“Why would I want to read a character about a gay teen when I’m not a gay teen?”
Why would I want to read about a boy wizard in England when I’m not a boy wizard in England?
Exactly. Because in the end, books are about the human experience, not the labels given to the characters that supposedly construct who they are and where they fit in.
Oh, how I hate labels.
Imagine my hatred every time I see the labels “Gay & Lesbian Young Adult Literature” or “Queer-Lit.” Why is a love story involving two teenage males or two tween girls any different than the typical male-female pairing? It would be ignorant to say that there are no more prejudices out there, because if there weren’t, there wouldn’t be a need to sub-categorize. I know that every book is sub-categorized, but the books with straight characters who fall for each other aren’t sub-labeled “Straight Fiction.” Labels are for those who can’t handle knowing about the entire human experience. And if we close ourselves off to learning about everything the human experience has to offer, we’re closing ourselves off to knowledge, to enlightenment, and we’re preventing ourselves from potentially discovering aspects of ourselves that we never even knew existed; gay characters are not gay. They are so much more than their sexuality. They are scared, they are powerful, they are timid and shy and outgoing and driven and want to achieve everything that straight characters can. They are simply characters.
The only difference? An added layer of vulnerability, uniqueness, struggle.
I digress. I want to highlight some really great YA titles, that just-so-happen to highlight gay protagonists, and discuss the pitfalls and advantages of writing gay characters.
The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd
Poignancy, grit, realism, rawness; labels I gravitate towards. I want to read a novel with a character that is raw and real and has an undeniably strong voice. That is what author – and fellow New School Writing for Children MFAer – Nick Burd has done with his debut novel, The Vast Fields of Ordinary.
Dade Hamilton, the novel’s main character, is in that in-between summer-before-college state of mind. His boyfriend is a jock who won’t publicly acknowledge him, and his parents are, um, well, not so happy. Dade’s current life perfectly captures that idea of feeling trapped in a “high school” sort of life. And then he meets a mysterious guy named Alex, and his world is turned upside-down. This book is about discovering love and the dangers and pitfalls and absolutely breathtaking journey of that process.
The writing is strong and quite and fluid. It’s poetic and inherently poetically sad. It’s almost dangerous.
One of my favorite moments in the book is somewhere around the middle, when Dade has a dance-around-the-subject-of-his-being-gay conversation about love with his father. It’s avoidant, yet decidedly self-aware. It’s raw and honest and sad.
I suddenly had the urge to tell him everything. I wanted to dump it all over his head like a bucket of cold water. I wanted to tell him about meeting Alex. I wanted to tell him about Pablo. I wanted to tell him about the nights I stared up at the ceiling fan and told it I was gay. I wanted to do all this to test him, to see if he really loved me. But then the urge lifted as suddenly as it had appeared, and I pulled all those things away from the precipice of telling and hid them away again.
“You know what I’ve always wanted to do?” he said. “Here. Hold this.”
At this point, his father jumps into their pool fully clothed and swims underwater. Dade looks on and remembers the times when his mother would call his father immature. Dade says, “Right then he reminded me of a child who broke rules simply for the sake of breaking them.” His father beckons him to jump in, to throw caution to the wind. His father has become a child, begging Dade to join him, to take a chance. But Dade doesn’t want to because he doesn’t think that’s the answer to anything. Dade narrates:
He shook his head, disappointed, and at that moment I wanted to be anyone else but who I was. I wanted to be the boy who would’ve jumped in.
Quiet, but powerful, The Vast Fields of Ordinary is anything but ordinary. It’s extraordinary in it’s subtle power.
HERO by Perry Moore
It took me months to track down a copy of Perry Moore’s Hero. I couldn’t even find a copy at The Strand in Union Square, which has BILLIONS of books. The one time I actually saw it on a shelf at the Union Square Barnes & Noble, the front cover was crinkled (a pet peeve of mine) and I had no money to spend. The second time I saw it, about a month later, I was in a Barnes & Noble in Poughkeepsie, browsing the Teen Literature section and my fingers happened to strum along the right shelf. There it was. And quicker than I could say “gay superhero,” I was at the checkout counter with my credit card ready to go.
Hero caught my attention a while back, when I was trying to track down teen lit about gay characters. When I saw that it was about a gay teen with super powers, I became obsessed with tracking it down. Who knew it would take me five months (I don’t believe in buying anything online, which would’ve shaved an absurd amount of time off my search), but when I finally found it, I couldn’t put it down.
It’s a slow burner, starting off with a bit too much back story, but I realized as I read that I couldn’t rush it. The relationships Moore was constructing needed time to simmer so when they boiled and bubbled and exploded, everything would resonate. What I responded to most was the struggle of gay protagonist, Thom Creed, and his balance of his private life with his family life and the life he wanted for himself. Even though Thom had super powers, he still wasn’t able to escape the “shame” that most gay teens face:
“My father won’t approve or understand,”
“I’ll be shamed and/or shunned,”
“my family will get shunned from society,”
“I’ll never have a normal life.”
This struggle is something that Moore balanced beautifully and struck an emotional chord with me.
Abandoned by his mother and living in his fathers shadows, who is one of the world’s most famous ex-superheroes (who was disgraced following his inability to save innocent lives during a horrible incident in the past), Thom is battling everything from being a social outcast to his own sexuality. As his powers start to develop, he has more secrets to keep from his father than just his attraction toward other guys. When he believes that his dad is about to find out about his sexuality, he runs away from home and right into a battle between a group of villains and The League, a group of superheroes fighting evil. When the leader of the group, Justice, witnesses Thom’s healing abilities, he extends an invitation for him to train with them. And so ensues an epic battle between Thom against his own hormones, sexuality, budding powers, and how to hide it all from his dad, who he believes will never understand. Hero also deals with issues of gay-bashing and bullying, which makes it extremely timely. One of the super-hero’s-in-training Thom trains with throughout the book, Ruth, whose abilities include seeing into the future, becomes a sort of “It Get’s Better” friend to Thom, and allows him to see that first glimpse of acceptance, that “it’s ok to be who you are.”
At the end of the day, Hero is more than just a book about a gay teen. It’s a book about being a teen in general. It’s a book that shows how hard it is to juggle school, family and the development of personal identity. It’s a book that shows us that to become the person you need to be, you might have to do things you don’t want to do and ruffle some feathers. It’s a book about the gray area between right and wrong. It’s a book about self-acceptance. It’s a book for adults and teens, boys and girls, straight and gay. It’s a book for comic book fans, and it’s a book for those who’ve never picked up a comic. It’s teen lit at its best.
This is more than just a “Gay YA” book, and really, it shouldn’t even have that label. Overall, it’s just a great book, with wonderfully written action scenes (which, in my experience and opinion, are frickin’ hard to do!), and a very relatable protagonist. Thom Creed is human, and his story is a part of the human experience. If you like action, this is a great book. If you like comic books and superheroes and have room for a brand new hero in your collection, this is a book for you. If you want to read about a slice of the human experience, then pick this up. If you want a book with social commentary about our society with a splash of super powers, try it out.
Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan
Another notable book is David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy. Fiction at its finest. I’d even venture so far as to say that Boy Meets Boy is more fictive than Hero. Why? Levithan’s story exists purely in an ideal world, an optimistic town where being gay is as normal as eating cereal for breakfast. Nobody bats an eyelash when two boys walk hand-in-hand down the street, and it’s only natural for them to go to the school dance together.
Still, for me, I found it hard to look past the idealistic setting and the sheer fabulousity in characters like Infinite Darlene, a drag queen and the star quarterback who demands to be referred to as a “she.” Alas, I kept reading. And boy was I glad that I did. One of the most remarkable characters in all of teen literature is Tony, the protagonist’s best friend. At one point in the novel, Tony is talking to Paul about his on-going struggle with his parents:
“I know you won’t understand this but they love me. It would be much easier if they didn’t. But in their own way, they love me. They honestly believe that if I don’t straighten out, I will lose my soul. It’s not just that they don’t want me kissing other guys – they think if I do it, I will be damned. Damned, Paul. And I know that doesn’t mean anything to you. It really doesn’t mean anything to me. To them, though, it’s everything.” (152)
He continues talking to Paul about the possibility of leaving and running away, then says:
“All I know is that I can’t just run off. They think being gay is going to mess up my whole life. I can’t prove them right, Paul. I have to prove them wrong. And the only way for me to prove them wrong is to try to be who I am and show them it’s not hurting me to be that way.”
His struggle is real, authentic, heart-wrenchingly accurate. As I read further, his character developed even more. When a friend of his parents outs him to his mom and dad, I found myself breathless. I was experiencing what Tony was going through in the power of Levithan’s words. Beneath the idealism in the backdrop, was a struggle so many are familiar with. It’s one that made the entire book worth reading. Levithan’s other titles are amazing as well, and to say he’s my favorite author would be an understatement. I had the pleasure of studying underneath him at The New School, taking two literature classes with him during the course of my master’s. I can’t WAIT to pick up his next title, Two Boys Kissing, which hits store shelves on August 27th. But in the meantime, while we’re all waiting, check out Love is the Higher Law (one of my all-time favorites), Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares, Will Grayson, Will Grayson, and his latest, Every Day (which I haven’t read yet, but I’ve had since Christmas — yay for being an unemployed teacher over the summer!).
There are a lot of ups and downs in writing a gay character, and a special care that normally wouldn’t be there. You have to be aware of the stereotypes and pitfalls of gay or lesbian character. In Levithan’s case, he took those stereotypes, the fierceness and the fabulousness of living a life out-loud-and-proud and rewrote them to fit his idyllic universe. As a result, he created a world where being exactly who you are, is exactly who you’re supposed to be. Moore’s character, Thom Creed, is a big “eff you” to the stereotypes: a straight-acting athlete with super powers. By all counts, he sounds like any other male teen out there. But therein lies the struggles of writing gay characters: How much is too much? What is believable? What will resonate? As writers, we’re committed to getting experiences right, to make them resonate, no matter how fantastical the circumstances.
It’s up to me, as a writer to get it right, to humanize the experience, to appeal not just to the “gay” audiences, but “straight” readers as well. It’s part of my job to tear down the labels, and WRITE.
We, as writers, must work on creating love stories as realistically as possible. We must treat the love as complex and with as much care as the love between a guy and a girl. That’s the only way to tear down the walls, to write gay characters fully and completely, with the same mastery and understanding of Levithan, Burd, and Moore. Isn’t the whole point of books to get us thinking, to broaden our horizons, to find something out there we relate to, to latch onto?
It’s about writing realistically.
What do you think? Are the labels still necessary? What YA novels do you think capture gay characters effectively, positively, and masterfully? What books would you suggest I add to my list? et involved in the conversation and let’s work together to tear down the labels. Every Monday, I’ll be posting about my favorite books. Want to see suggest a read for me? Hit the comments!