Monday, March 8, 2010

YA & Sexuality - Part I: Full Disclosure

So I decided that I wanted to do a post about sexuality in YA.  It seems to me that it's something people don't talk about often enough (though there are some really great resources out there and loads of people doing great work).  And when they do, it's usually an either/or conversation (either there should be gay books or there should not). 

But I think the conversation about sexuality in books is bigger than that.  It's about inclusivity.  It's about creating literature that is representative of everyone  It's not just gay vs. straight or whether transgender or sexually ambiguous teen characters have a place in literature.  It's not even just about boys vs. girls and the stereotypes that surround the genders.  It's about that one kid thumbing through the YA books at a library in a small town, looking for some small ray of hope.  Looking for characters in a book that he or she can relate to and not feel so damn alone. 

The more I thought about this post, the more I realized that it was going to be long.  So I'm going to break it up into three pieces.

Part 1:  Full Disclosure.
Part 2:  Why This Matters.
Part 3:  What I'm Doing About it and What You Can Do.

Here goes:

The first time I thought I might be gay was when I stole a Playgirl from my job at Waldenbooks.  I was sixteen and only a little confused.  Stealing the mag was cake.  They kept them back behind the bank of registers.  After a long day of trying to sell people those useless membership cards, I took my time closing my register.  While the others were shelving books (a task I came to hate), I slipped the magazine under my shirt.  I remember sweating through the rest of my shift and being so happy when I got to my car and could take it out.  As a side note, I got fired for that incident.  Some loss prevention guy came in because someone (not me) had stolen an expensive Dungeon and Dragons book.  Five minutes under that dude's knowing gaze and I spilled my guilt-ridden guts on the floor at his feet. 

The confusing part was that while I did enjoy the Playgirl, I also enjoyed making out with my girlfriend.  Hormones are a funny thing.  I think that's what makes it so tough for teen guys.  I mean, if I'm being honest, at sixteen I could have been turned on by a brick wall.  I didn't spend too much time thinking about it. 

For almost the rest of my high school career, I continued dating girls in public, and dating my magazine in private.  And it wasn't even a strange dichotomy to me.  I actually liked the girls I dated.  I didn't talk to other guys about it, but I figured it was just something all guys did.  This was before the Internet was the wonderland of exploration it is now.  Back then, there was AOL and bulletin boards--neither were places a confused 16 should be trolling for existential truths.  But by the end of my senior year, I began to realize that I was different.  My older brother had already come out to the family.  He and I weren't particularly close growing up, so I wasn't able to talk to him.  What ended up happening was that my parents went out of town.  I spent the entire time watching bad movies and writing a play.  It was a terrible, terrible play, but one of the characters had to admit to his friends that he was gay.  When I finished the play, I was emotionally wrecked, but I realized that the character I'd written was me. The play was dramatic and angsty.  I practically drowned every word in melancholy. 

My actual coming out process was much less dramatic.  Slowly, I came out to friends.  I was one of the lucky ones.  Nothing bad happened.  My best friend had known for years, and my telling her only brought us closer together.  Other kids found out and none of them cared.  I was still the same kid I'd always been.  Some were shocked, some were not.  I only lost one friend in the whole deal and I honestly believe it had more to do with a natural growing apart than any real animosity.

It was about 9 more months before I told my parents.  I'm the sort of person who likes to figure things out, and I didn't want to tell my parents until I was 110% certain.  See, being gay was still an abstract idea to me.  I'd never dated a guy, never made out with one.  So, until I did, I knew I couldn't be completely certain.

When I did tell my parents, my mom cried because she really wanted grandkids, but she got over it quickly.  She had gay friends growing up and gay friends as an adult.  Now both of her sons were gay.  She dealt. 

Now that I knew, and knew for certain, I was faced with the daunting prospect of being gay.  What did that mean?  Up to that point I was a shy, bookish young man who excelled at slacking, debate, English, defying authority, and not doing drugs.  I didn't fit into the stereotype of what I believed a gay man was.  I was just me.  I wasn't fashionable, wasn't cool, read fantasy novels and philosophy, and listened to PJ Harvey and 10,000 Maniacs. 

Coming out was the easy part.  Figuring out what being gay meant was not. 

Check back on Wednesday for Part II.  I'll talk about why it's important to discuss sexuality in YA and how it could have saved me a week in a mental hospital.  


  1. Brilliant post, Shaun. I can't wait for the rest.

  2. Amazing post, Shaun. Such an important topic and thanks for your insight!

  3. Shaun, great post. Terrifically honest. I'm really interested to hear how the books you read in your late teens did or didn't address a range of sexualities -- and if that was a function of your seeking them or their availability in your hometown.

  4. What Cole Gibsen said.

  5. Thanks for sharing this, Shaun. I'd love to get your perspective on one of my characters (a bisexual teenage male): should I post a question here, or should I message you?

  6. Thanks everyone!

    Sandra: You can email me if you'd like :) shaundavidhutchinson at gmail dot com

  7. Wow. I'm looking forward to the rest of your series.

  8. Turned on by a brick wall.....I will giggle about that ALL DAY. Teenage boys are the best, man, they really are.

    I read a lot of YA, and for me, one of the best books to really tackle that sexual unknowingness that plagues us as kids - that mixture of loneliness and desire and longing and ambiguity and just general panties-on-fire-itis -is Ellen Kushner's book The Privilege of the Sword. I think that teens cope with an extraordinary amount of shaming thoughts for the omnivoratiousness typical of burgeoning sexuality. Sexual arousal and desire hits us like a ton of bricks and knocks us flat - and it's confusing and scary and needs to be explored in books better than it currently is. If, for no other reason, so teen readers feel less alone.

  9. I love the honesty, Shaun, and I can't wait for the rest of your series. Oh, yeah. What Cole said. :D

  10. Amazing post. I really admire you for your honesty and frankness. Sexuality is a topic that teens usually find difficult to open up about. I look forward to reading more. :)

  11. This series looks to be a good one and can't wait to read the rest. Its been a long time.

  12. Thank God you're writing about this. Bringing all types of sexuality to YA is something I wish more writers would address. I can't say it enough: thank you.

  13. Very nice post. I'm hoping lots of teens read this, as well as authors and friends.

  14. Thank you for the brave and honest post. Looking forward to reading next part.

  15. This comment has been removed by the author.

  16. Great post, Shaun. Your high school confusion sounds very much like my high school confusion - except without the larceny, and with a lot of internal "I must be a freak" thrown in that kept me stalled in confusion longer.

    My coming out came much later, when I finally figured out that my sexuality wasn't quite an either/or situation. And that I couldn't be happy, really, until I embraced who I was.

    Like you, ultimately, coming out was a positive process that made me closer to my family and to my true friends.

    And like you, I think the discussion about sexuality in books is about inclusivity, as well. :)

    I'll be heading over to read part two, and part three whenever you post it.

    Well done - not just well-written, but well-done. :)

  17. Nice series! I just found your blog from Christine Fonseca's sidebar. I usually post my favorite links of the week on Saturdays, and you'll be on the list for this week! Thank you! ;)


Keep it clean, keep it classy, and jokes are always appreciated.