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Straightening out Gay Characters in Young Adult Books is Horrifying

Posted on the 25 September 2011 by Periscope @periscopepost

Straightening out gay characters in young adult books is horrifying

“YA Authors Asked to ‘Straighten’ Gay YA Characters” said the headline in The Guardian on 14th September. Reading that a (then unnamed) major literary agency in the US would only represent two well-respected authors “on the condition that [they] make the gay character straight, or else remove his viewpoint and all references to his sexual orientation” really shocked and horrified me. Malorie Blackman, in the same Guardian article, is quoted as asking the question, “Are we still not over this nonsense?” Well, aren’t we? And if not, then why not? We damned well should be.

Since the original article by Sherwood Smith and Rachel Manija Brown in the US, there has been much debate on the subject in the blogosphere and on the social networks. I am not gay (although I have many friends of both sexes who are), and I have not (so far) written a gay character in any of my books. What qualifies me to comment then? Well, I am a writer. By definition that means I can and do write about things well outside my own experience. The novel I have just finished is YA (Young Adult) fantasy, set in present-day London, but in my time I have written about pirates, dragons, fairies, mermaids, bears and a long list of mythical beasts and gods. I also write male teenage characters. I have no actual empirical experience of being any of these things, (although I live with a teenage son, which perhaps allows me to claim a little observational expertise in that area at least!). If, in my next YA book, one or more of my characters tells me they are gay, I will write their story too – and I’d like to be able to do it without a little nagging voice of censorship in the back of my head telling me that I shouldn’t, because ‘the market won’t buy it’.

The truth is that many teens are gay in varying ways – LGBTQ is the umbrella acronym. Many are confused by this and ashamed, hiding their true natures from their peers, their parents (and even themselves). Only this week there was a report on the teenage suicide of Jamey Rodemeyer in the US – bullied for being gay, who was told (and this is only one of many dreadful comments) that one of his peers “wouldn’t care if [he] died. So just do it. It would make everyone WAY more happier.” Jamey himself wrote just before he killed himself that “I always say how bullied I am, but no one listens. What do I have to do so people will listen to me?” Amongst a large number of teens, ‘gay’ is a perjorative word, and being gay is something to be mocked – despite the many PSHE lessons and talks on tolerance and diversity they will have had. However much we don’t like hearing this or don’t want it to be so, (and however much some of those teens’ opinions or attitudes may change, broaden, become more tolerant as they get older), this casually brutal attitude to gayness is an unpleasant fact of teen life. Another unpalatable fact is that gay teens are four times as likely to attempt to commit suicide as straight ones.

A casually brutal attitude to gayness is an unpleasant fact of teen life.

So what can we, as writers for young people, do about it, other than instilling tolerance in our own families? I’m not saying that a YA book, or even several books portraying strong main characters who happened to be gay, would have saved Jamey (although there is much evidence that positive role models and open discussion of things like rape and self-harm in YA help many kids to cope with their own situations). But what if there was a bestselling gay YA book as big as, say, Twilight? Would that change teenage opinions radically? Well–it might make a start on doing so – or at least open up the discussion, (though the ‘banned books’ brigade would no doubt be out in force to prevent that happening). This is going to be a long and hard-fought battle, and it will not be won easily.

So where could we begin to change attitudes in our readers? Well, for a start, we can and should lose the fear of writing a male character with a boyfriend, a female character who falls in love with another girl – or even a character who is attracted to both sexes. I am not in any way advocating writing about LGBTQ teens just for the sake of it, (and there will be some writers who don’t want to approach this subject for many and varied reasons) – but I am saying, for those who might: think about it, don’t discount it. If it comes naturally, if you can write your characters sensitively and appropriately, and if it adds something real and positive to your story, then go for it. Personally, I’d like my grandchildren to be born into a world where tolerance and acceptance of gays within YA literature (and in the wider world) is a given – as natural as being right- or left-handed. To quote Martin Luther King, “I have a dream…”, but I am only one person. To make that dream happen, we all – writers, agents, publishers – first of all have to create, produce and sell amazing, gripping, unputdownable stories for our readers which will break down the barriers of prejudice and intolerance. It is gradually and slowly (too gradually and too slowly–but that’s another story) happening with race in YA. It can happen with LGBTQ too, but only if we are all convinced of the importance of standing up and fighting to make it do so. I am. Are you?

This post appeared on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure

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