wit, and a majestic sense of place sweep you along into the tale. Plus the book features two of my favorite characters ever, ever, ever — the half-mad scholar, Alec, and lethal swordsman, Richard. Alec and Richard begin the book living together, and all the complications of the story impact their existing relationship, which makes for a very different tension from the more familiar tension of a couple just beginning to fall in love. I love this book beyond all reason.
2) ASH by Malinda Lo
Holly says: I have long been a fan of fairy tale retellings and this one manages to both use the original Cinderalla story as it’s spine and still leaves the reader guessing at what will happen next. Lo’s beautiful prose perfectly sketches out the story of a girl coming to discover who she really is, of daring to dream of a different life, and of finding true love with a woman as enigmatic and fascinating as herself.
Cassie says: I adore Ash. I also have to throw out a recommendation for Huntress by the same author, which is just as good, and the perfect blend of magic/adventure and romance between two extremely likeable female characters
3) GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY by Libba Bray/HEX HALL by Rachel Hawkins
Holly says: The Gemma Doyle series, which includes Great and Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels, and The Sweet Far Thing, features four Victorian girls discovering their own power and chafing against the limitations imposed on them. We see different sides of Felicity over the course of series as she becomes someone with whom we sympathize intensely. Her love for her best friend Pippa is not her most dangerous secret, but it’s certainly up there.
Cassie says: Hex Hall is a lot of fun and one of the great additions to the cast is the main character’s roommate, Jenna, who is a vampire, and a lesbian. That she is a lesbian is incidental — it’s a part of her, but not the whole part. She’s a great, well-rounded character, and her love life is given the same treatment as all the other characters’: no less important or nuanced.
4) KISSING THE WITCH by Emma Donoghue
Holly says: Told in a series of thirteen linked fairy tales about girls and women that meld into one another, Donoghue takes old tropes and remakes them into lyrical, feminist stories. Not all of the characters are queer, but many are, and all the stories are both lush and stunning.
5) CYCLER by Lauren McLaughlin
Cassie says: Lauren Mc Laughlin’s Cycler is a tale that seems screwball on the face of it, but explores interesting issues of sex and gender underneath. The main character “cycles” back and forth between being male and female, Jill and Jack — the same person, but distinctly differently personalities. Add in Jill’s bisexual boyfriend, one of the few bisexual male characters I’ve encountered in YA fiction, and Jack’s attraction to Jill’s female best friend, and you have rich territory to mine.
Holly says: Cycler is such an interesting book, doing what the best fantasy is able to do — take something like gender, which we often discuss in certain ways and along familiar lines and tell the story of gender, but tell it slant, so that we see it with new eyes.
6) BABY BE-BOP by Francesca Lia Block
Cassie says: Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat cycle, of which this is a part, can best be described as magical realism. Baby Be Bop explores the origin story of Dirk, a character we first meet in the book Weetzie Bat, and his origin story: from first realizing he’s gay, to dealing with homophobia and finding love, all told in a dreamlike and beautiful manner.
Holly says: Block brings Los Angeles to life in a fever dream as she tells the story of Dirk coming to terms with a broken heart, his own anger and fear, and being badly hurt. His Grandma Fifi, family stories of self-acceptance and the promise of future love get him through, so he can become the Dirk we know from Weetzie Bat and the other books in the series. No one uses language like Block and here she crafts a slender jewel of a book.
7) VINTAGE: A GHOST STORY by Steve Berman
Cassie says: A shivery ghost story in which the main character, never named, happens to be gay. He falls in love with the ghost of a boy he meets walking along a lonely road in New Jersey late one night. The romantic outcome may not be what you think, but it is satisfying.
Holly says: Written by my long-time critique partner, Vintage is always going to have a special place in my heart, but it’s also a fantastic book. The narrator and his best friend, Trace, visit cemeteries, watching funeral after funeral, waiting for something to happen. But when the narrator stumbles on a real ghost and that ghost follows him home, he discovers that romanticizing death has a price. A deceptively sweet ghost story told with realism, humor, and haunting beauty.
8) THE LAST HERALD MAGE TRILOGY by Mercedes Lackey
Holly: This is a series that readers either love or hate. Like Cassie, I read this when I was pretty young, and I loved it. Rich and haughty Vanyel comes to be tutored by his aunt in a high fantasy world where Heralds have magical powers and bond to intelligent steeds called Companions. Vanyel starts out miserable and somewhat obnoxious, but gradually lets down his guard as he falls in love with shay’a’chern Herald trainee Tylendel. The first book is Magic’s Pawn, followed by Magic’s Promise and Magic’s Price.
Cassie: I read these books when I was really young, but I remember they made an impression on me as they were literally the first fantasy with a gay main character I’d ever come across. I think that’s the case for a lot of people.
9) TRIPPING TO SOMEWHERE by Kristopher Reisz
Holly says: When Gilly and Sam run away to the Witches’ Carnival, they only know that they have to leave everything behind. That seems like it’s going to be easy for them, since there’s nothing in their Alabama town that they think they’ll miss. But as they go on this adventure together, it becomes more clear that leaving everything is harder than it seems. This is a beautifully written, incredibly honest book, with magic that seems numinous and real. And the relationship between the two girls is just as honest, sometimes painfully so. A truly magnificent contemporary fantasy.
Cassie says: I love a road-trip book, and this one is rich with the elements of fantasy America, especially the legendary Witches’ Carnival. The relationship between Gilly and Sam isn’t like anything else I’ve read in YA. A dark and sometimes brutal book, with flashes of beauty.
10) BOY MEETS BOY by David Levithan
Cassie says: I would call this magical realism, like Baby Be-Bop. It paints an achingly lovely picture of a world we all wish we could live in, where tolerance is the rule of the day, and the high school’s homecoming queen is the cross-dressing Infinite Darlene. The passages where main character Paul proves his love to Noah, the object of his affections, by spending seven days making seven romantic gestures, like decorating his locker with flowers, are adorable.
Holly says: Set in a small New Jersey town that’s just on the border of the world we know, in a place where Paul’s high school homecoming queen is also be the football quarterback, this novel defies categorization. Paul is absolutely comfortable with his sexuality — and has been supported by teachers and parents his whole life — but still struggles with changing friendships, maturity and first love. Fantastical worldbuilding creeps in at the edges, as in a scene in a graveyard where instead of flowers, this town attaches books to headstones, so that visitors can write to the deceased.
We interrupt this program to bring you… a chance to add your voice to the conversation!
I hope you have been enjoying our fabulous bloggers thus far. We have been honored and astounded by the outpouring of support from authors and readers alike. Thank you, thank you, thank you from the bottom of our hearts.
Our “Gay in YA” blogathon will be wrapping up at the end of the week. We are thrilled to say that we will be able to continue featuring some incredible authors and bloggers throughout the next several weeks, and we have decided that it’s time to take the next step. We’d like to open up this blog to submissions from you. The LGBTQ story includes everyone & touches everyone, and it’s going to require everyone to get where we’re trying to go.
So straight, gay, lesbian, or questioning*: wherever you are on your journey, we invite you to add your unique voice to the conversation and join the outcry for acceptance of Gay in YA.
We will accept whatever’s on your mind, so if you already have an idea skip the rest and email maria@gayYA.org with a little bit about yourself, a link to your blog (if you don’t have one, a writing sample will also suffice) and the topic you’d like to write about. If not, we have our handy dandy….
List of Specific Things We’re Looking For:
Tell Your Story: Creative Nonfiction Submissions
Multimedia – We strongly believe it’s important for people from diverse subcultures to support each other in the fight. We are open to featuring film, music, comics, and visual art provided it relates to the topic at hand.
Note to Authors: If you have an LGBTQ book you are interested in promoting, we don’t take ads but we would be happy to consider publishing a guest blog. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
If you have questions, leave them in the comments!
Tomorrow we will return to your regularly scheduled programming with a visit from the lovely ladies Cassandra Clare and Holly Black.
* or bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer…. you get the idea.
Scott Tracey is the author of WITCH EYES, a modern, gay Romeo & Juliet with witches, coming in September. He can be found on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/#!/scott_tracey and his blog at http://www.scott-tracey.com.
When I started fleshing out the idea behind WITCH EYES – back when it was just a concept rather than a story, I knew I wanted it to be different. I read a lot of urban fantasy/paranormal, so I knew that’s what I wanted to write. As a reader, there were a lot of great books, but there weren’t a lot of books that would speak to ME. Me as I am now, or even the me from high school.
So I decided I’d write what I’d want to read. Something that hit all the key elements that would have made a teenage me pick up that book without hesitation.
It had to include:
- magic and/or witches
- manipulation and game-playing (think Cruel Intentions)
- characters who happened to be gay, who were not defined by their sexuality
People have said to me “Oh, I didn’t know this was a gay novel.” And my response is always some form of “That’s because it isn’t. Well it IS, but it isn’t.” The main character is gay, unapologetically, and a relationship starts to form over the course of the book. But at the same time it isn’t, because it’s a book about a feud, and a town full of secrets, and near death experiences, wayward spells, and demons.
One of the most important parts of that, for me, was having the story be about the story, rather than devolve into the character’s angst about their sexuality. There’s this belief that novels about gay characters fall into two categories: the coming out story, or the tragic story. And don’t get me wrong, both of those kinds of stories are incredibly important – if you’re struggling with coming out, reading a book with characters who are going through the same thing can help you. It gives you someone to relate to, when you might not have someone in your real life who can do so. Same with the tragic story – sometimes we want to watch a movie like Brokeback Mountain. Sometimes that’s something that we need.
But what about the rest of the time? One of the things I really wanted, but couldn’t find enough of, was novels that were identical to their straight counterparts – novels featuring gay characters where their sexuality was inconsequential, where the emphasis was still on the story. In the majority of YA that’s out there, straight characters don’t have to struggle to accept their sexuality, and I thought it would be nice to read somewhere where the gay characters didn’t, either.
So where are the books like that for gay kids? If you look at YA as a whole, there is a LOT of representation. Gay characters appear in many bestselling series, or as side characters in beloved books. But there’s a lot fewer novels that focus specifically on the gay characters, in which it’s there story being told.
Especially in the genre of paranormal/urban fantasy, where most gay characters are still on the sidelines. Side characters, rather than the leads. But I think that’s changing. Even in just the past couple of years, we’ve gotten Ash and Huntress by Malinda Lo, Shadow Walkers by Brent Hartinger, and Hero by the late Perry Moore.
It’s becoming more normal to read about gay characters in novels. They’re everywhere from Cassie Clare’s Mortal Instrument series, to Sarah Rees Brennan’s Demon Lexicon series; many people even talk about how Alec or Jamie are their favorite characters.
I think we’re coming to a point where we’ll start to see more and more novels that push “gay YA” novels from being “issue oriented” to becoming much like everything else: plot and story focused. Where the character could be straight or gay, and the story would be exactly the same. Because at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter.
Speaking of Malinda Lo, she wrote this fantastic piece on her blog entitled, “How hard is it to sell an LGBT YA novel?” I think it’s still tough, to a certain extent, but getting a book published, period, is tough. This may just be a little more tough, but when you get into this business you know that the odds are against you.
The reason? Publishing is a business. If you go out and buy books featuring LGBT characters (whether they are the focus of the story, or simply part of it), more books like that will get published.
Gay characters in YA are only as normal as we make them. That’s why I think it’s important to HAVE gay characters in novels, but it’s the same issue with not falling into character clichés, whitewashing characters, etc. It’s important to have all kinds of representation, but the trick is to not give in to tokenism.
It’s one of the reasons I think we’ll start seeing more and more novels come out where sexual identity is inconsequential. Because at the end of the day it doesn’t matter, it’s all about the story.
Catherine Ryan Hyde is the author of numerous books including Pay it Forward and the upcoming Don’t Let Me Go. She can be found at her website or tweeting under @cryanhyde.
As recently as the 90s, when my first novel saw print, things were different in LGBT publishing. Authors worried about the positioning of books that contained LGBT characters. No one wanted publishers to perceive their books as being only for the niche “gay market” instead of the wider mainstream one. Authors always felt their work had that indefinable “broader appeal,” and didn’t want to be put into a smaller gay publishing box.
Which, if you think about it, contains the inherent silliness of assuming a straight person can’t or won’t read about a gay one. Well, they can. But, I guess the question is, would they?
Now, at least in YA fiction, I think we have our answer.
Suddenly LGBT YA is a phenomenon. A force to reckon with. And, more and more, I pick up (on Twitter and in the blogosphere) that lots of straight readers enjoy the genre.
This little post by no means claims to sum up how and why this sea change happened. It’s just a reflection on one aspect that resonates most with me.
For the purpose of illustration, I call it The Brent Effect.
It was only a little more than a year ago that a gay teen named Brent started the book blog Naughty Book Kitties. Fairly soon after, he emailed me, interested in an ARC of Jumpstart the World. I poked around on his blog, as I always do in cases like that. Not because there’s some special blog standard required before I’ll submit a book for review. More because I’m always curious about why someone wants to read something of mine. I also love discovering new blogs. We emailed a couple of times, and I asked Knopf to send him an ARC.
Just a couple of days later a Facebook friend posted a link to my wall. It was a post by a gay 15-year-old who publicly blasted his school librarian for refusing to stock LGBT books, which she said were “inappropriate.” Brent went viral, because, in my opinion, he was spot on. Here was a kid who needed to read about people like him, and was told that people like him were inappropriate reading for people his age. Suddenly “age appropriate” was called out on the carpet and boldly labeled discrimination. Which, of course, it was. Had been all along. Somebody just had to say it. Eloquently. Loudly.
Maybe Brent wasn’t the first to say it, and I’m sure he wasn’t the only one. But he was the first to break into my awareness with this message. He was my first exposure to the new breed of out gay teens.
I think it affected me so deeply because I wasn’t that brave when I was Brent’s age. I was not an out gay teen. In my defense, it was 1970. A number of factors had to fall into place to make that kind of honesty possible. The more honesty is shouted out, the more factors fall into place to allow even more honesty. Then, with any luck, you have a full-on revolution. Or, as they call it on Fox “News,” the Gay Agenda. And we all know what the gay agenda is, right? To be seen as human and treated with respect. To be ourselves and pursue our own happiness. Oh, wait, that’s everybody’s agenda, isn’t it?
Let me not get too far off track.
After meeting Brent (we’ve been friends ever since), I’ve also met John of Dreaming in Books. A very different, but also very out, young gay book blogger. I’ve met Craig of Craig’s Gay Word, a teen athlete who helps teach his entire school how to treat LGBT students. I even got a great review of Jumpstart the World from a young woman named Maggie who essentially came out as “closer to bi” or “at the very least questioning” during the review. I told her I thought that was important and good, because every person who does so makes it easier for the next. She told me she had wrestled with it and come to the exact same conclusion.
The more people speak up, the more people speak up.
Say what you will about social change, but you cannot, in my view, devalue these contributions. Sure, you have to multiply it by all the Brents and Johns and Craigs and Maggies, including scores I don’t know about. But coming out in itself is a force to be reckoned with. And blogs have embraced outness (as Brent would say, pretend that’s a word) in a way that’s changing the landscape.
When I was young, people actually made the ridiculous statement that they didn’t know, that they’d never known, someone who’s gay. The joke was on them, of course. Sure they had. They just didn’t know it. I believe intolerance finds its roots in fear. Humans are (like?) animals, wired for survival. Our brains tell us to fear the unfamiliar, and, when few dared come out, gay remained unfamiliar.
Now we have the beginning of a trend: straight teens who are perfectly happy to read a gay love story, if it’s a good story. So as an author of (among other things) LGBT YA lit, my hat is off to the new out gay teens.
Expect a snowballing of the Brent Effect. And celebrate it with me. It’s long overdue.
Tiffany Trent writes dark YA fantasy and can be found online at tiffanytrent.com
I find it so odd—all the buzz of including or not including gay characters in YA. To me, the fact that any of my characters at any moment are gay is a given. I don’t have to work to include them or sit and decide that one of them will be gay. Some of them are; some of them aren’t. These are the facts. I’m always delighted whenever a character shows him or herself to be LGBTQ, and I work very hard to make sure that I get it right. The one thing I continually note when speaking to gay friends about what they’d like to see in books is just that gayness is a fact of life just as natural as eye or hair color. One lesbian friend said it would just be so refreshing to read something fun, romantic, and gay-positive rather than either the typical coming-out story or tragedy. For myself, I love the notion of gay paranormal or gay YA horror—Steve Berman’s Vintage is an outstanding example of what I long to see more of.
Thankfully, it seems that the publishing industry is becoming more and more receptive to books that view gayness as an intrinsic lifestyle wherein being LGBTQ is not just about sex but also about love, romance, the joys and difficulties of finding the right mate, and ultimately about finding one’s true identity. My husband told me that just today, in fact, Bret Hartinger’s Shadow Walkers, a YA sci-fi novel with a gay protagonist was featured on NPR.
All of this is very happy-making news, considering that my own previous attempts at writing gay or lesbian characters were met with resistance by former publishers and editors. I knew in my heart that one character of mine was lesbian, though I also knew that she was an intensely private person. What I did know was that she wasn’t inclined at all toward men and was fiercely protective of the few female friends she had. I hadn’t planned on any lesbian romantic scenes, but I knew instinctively that heterosexual romantic scenes were not for her, either. In the end, I caved, and she was presented as staunchly heterosexual. It was heartbreaking to make that compromise, but I did it because I didn’t feel I had any other choice. I know differently now, and I’ll never make that same mistake again. It’s too important.
It took attending this year’s Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) (www.scbwi.org) Midwinter Conference panel about LGBTQ in middle-grade and YA for me to realize that I’m not wrong or alone in my desire to represent gay characters. Blogger and author Lee Wind , agent Jim McCarthy, and Penguin/Putnam Executive Editor Ari Lewin had some fantastically encouraging things to say to those of us want to write more LGBTQ work. Ari reinforced the notion that editors are, in fact, seeking stories that push beyond the coming-out story and into refreshingly new and fearless territory. She even encouraged me fiercely and with great passion to write something fun, a gay romance filled with laughter and sweetness and JOY. What a concept, right?
That panel alone was worth the entire conference and all the travel headaches. It gave me confidence in a character I’d been afraid to write—a gay blacksmith in a post-apocalyptic Appalachia. I can’t wait to get back to him once I finish the current revision, and I’m even more excited to share him with my readers who may have been hoping for just this sort of thing.
And so, for what it’s worth, I’m passing on this message. Go. Write your stories with your LGBTQ characters. Make their stories about more than coming out. Make their stories about what it means to be human and in love in this ever-changing world. Editors are waiting hungrily for your words. Pass it on.
Small intro: Ana Grilo is a geek and a book smuggler. You can find her, along with Thea James, blogging at www.thebooksmugglers.com and on twitter @booksmugglers
I was ecstatic when we were invited to take part of the Gay YA blogathon: it is a worthy cause and we love to be part of worthy causes. Then it came the part where I had to decide which book to review. All I knew is that I wanted to review a book where the main character was gay and although there are a good number of YA LGBT stories being published right now, this number is nowhere near ideal. Not to mention that sometimes I feel like there is a choice to be made when picking a LGBT book to read: as unfair as this impression might be, the stories seem to be either “issue” stories, in which a character has to deal with the outcome of his coming out and with homophobia, or they are “fairytale” stories, in which a character’s sexual orientation doesn’t matter and homophobia doesn’t exist in the context of these stories (hence the “fairytale”). Just to clarify, I have absolutely nothing against either, as the truth is quite the contrary. Both are important in their own way: the former, because issues like homophobia are unfortunately part of our reality and something a lot of kids have to go through every day; the latter because “fairytales” represent the world as it should be and are, if anything, inspirational.
Having said that, there are stories out there can do be both and I wanted to pick one for this review. I believe Vintage to be a great example of what I was looking for – it is a contemporary ghost story with a heavy romantic arc (a “fairytale”), and it never loses sight of the hardships that its main character faces as a gay teen, but accomplishes this without making “issues” the central theme of the book.
The story follows a lonely gay teen that is a bit of a goth and a high-school dropout who works at a vintage shop. After his parents discovered he was gay and dubbed him a “sick child,” he has run away from home and lives with his aunt. Scared that his aunt might react in the same way as his parents, he’s never told her the reason why he has shown up at her door – although he is not ashamed of his sexuality. Rather, he has wholly accepted himself and found a close circle of friends that offer the external acceptance that has been denied by his family. He is lonely though and on the lookout for a boyfriend whom he could do boyfriend-y things like going out to his favourite café together and you know, make out and stuff.
One day, walking alone in a deserted road, he meets this very hot guy (in vintage clothes) who later turns out to be the ghost of a gay boy who died in the 50s. At first he is ecstatic to have found someone to share things with but soon it becomes clear that the situation is not exactly ideal, not only because the guy is dead but also because he doesn’t seem to be looking for a healthy relationship per se (leading to many scary scenes). To complicate matters even further, our protagonist starts to fall in love with his best friend’s brother, amplifying the tension considerably.
The ghost story is perhaps the central aspect of this book: it is what moves the narrative forward as it frames both the plot and the main character’s arc. With regards to the plot, Vintage is a highly effective traditional ghost story (with Ouija boards!) which is both scary and sad, and the novel progresses as the boy and his friends investigate the death of the ghost and his past. But the plot also provides a mirror of sorts for the character to realise certain things: part of falling for a ghost comes from wanting to fall in love, but also from wanting to escape reality. Having to deal with a living boyfriend on the other hand, means getting out there, potentially getting hurt, having to come out to his aunt and everything that he had been trying to avoid. I appreciated how the reactions of his parents were extremely hurtful to him and have become an essential part of who he is and an essential part of his story, but that hurt, although present and acknowledged, is not the most important nor what defines him. Instead, we get this sweet guy, who just wants to love and be loved.
In the end, the rewards are awesome to the main character and also to the reader. The romance turns out to be sweet and cool and heart-warming with the added bonus of very hot making out scenes. There is much to love about this book, and love it I did.