The coming out story represents probably the largest portion of stories in LGBTQ young adult literature. It’s an important topic, to be sure, in part because trying to figure out who we are and who we want is a major part of adolescence, and Nick Burd’s novel is one of the best of the genre.
The Vast Fields of Ordinary takes place during the summer of Dade Hamilton’s last summer before college. Things aren’t looking great. His parents’ marriage is failing, his closeted jock boyfriend Pablo treats him like crap and he has a soul-killing at a grocery store. The plot follows a fairly predictable arc, but it’s Burd’s characters that make his book engaging and heartbreaking.
It was really difficult for me to read this book at times because I didn’t want to see Dade, or any of the characters, getting hurt. God, the way Pablo treats Dade. Even though Burd shows Pablo’s actions coming from a place of pain and confusion, it’s still so hard to watch the story unfold. I wanted to get into the story and alternately yell at and hug these kids.
To take a brief detour, I really love Burt Hummel on Glee, and I think the scene where he and Kurt have “The Talk” is one of the most beautiful and brilliant scenes in all of television. Every kid needs to hear this speech, every kid needs to know that she or he matters and that sex is important. Dade and Pablo need to hear this speech.
Why should you read this book? I’m certain not enough kids hear that they matter, and the actions of this play out in this story, with devastating consequences, because of it. I hope that the teens who read this book see that it’s not that they should remain celibate because they can’t handle the consequences of romantic relationships — not at all. I hope they see that they deserve to be treated with love and respect and if they’re not getting that, whether it’s from parents or lovers or friends, then something is wrong.
I think I’m making this book sound like an after school special, and it is so not as simple as that. It’s an elegant book. Burd takes the common coming out trope and turns it into an emotional sucker punch. I’m not even sure there is much catharsis, although I’m hopeful that Dade will find the love and respect he deserves
This book truly is heartbreaking, and it’s important to have good, well written and solid stories that address this aspect of adolescence, of life really, because even adults don’t get this right all the time, and Burd delivers with a story that will stay with you long after you turn the last page.
Debra is an assistant librarian, grad student, fledgling blogger and wanna-be teacher. She blogs about her reading at Library Lass (Adventures in Reading), and is @threelefthands on Twitter (but mostly just to see what shenanigans @maureenjohnson and @realjohngreen are up to).
Today’s featured author is Robin Talley, who writes here on Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series.
While the Harry Potter series was still being released, I kept crossing my fingers one of the kids would turn out to be gay.
It didn’t seem that far-fetched an idea. After all, the series was otherwise doing a great job of representing diverse characters.
But more importantly, when I was reading the books for the first time, I was in my early 20s, and I was still getting used to the idea that this whole being-gay thing might indeed be a lifelong deal. I was eagerly looking around for representations of people like me. Seeing gay characters and gay celebrities made me feel normal. It made me feel like someone had noticed I was there.
This applies to other aspects of identity too, of course. When I was a kid, my favorite Smurf was Smurfette and my favorite Thundercat was Cheetara ― because I was a girl, and they were the only female characters on those shows.* When you’re in the process of defining your identity, you can’t help but look for examples in the world around you.
After the release of Goblet of Fire, I held out hope that either Dean Thomas or George Weasley, both of whom appeared to be conspicuously dateless for the Yule Ball, might be somewhere on the LGBT spectrum. And after Order of the Phoenix came out, introducing us to Luna Lovegood and Nymphadora Tonks, well, it seemed like J.K. Rowling was just taunting me. **
But ultimately all four of those characters were shown to be hetero. And then Deathly Hallows came and went without any acknowledgement of other sexualities.
And I thought, “Ah, well.” It certainly didn’t keep me from enjoying the books. Plus, by that point several years had passed, and I’d stopped eagerly seeking out gay characters at every turn. But I was disappointed that the opportunity to show queerness among such a broad and interesting cast of characters had been missed.
And then, a few months after that last book’s release, J.K. Rowling casually dropped the news that Dumbledore was gay, and had been in love with the dark wizard Grindelwald.
My first thought on hearing the news was, “Wait. What?”
My seconds was, “Oh. This makes so much more sense now.”
The relationship between Dumbledore and Grindelwald was one of the most interesting subplots of Deathly Hallows. But it was a little hard for a reader like me to relate to. I’ve never had the Crazy Lust For Power that those two apparently shared. I have, however, had the Crazy Lust For The Absolutely Wrong Person, and have found myself doing really stupid things as a result.
But I didn’t get to know about that dimension of Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s relationship when I was reading Deathly Hallows for the first time. Because it wasn’t included in the book.
We don’t know exactly why the HP books failed to mention Dumbledore’s gayness, and I don’t think it’s really worth speculating about here. It might’ve been the publisher’s call. It might’ve been authorial self-censorship due to concerns about the potential public response. It might’ve been the result of tough decision-making about how much content include in an already-very-long book. We’ll probably never know all the answers on this point.
But oh, how I wish it had been included in the book. I wish Dumbledore had casually mentioned it to Harry during one of their many long chats in books 1-6. “You know, I always did think that Hamish McFarlan of the Montrose Magpies Quidditch team was quite fit,” or some such thing. They could’ve left it at that, as a non-issue. Or Rita Skeeter’s 900-page expose of Dumbledore’s life in book 7 could’ve discussed his sexuality along with all his other supposed secrets and lies.
Outing Dumbledore would have had two key benefits:
1. It would’ve made Deathly Hallows a stronger book, because readers would have had better context for understanding Dumbledore’s relationship with Grindelwald.
2. Readers of the book ― kids and adults alike, gay and straight alike ― would’ve seen a major gay character in the biggest book series of all time.
When people talk about gay visibility? This is what they’re talking about.
Dumbledore is the biggest badass of all time. He eats dark wizards for breakfast. He dictates battle strategy and mentors orphans and invents gadgets and writes public policy and runs a school full of ornery teenagers, all at the same time.
And he’s a great big homo.
Imagine how different things might have been if the millions of people who read the Potter series ― the entire generation of kids around the world who grew up on it ― all knew that.
As authors, we always have to make decisions about how much detail to include and how much to leave out. These are not easy decisions to make. I always think of that line from Wonder Boys about how writers don’t need to include the genealogy of everyone’s horses.
And yet, if you have a character who’s LGBTQ, I think you have an obligation to your readers to tell them that.
There aren’t enough LGBTQ characters in children’s lit right now. And we’re the ones who can do something about it. We’re the people writing the books the next generation of teenagers will read.
Of course it isn’t always easy to find a way to work it in. It can be challenging if your LGBTQ character isn’t the protagonist, and especially if the character’s sexual orientation or gender identity isn’t directly relevant to the plot.
It can also be intimidating. We all live in fear of being accused of tokenism, of writing to stereotypes, of conforming to trends. Often, it’s just a lot easier not to put openly LGBTQ characters into our books.
So it might take some work. But it’s worth the effort.
My favorite example of an offhand inclusion of a queer character’s queerness is in How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalastier.*** This (awesome) story includes a best friend character, Rochelle, whose non-straightness is completely irrelevant to the story, but is nonetheless is specified in a totally organic way in the middle of an unrelated scene:
“Cassie-Ann was in final year A-stream basketball. … Rochelle’d had a crush on her for as long as I could remember and was mournful that the odds of being promoted from B-stream to A-stream basketball while still only a first year were vastly low, in the vicinity of zero, in fact. She would have to wait until she graduated and hope that some day they wound up on the same team.”
When I read that paragraph, it really stood out to me both as an author and as an LGBT reader. Suddenly Rochelle was much more important in my eyes than she had been in the 95 pages preceding this paragraph. Because now, Rochelle and I had something important in common. Smack in the middle of a book about a heterosexual protagonist with a heterosexual crush, there was a major character who was like me. (There are other mentions of minor characters who are in same-sex relationships throughout the book, by the way ― another tactic I love because it does a great job of establishing the book’s universe as one in which sexual orientation is a non-issue.)
But of course, I’m not the audience for your book. Kids are your audience. And that’s why this matters so much for YA writers. That’s why I think you have to tell your readers there are queer people in your book. Even if it means rewriting that scene you’ve already rewritten seven times, if that’s what it takes to work it in.
Because some kid somewhere could pick up your book and see, for the first time ever, a character who’s like her. Or a straight kid could see, for the first time ever, an LGBTQ character he can relate to ― and then realize that LGBTQ people aren’t so different from him after all.
And that’s a goal even Dumbledore would find worthwhile.
*Because it was the 80s. Yay for 21st-century cartoon diversity!
**By the way, lest you think I was alone in these speculations, any cursory examination of the various Potter-related websites from that era will quickly prove otherwise. Which characters held gayness potential was one of the hottest debate topics once upon a time.
***Justine has also written some really interesting stuff on her blog about visibility, especially regarding race. I often refer back to her “Why My Protags Aren’t White” post when I’m trying to figure out how to develop and describe my characters.
Robin Talley always writes about LGBTQ protagonists, so she doesn’t have this problem, but she likes to give people unsolicited advice about it anyway, because that’s just how she rolls. Visit her at www.robintalley.com or on Twitter at @robin_talley.
Sometimes I wonder why I started questioning my sexuality. If it was because my father called me a dike when I told him I preferred stud earrings to hoops; or the few years my mother was half convinced I liked girls because my best friend was bisexual; or if it was when my doctor asked my sexual orientation and I hesitated. But then, maybe it was because I actually liked a girl.
Before then, my sexuality wasn’t in question. I had no interest in my sex. So I wore my stud earrings, spent every day with my bisexual best friend, and told my doctor I was straight. I meant it when I said it then, and I meant it every other time the words passed my lips.
It wasn’t until I met Dahlia that I started to wonder how true those words were. She shook up every belief that I had of myself, pulling me in, in a way that I thought only boys could. She was taller than any girl I knew and her hair was just as long; the deep mahogany color of an old desk. Her eyes were blue and brown and green all at once, and staring at them was like staring into the very center of the ocean. I could lose myself in her eyes, and I think I did.
I fell in love with her, or as in love as a straight girl can be with another girl. We were friends, and could have been more if it wasn’t for my conflicted feelings about her building a wall between us. For every stray thought about her eyes or the smoothness of her skin, another brick was added. For every time the silence of a million unsaid things filled the air between us, another brick was added. I knew Dahlia was gay, there was never a question about what she wanted. It was me who hesitated, who couldn’t figure out if I was simply enamored with her or if it was something more.
The wall grew, my confliction grew, my unease grew. The more time we spent together, the less I knew what to make of myself. I became two separate pieces.
98% of me belonging to me and the unwavering knowledge that I was straight.
2% of me belonging to her and the uncertainty of what that made me.
Gay? Straight? Bisexual? Was my mother right? Did my father have a point?
But, wouldn’t I have known by now if I was anything other than straight? Wouldn’t I have felt this for some other girl at some other point in my life? I didn’t believe that one person could change my sexual orientation, so I had to believe that this part of me had existed before her. I had to believe that she wasn’t the exception to genetic makeup. She couldn’t change me.
What I couldn’t accept was the fact that this part of me belonged solely to her.
I found myself staring at other girls, trying to figure out if I felt anything for them. I quizzed myself every time I saw a girl that I thought was beautiful, trying to pinpoint some kind of attraction that was similar to what I felt for boys or even what I felt for Dahlia. The artist in me always admired any beauty I saw, especially in people, but that was the extent of it. I couldn’t make myself feel more for my gender. It just wasn’t there, and that bothered me. I was sure that if I could call myself bisexual, I could move on from this limbo I was trapped in, I could stop stringing Dahlia along on the false hope that we could be more. Because it was taking a toll on our friendship, and that killed me. No matter what conflictions I had, I knew without a doubt that I needed her friendship. And I didn’t like hurting her. More than once, I thought of just going to her and saying “yes,” yes I like girls, yes I want to try this, yes I love you, too. And yes, I’m sorry.
I never did, though. I couldn’t make myself take that step. Almost like I was standing on the sidelines, I watched as we drifted apart. I watched myself scrambling for an answer like they were scattered puzzle pieces. I watched the friendship that I valued above all else fail because I couldn’t make sense of my feelings.
I regret that the most, the way it had to end between us. I don’t regret anything else from that year, not even the doubts that she brought to my mind. In fact, I would thank her for that. By forcing me to answer those questions, she brought a clarity that had been missing before.
Now, I understand that I’m not straight or gay or bisexual. I understand that it doesn’t matter, that I’m just me.
Brittany Clarke is a YA writer of nine years. She hates to read one book at a time and believes the cure to eluding characters is a good cup of coffee and a doughnut. On the days she’s not staring at a blinking cursor, you’ll find her sitting in the back of a movie theater and laughing louder than anyone else. You can follow her on twitter @balancingbritt or read her blog at www.balancingbrittany.blogspot.com
This post is a part of our reader submissions program. To find out how you can contribute to posts on the Gay YA, click here.
In 1778, a community in Massachusetts incorporated itself into a town called Franklin, after Benjamin Franklin. Seven years later, the leaders of Franklin, Massachusetts contacted their namesake. Pointing out how they had honored him, they asked if he would buy a bell for their meeting house. Instead, Benjamin Franklin sent a crate of 116 books from his personal collection and asked them to build a library instead, “Sense being preferable to sound.” The town leaders took his advice and created the first public library in America. It’s still open, with Benjamin Franklin’s original 116 books on display.
America was founded on the idea that, after a full stomach, the thing a person needs most is a hungry mind. Their curiosity and intelligence and drive should determine how far they go in life, not money, luck, or social status.
That idea is part of why I’m proud to work with Guys’ Lit Wire–a book blog aimed at teenage boys–and its annual book fair. During past book fairs, GLW readers bought books for Indian reservation schools and a juvenile detention facility. This year, we’re helping out Ballou Senior High School, a seriously underfunded school in Washington D.C.
As this video shows, Ballou High’s library is tiny, just a 1150 books for a student body of 1200. (For comparison, the American Library Association’s standard is eleven books for every one student.) Working with Ballou High’s librarian, we’ve assembled a 900-book wish list at Powells.com. Anybody can purchase a book (or more than one) and have it sent directly to the school at:
Melissa Jackson, LIBRARIAN
Ballou Senior High School
3401 Fourth Street SE
Washington DC 20032
The wishlist runs a wide gamut, from Shakespeare and manga to non-fiction books about science and nutrition to SAT prep books. There are several wonderful GLBT titles including Brent Hartinger’s Geography Club, Steve Berman’s Vintage, and It Gets Better by Dan Savage and Terry Miller. And every single one of them has the potential to be that one book a kid at Ballou High has been waiting for, the one that will help him understand who he is and what he wants out of life. Books change lives. They alter attitudes and expectations.
That’s why, 200 years ago, Benjamin Franklin decided the town of Franklin needed books more than a bell. America was a young nation and democracy an untried experiment. To succeed, we needed dreamers. We needed people who could imagine a new kind of nation. Every generation since has struggled and strived toward a more perfect union and a more just society. We will always need dreamers, we will always need books, and every revolution–great or small–will start in a library.
If you can, please consider buying a book or two for Ballou High. There is no gift you can give someone as awesome as a book. Books reshape us, and they give us the power to reshape the world around us.
To some people, I guess it’d be a mystery as to why I would choose to come out as a bisexual for the first time here and now. (God, writing this is so scary. Bear with me!) It took me a couple of days to figure it out myself. Sure, I’ve told my husband, and my best friend, and my mother during one especially passionate screaming match. But I never really felt the need to bring it to attention before, so I just treated it like some intensely private thing.
I’m a happily married, twenty-three year old woman with a sixteen month old. To a lot of people, that would automatically mean that I am straight, or that my bisexuality is somehow canceled out simply because I have found the person I want to spend the rest of my life with, and he’s a man. People have such weird ideas about bisexuality.
That’s why I’m here, I guess. Because of how bisexuals are so often portrayed, especially young bisexual females.
I live in a small town, and at my high school there were only a few openly gay people. But one time these two girls who were both known to have had boyfriends in the past started holding hands in the hallway, and kissing each other around campus. They changed their statuses online and let it be known that they were officially dating.
The most common reaction amongst my classmates? “They’re doing it for attention.” “They’re doing it so guys will think they’re hot.” “They’re doing it to be trendy.
Nobody took them seriously. And if it’s not sad enough seeing these reactions in person, imagine reading books and watching TV and movies were the majority of young bisexual females are portrayed as overly promiscuous bad girls who are more into the sex than anything else. (And hey, of course that person exists, and that’s totally okay. It’s not, however, an accurate or fair representation of all young female bisexuals.)
I saw this episode of Tyra that was all about “Barsexuals.” Apparently a barsexual is a straight female who makes out with other women in bars in order to score men and get free drinks. When asked if they are bisexual, these women were quick to deny. Whether they were lying, or weren’t sure, or were telling the straight up truth, why are situations like these being highlighted as opposed to more authentic ones?
I know it happens. But there just isn’t enough of the average. I was inspired by Scott Tracey’s post about having gay characters that are simply gay. Their sexual orientation is just another part of them, rather than being a highlighted feature in the story. I haven’t read many books featuring bisexual characters, but the few that I have read were portrayed dryly and with hurried cliches. And while bisexual characters in general would be a refreshing thing to see, it’d be even more impressive to meet a serious but totally average teen bisexual. (If anyone has any suggestions, I’d love for you to leave them in the comments so I could read up!)
It’d be extra difficult to cover I know, since high school can be a confusing time as far as sexuality goes. While I was in high school, I definitely would have put myself in the Q category of LGBTQ, rather than the B. But I know that there are young female bisexuals out there, wondering why they aren’t anything like the bisexuals they see in books and on TV.
And it’s for those girls that I’m here now. Write your characters, tell your story, be yourself. But please, on behalf of the evolution of human acceptance, ask yourself if it’s possible to include LGBTQ characters in your novel. Bisexuality, being gay, being transsexual, these aren’t new things. The number of LGBTQ people isn’t rising, it’s just that the number of people comfortable enough to admit it is. If we can support each other enough through our writing to keep that number rising, having a more true to reality ratio in the media will follow naturally.
Amy Lukavics is a YA writer represented by Joanna Volpe of Nancy Coffey Literary and Media Representation. Besides writing and reading, her other favorite activities include tearing it up on Xbox Live, cooking things that call for at least 4 cloves of garlic, and building pillow forts with her daughter Lily Mila. Gamertag: electric lola Twitter: @amylukavics Blog: hello, moon.
This post is a part of our reader submissions program. To find out how you can contribute to posts on the Gay YA, click here.
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.