Once Taboo, Gay Characters Are Taking Over YA Fiction
Photo by Léa Jones, courtesy of Stocksy
Gay characters remain a minority in television and film, but they have become a sensation in young adult fiction over the past seven years. Teenage readers have gobbled up books with titles like One Man Guy and Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda.
Queerness has always existed between the lines in novels about teenagers. Authors like Nancy Garden, Jacqueline Woodson, and Francesca Lia Block all highlighted gay undertones in their young heroes and heroines. In 2003, David Levithan—the author of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist and now the publisher and editorial director of Scholastic—ushered in a golden age of gay young adult (YA) fiction. His debut novel Boy Meets Boy told the classic boy-meets-girl love story, but with two boys. The book became a cult classic among both queer teens and adults, inspiring a new generation of YA authors. "It just showed me there was an openness to the YA LGBTQ world that was very flexible and cool," says gay YA author Jeffrey Self. Novelist Simon Curtis agrees: "[Levithan's] phenomenal. He's kind of like the fairy godfather [of gay YA]."
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Throughout the 2000s, publishers released more gay YA novels, but they remained controversial. "A book called Boy Meets Boy was easy to attack, since you didn't have to read it to know what it was about," Levithan says in an email. "And many people thought it would be easier to attack gay characters and gay books rather than gay people, thinking that books wouldn't fight back."
They began fighting back when Myspace started taking over teens' lives. "The first sign that readers were on board was the hundreds, if not thousands, of messages that other queer YA writers and I received," Levithan says. "Not just from queer teens, but from queer adults and straight adults and straight teens. Some were hearing their own voices on the page, and some were hearing queer voices for the first time through the page—reading can be its own quiet revolution. And we saw that."
The market continued responding in favor of gay YA fiction. While the LGBTQ-friendly sitcom Glee dominated TV in 2010, Levithan's novel Will Grayson, Will Grayson, co-authored with The Fault in Our Stars novelist John Green, hit the New York Times children'sbestseller list. It was a historic first for a YA book with a LGBTQ protagonist.
"It was an achievement," Levithan says, "but the bigger achievement was that nobody really cared."
Jeffrey Self saw the change in publishing. He built his career as a TV host and occasional actor, but Hollywood remained tepid towards gay performers and characters. Instead, he decided to pen a YA book, writing one on spec that revolved around a heterosexual character. His agent sent the book to publishers, but they passed.
Levithan, though, took an interest in Self's writing. Self recalls, "My editor, David, was like, 'I really want to work with you, but I don't think this is the book, and I want you to write something more gay-centric...' He was like, 'We're looking for more books that are about the gay experience but aren't necessarily about the coming out experience.'"
The result was Self's first published YA novel, Drag Teen. It's the story of a gay boy named JT. He hates his hometown in Florida. When his boyfriend, Seth, plans to attend college out of state, JT decides to escape Florida by traveling to New York and winning the Miss Drag Queen Teen competition.
I had this idea of a book that's about identity and finding your place within the gay community once you're out," Self says. "That's one step. The next step is looking around the room at a gay bar, and [thinking] I don't vibe with any of these people. Why are we supposed to all be friends just because we like other boys? That was where the seed of the book came from—and then I'm also obsessed with drag queens, so I was like, 'What's more about identity than anything? Drag.' So I put two and two together."
Curtis found similar support from gay editors and writers. In 2010, he released an album called 8Bit Heart. The children's novelist Michael Scott heard it and encouraged Curtis to write a book about an android looking for love. Curtis drafted 50 pages and wrote a series proposal for a gay sci-fi YA book called Boy Robot.At first, Simon & Schuster passed, but three years ago, they changed their mind. "There was a big shakeup, a big turnover there," Curtis recalls. "And it was like—after that, [editor Michael Strother] wrote me and asked me if I wanted to still pursue it at Simon & Schuster, and I said I would love to." This week, they published the book with the "It Gets Better" logo on the back after the nonprofit teamed up with Curtis to promote the book and LGBTQ causes.
Writers and editors take in the character's sexuality when deciding how the book's plot should proceed. Where movies often portray gay people as caricatures, YA has allowed writers to portray queer teens as different, in a good way. "I absolutely believe that love is love is love," Levithan says. "But I also believe some queer kids experience love in a different way because of their queerness. And that's worth showing, that it's a narrative and not the narrative." For his next book, Self plans to introduce gay characters who aren't aspirational.
"I wanted to make the protagonist and narrator as bitchy as I am within reason," Self explains. "Gay people are often mean—there's something fun about that. I hope to see more of that in the YA versions of gay. Go onto Twitter any day of the week: Half of gay Twitter is a bully. I'm a bully on Twitter sometimes. That's definitely something that needs to be written about, because it's something that exists and isn't going anywhere."
Self expects fans to love his new material. For the past year, he's been attending YA festivals—popular events that he didn't even know existed until he sold his book—and teens have flocked to him to talk about drag. "I was on a panel that was somehow about identity and sexuality and the audience was all Texas teenagers talking about gay stuff," he says. "The other thing with Drag Teen is teenagers are obsessed with RuPaul's Drag Race, so when I go to these book festivals that's all they want to talk about. I'm like, 'You know this book has nothing to do with RuPaul's Drag Race, but it talks a lot about the themes that operate in RuPaul's Drag Race.' There's this whole new generation that's obsessed with drag and they don't even have to go to a gay bar." Despite this, they love queer media and pay for books and festival admissions, pushing the market to produce books about LGBTQ lives.
"[Teenagers] expect [that] the book better be fucking [diverse]. It shouldn't be just straight white kids like how it has been for the past hundreds of years," says Curtis. "They are hungry for other stuff."
When I ask Levithan if the new crop of teenagers is different than previous generations in terms of openness to LGBTQ rights, he says, "A million times yes... Because it's their lives. It's hard to hate people you already love. They've learned by example, in life and in literature."