To Authors Writing Literature With LGBTQIA+ Characters,
Thank you. Thank you for writing books with characters that fall outside of society’s guidelines for acceptable.
Still. Still. Still, in our world, people are assumed straight until proven otherwise. It’s still unsafe in so many places–too many places–in the United States much less other countries all over the world to be not-straight and/or fall outside of gender stereotypes. Our culture still works within an assumed gender binary. We assume that people who do not fall into neat and tidy little boxes are deviations from the norm.
Imagine that. Imagine knowing that you are a ‘deviation from the norm’. You are a ‘deviation from the norm’ because you are attracted to people of the same sex. You are a ‘deviation from the norm’ because you are female but prefer to present yourself in a more androgynous fashion. You are a ‘deviation from the norm’ because you choose not to have a label. You are a ‘deviation from the norm’. It rings in your head with every step you take and you are hyper-aware of all your interactions because you desperately want to be normal. You want to be like your peers. You want to pass.
You want to pass for a number of reasons. You want to pass because it is not safe to be a ‘deviation from the norm’. You might never see an act of violence, but you understand this. It is written in your bones. You want to pass because it would be easier. And it’s not that you’re lazy. It’s that everything is so fucking hard when you’re a teenager, when you’re anyone!, that wouldn’t it be so much easier not to think about whether or not you’ll get the shit beaten out of you for holding your girlfriend or boyfriend’s hand walking down the street. That. It’s hard enough to walk the halls of a high school. You want to pass because you see it on the news. You see that Tyler Clementi jumped off a bridge because his roommate outed him on the internet. You see that a transgendered person commits suicide when a journalist fails to protect her identity. You see that kids as young as ten are attempting and/or successfully committing suicide because they are called queer. faggot. cocksucker on playgrounds, on hockey rinks, in hallways, in locker rooms, in the backs of school buses.
Make no mistake. We as a society have made tremendous strides in my lifetime in the realm of rights and protections for LGBTQIA+ communities all across the United States.
But as a good friend said to me last night, “Better does not mean good. It just means progress.”
When I was growing up in a small town outside of Philadelphia, I did not know a single out student in my high school. I did not know a single out teacher. The only interactions I had with gay people were a few of my parents’ friends I saw infrequently, watching episodes of Will & Grace (where I came away with the increasingly troubling feeling of dread that being gay was the punchline), and my memories of Matthew Shepard’s death being reported on the news. Being not-straight was never even an option. It wasn’t an option, even to me, as I understood that I was attracted to girls as often as I was attracted to guys.
Because it was dangerous. Because I was bullied enough for a hundred other things (including a classmate drawing a picture of me falling into a volcano and dying on a classroom chalkboard), that I was already so depressed and passively suicidal for most of high school, that I couldn’t imagine adding something else. I couldn’t imagine giving any of my peers more ammunition to make my life miserable.
And sexual orientation was, and continues to be, ammunition. Instead of being taken at face value, like being blue-eyed or having curly hair or being short or tall, it’s ammunition to too many people against too many people, especially adolescents against adolescents.
Not only was there a dearth of gay community being positively portrayed around me in high school, but the internet was only just taking off and there were no novels in my library for teens with gay characters. To have myself, and my struggle to find words to explain my feelings and identity, would have fundamentally changed my experience for the better.
It’s critically important that teens see themselves reflected in literature. Critically important in ways that we may never find the words and data to prove. We deserve to see ourselves reflected in literature in positive ways. The characters we read form us as much as our parents, our teachers, and our peers. I constantly refer back to Madeleine L’Engle’s Edwards Award speech where she says a few important things:
“[…]story helps us to understand and live creatively with change.”
“Often the only way to look clearly at this extraordinary universe is through fantasy, fairy tale, myth.”
[Madeleine L’engle, in her speech accepting the 1998 Margaret Edwards Award for Lifetime Achievement in Children’s Literature]
As I was writing this post, I was thinking back to the first time that I remembered reading a positive portrayal of a gay adult in a relationship. Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic series. Lark & Rosethorn. It’s never explicitly stated, to my memory, but I remember when it clicked and I went, “Oh. They’re in love. And their students don’t care. Their students love them just the same.” It was a revelation.
In the last five years especially, there’s been a boon of LGBTQIA+ characters in YA literature. I love it. I think it’s more than important. I think that writers who are writing queer* characters are saving lives. I think they’re normalizing something in schools and communities all over the country where kids who identify as any part of the queer identity still believe they are ‘deviations from the norm’.
When a queer character is a hero of his or her or their own story, the reader is empowered to be the hero of his, her, or their own story. When a queer character is able to successfully navigate the treacherous waters of coming out, or a first date, or breaking up, the reader is empowered to navigate the waters of their own relationships and their own identity. When a queer character’s story is simply a story that does not revolve around the character’s queerness, the reader is empowered to understand that the queerness is an aspect of one’s identity, not the entirety of how one’s story will play out.
Though more books are being written with queer characters, it remains a surprisingly and painfully short list. Malinda Lo keeps a great list (including amazing blogs and resources) of YA books with LGBT characters, including LGBT characters of color (here and here.) For resources on writing characters who are queer, please check out DiversifYA and Malinda Lo’s guide to avoiding LGBTQ stereotypes.
To finish this long post, to the authors and writers representing queer characters in literature, who are making queer teens everywhere, in towns and schools like where I grew up, heroes and heroines of their own stories, I quote the end of L’engle’s speech.
“You are very special lights in a frequently dark world, and we need you. Thank you, thank you.”
Definitions: I used LGBTQIA+ because the acronym for the ‘community’ continues to flux to include (and sadly, sometimes, exclude) people who have their own identifiers. I want to be as inclusive as possible.
* = I use queer as an all-encompassing term here.