Monday, September 26, 2011

LGBT* YA

The #YesGayYA discussion captivated me for a couple of days while it was going on. As someone who thinks sexuality labels and boxes are pointless to begin with, I was, of course, like “heck yeah gay YA!” So when it came time for me to come up with a blogger’s choice post, I knew I wanted to write about it in some fashion. Then it occurred to me that a lot of people we were hearing from on the matter were adults. I wanted to know what the teens thought about it. They gave me some honest answers, full of things I never expected.

The bolded quotes are from the spies, and the bolded words head the ideas that came up most often while I was corresponding with them.

“A person's sexual preference doesn't define them completely.”

The spies noticed something in common amongst LGBT books: most of them are about relationships and sexuality. Which makes sense, because being confused about one’s sexuality is so scary and hard during teenage years, and it creates necessary and interesting subject matter. But as one very astute spy pointed out, people aren’t just made up of sexuality labels.

And she made me realize I was stuck in my expectations for LGBT literature. When I went to the library to check out books like KISSING KATE and KEEPING YOU A SECRET, I was looking for explorations of sexuality. What I wasn’t looking for (and shame on me for this) were books featuring gay main characters doing all the other things we see straight main characters doing in books.

I think a necessary next step for LGBT YA literature (one that authors like Malinda Lo are already tackling) is to take gay main characters outside of the box of struggling with sexuality or a relationship and let them flourish in all kinds of situations, like fantasy books, and dystopians, and high school comedies of manners. I think all kinds of books are necessary, and I would love to see the subject broadened. It might open up the genre to people who are unfamiliar with or uncertain about LGBT subjects, as well. If someone was a little less than comfortable with the idea of an explicitly physical gay romance (which one of our spies very delicately admitted to), having a book that focused on some other kind of plot might open up the genre to more people.

“It's boring to me when I'm reading only about a romance.”

YA seems really romance-heavy, doesn’t it? So imagine my surprise when a spy told me she did not like reading romances. Since LGBT books so often focus on relationships, she wasn’t as interested in reading them. And that’s something else I never considered—if a teen isn’t a fan of romance (and as I understand it, a lot of teen boys aren’t) then an LGBT book might not be something they’re likely to choose, just because of the probability of getting romance in the book.

It got me thinking about other kinds of books. How many action-packed dystopians are there with a gay main character? Or fantasy books with a gay princess? If a teen is looking for a non-contemporary read, they are far more unlikely to come across a book with an LGBT main character—or even side character. Teens who don’t want a romance, an ‘issue’ book, or a contemporary story probably aren’t very exposed to LGBT lit at all. While more and more books do include gay characters (like Alec from Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series), I don’t notice them nearly as much when I grab something from the genre sections.

“I have a friend who is gay and [his] parents don't accept that or know how to deal with it, [and without outside information] he would have no idea how to handle it.”

There’s a reason so many of the LGBT books are about sexuality—and a reason it's so needed as a subject, and this is it. Some teens don’t have other resources—they don’t have parents who would understand (or who would even allow them to still live in the house), they don’t go to a school where anyone is out, or they’re just uncertain and afraid and don’t want to talk about it. While one of our spies goes to a school that has lots of openly LGBT students, and, in fact, is a school that attracts gay or bi students, another spy said, “I don't know one openly LGTBQ person.” This is probably because, at her school, “it's ‘wrong’ to be gay/bi. We have a lot of homophobes.”

Books can be a great resource for teens who don’t have anywhere else to turn. The internet can be overwhelming, friends can seem too judgmental, but books can answer all kinds of questions. But even books can’t always be a safe haven. Some gay teens have to hide them from their parents. This about the same friend referenced in the bolded quote above: “if [his parents] knew he was checking something out about being gay...not good.”

Missing points of reference.

Many younger teens might not be comfortable reading about sexuality at all. Whether it's because there's no point of reference (not every town or school or home is open to or accepting of or even willing to acknowledge LGBT issues,) or because frank talk about sex can make people uncomfortable, sexuality (and it doesn't matter whose) isn't always the easiest subject to read about. And I don't think any sexuality (including straight) gets a particularly accurate portrayal in the media. Combine that with all the myriad factors that go into what a teen is or isn't exposed to and how much they might know about LGBT, and you have a really complicated mix—not every teen can handle the same subject matter.

The same spy who is bored by romance goes to a school where almost nobody is openly gay, and she said she feels that “the books seem too advanced for me.” She added that “Most people around me aren't gay, and if they are, they're in the closet." It's a missing point of reference, and it makes it hard for her to identify with the stories, sometimes. Another spy told me that "I have no real personal experience with the topic," and that makes it harder for her to connect to certain stories or certain characters.

I saw this as kind of a nasty wake-up call, and I'll tell you why. It's in the same vein as looking at Malinda Lo's stats on LGBT books. The issues just don't seem prevalent enough. There really aren't enough books representing diverse characters, (especially for kids who want to read genre fiction). It can be easy to forget, when you're interested in a topic like this and seek it out (like I have done) that diversity can be hard to come by. And for busy teens whose lives focus mostly on growing up and their own problems (as they should!), it can be hard to develop interest in something when they can't personally connect with an issue.

Girls vs. boys

Since I'm Fem Fatale and feminism is always on the brain, I had to ask the teens about something I’ve noticed: that there are way more gay male characters than females. They did notice that there were more books about boys than about girls. One spy suggested it could be that there are more female readers of YA, which opens up the opportunity for the “gay best friend” stereotype. Another said the lack of girl main characters “infuriates a lot of my friends and I have to agree. I'd like to see more of those books.”

Recommendations

If you’re looking for a book that features a gay protagonist in a fantasy world and a plot that has loss and adventure woven in with the exploration of sexuality, I highly recommend ASH by Malinda Lo. And if you are looking for a contemporary read, KISSING KATE by Lauren Myracle is a lovely, heart-wrenching and heart-warming book about a girl trying to discover who she really is.

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CAN’T GET ENOUGH OF TEEN OPINIONS ON CONTROVERSIAL SUBJECTS? COME BACK TOMORROW TO FIND OUT WHAT OUR SPIES SAID ABOUT BANNED BOOKS!

IF YOU WANT A CHANCE TO HAVE THE FIRST 250 WORDS OF YOUR MANUSCRIPT CRITIQUED BY THE SPIES, THE DEADLINE TO SUBMIT IS TOMORROW! GO HERE FOR DETAILS.


And, if you have anything to say to us (or me specifically) on this subject (which I didn't even come close to fully encompassing) that you may be uncomfortable posting as a comment, please don't hesitate to e-mail us at yaconfidential [at] gmail [dot] com.

A HUGE thanks to the teens for being so honest with me! We love them so much. :)

xox
Fem

*To include the Q or not to include the Q. I left it out because I feel that “queer” is too often used as an insult, and I know people who aren’t fans of the word. 

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