Wednesday, March 10, 2010

YA & Sexuality - Part II: Why This Matters

First off, I want to thank everyone for the kind comments.  I'm not huge on getting into my personal life on this blog, but I think that in order to make my point, I have to be totally upfront.  So I appreciate how awesome you all are.

Now, on to why conversation about YA and Sexuality matters to me.

Like I mentioned in Part I, I finally realized I was gay--attracted to men--but there's a huge difference between being gay and BEING gay.

I didn't have a problem with the sexuality part of it.  I accepted pretty quickly that I was attracted to my own gender.  The part that was confusing and difficult for me to handle was what being gay actually meant.  My role models were few.  Because of a lack of LGBT representations in books/movies/television, I began to believe that in order for me to be gay, I had to become a stereotype.

Back then I believed that gay men were flamboyant (Nathan Lane in the Birdcage), obsessed with sex, addicted to drugs, only listened to bad dance remixes of worse pop songs, and shallow.  My step-father worked as a police officer and the only gays he saw were the ones he was arresting outside of park toilets.  I thought that you were either out, loud, and proud, or a doomed closet case.  I didn't want to be either.  I felt like an outsider.  And that was tough, because I'd always felt like I was on the outside.  When I came out, I assumed that I'd get my toaster and be welcomed into the gay community, a place where rainbows hung in the air 24-7.  But instead I was an outsider to outsiders.

It was a really lonely place.

I did my best to fit in.  I began making bad choices, compromising my moral code, and wearing a lot of stretchy shirts.  I traded my indie music cred for Jessica Simpson remixes.  I smoked and drank and experimented with drugs.  I managed to have some fun and meet a few genuinely great people, but at the end of the day, when I was home and didn't have anyone to impress, I knew I wasn't being me.

My sense of self was in the toilet.  I was cutting myself frequently and engaging in risky behavior (like wearing shiny shirts in public).  Years later my best friend wrote me a letter about how I was during that time.  She said that in me she'd found her outcast soulmate but that I'd become someone else.  Someone "cool" who smoked and went to clubs and had boyfriends.  I look back on that time and, while I may have looked cool on the outside, I was miserable and I hated my life.

The dichotomy between who I was and who I was trying to be was tearing me to shreds.  A couple of months before my twentieth birthday, I reached a breaking point.  I reasoned that if I couldn't stand being who I'd become, and I couldn't be accepted for the geek I knew I was, that I shouldn't be at all.

I took an entire bottle of Tylenol and called it a night.

Fifteen hours later I called 911 and was rushed to the hospital.  My parents were prepared for the worst.  The doctors were convinced I was going to need a new liver.  I'd waited far too long for the one Tylenol counteragent to be effective.  I don't know if it was hope of hopelessness, but they gave me the mucomyst anyway.

Any which way you slice it, I should have died.  But I didn't.  It was a tough week in ICU but slowly my liver enzymes returned to something approaching normal.  If I remember correctly, normal liver enzyme counts should be from like 5-50.  When I entered the ER, mine were in the thousands.  I'm not a believer in the scary Bible God who smites people and kills babies, but I can't deny that some miracle occurred.  And I'm thankful it did.

After I left the hospital, I voluntarily checked myself into a mental facility where I spent another week.  I'll be honest, I'd decided in the ICU that I didn't want to die, but I was far from cured.  I told those doctors in the mental facility what they wanted to hear.  It took me a few more years to learn that being gay didn't mean changing who I was.  I did stop the cutting and I never attempted suicide again, but my journey to understanding was years long.

These days I'm back to wearing t-shirts and jeans, being unfashionable, and listening to music I like.  I learned that sexuality is just a part of me, and not even a very important one.  It's a facet.  A blip.  When I die, my headstone isn't going to read:  Here rests Shaun, he was gay.  At least I hope that's not what it says.  I'm so much more than gay.  I'm a writer, a geek, a pet owner, a friend, a computer nerd, a decent skier, a terrible guitar player, an even worse painter, a fair singer, a son...

But I didn't know that then because I was never reflected in the literature I read.  LGBT youth were almost never represented in the literature I was reading, and when they were it was all doom and gloom.  I'm not pointing my accusing finger at books and blaming my suicide attempt on the lack of positive representations of LGBT, but I also am.

If writers like David Levithan had been writing when I was in high school, I might have been able to see that my limited view of sexuality was wrong.  I might have been able to see that being gay isn't a techno prison sentence.  Gay people DO listen to techno, but they also listen to country and rap and indie and classic rock.  Lesbians and gays and bisexuals and transgendered kids and straight kids--they're artists and football players and debaters and writers and Neil Patrick Harris.  Sexuality isn't a box, it's a key.

So being gay isn't a big deal.  I learned that.  But talking about it is.  Talking about sexuality in YA novels DOES matter.  Because maybe if I'd seen someone who looked like me, someone I could have related to in a book, I wouldn't have felt so damned alone.

We can't change the past but we can change the future.  We can keep the next kid--all the next kids--from feeling alone.

Come back on Friday for Part III where I'll talk about how other writers are tackling this issue, how I tackle it in my own work, and how you can help too.

************SPECIAL NOTE****************

Suicide sucks.  It's just not the answer.  If you or anyone you know is feeling suicidal, please talk to someone.  A friend, a parent, a priest, a teacher.  There are so many resources.  Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or check out the Suicide Help Line website


  1. Bravely honest and beautiful series of posts! I think by opening up about your experiences, you reassure us all that we aren't alone in our humanity. I'm proud to know you and look forward to the discussion of how the face of YA can become more diverse and representative of it's readers.

  2. This is awesome, Shaun. Thank you these posts. I am looking forward to reading the next installment!

  3. Again, wonderful! I'm going to link to these posts in my blog. What you're discussing is one of the most important subjects for YA lit. Thank you!

  4. I followed Andrea's link. I am impressed and awed by your honesty and insight. I hope many, many people read this.

  5. Very touching post, Shaun. As writers we draw so much on our personal experiences--the tragic and the sublime--and it's posts like this one that remind me, while I'm not gay, I certainly didn't see kids like me in the books I was reading. And when I did they were "lesson" books designed to condemn the actions of kids like me. The tide on this attitude is turning and we're the ones steering it.

  6. That's very brave of you to share your story. I'm glad you're here to share it! I also loved your line about sexuality being a key instead of a box.

    Books are a great source of knowledge, but there are other types of media (TV, movies, Internet) that can spread information and/or stereotypes too. Where are teens most likely to look for information? What happens if books show diverse types of sexuality but TV doesn't, for instance?

  7. Man, Shaun, I'm so glad you're still around, that you have some kind of super liver.

    Strange that GLBTs are put into such narrow boxes by non-GLBTs. (And it goes both ways; to a lot of gays, I'm a breeder, even though I won't be having kids.) A lot of GLBT folks do fit stereotype, though I wonder if that's because they had few role models growing up and the ones that were prominent were flamboyant. Which is fine, unless, like you said, flamboyance isn't your model.

    I would think the challenge in presenting well-rounded GLBT characters is to make them sound true to GLBT readers -- addressing common social/emotional conflicts, etc -- while giving them compelling conflicts outside their sexuality.

    I had a lot of friends in high school, mostly girls, who came out later. If I had to guess, I'd say they sought GLBT connections in adult literature. Would've made their lives easier if they could've found those connections in our school library.

  8. Great posts - looking forward to the next one.

    I think what is different now is that we're seeing books with gay characters that aren't ABOUT being gay. ASH by Malinda Lo is a great one (I dare anyone not to find it sexy and romantic). My kids elementary school has an out principal (who brings her wife and kids to all events) and a very strong LGBT parent group. Things are changing and it is because of people who went through what you did that the kids of tomorrow will hopefully have an easier time.


  9. Another brilliant post, Shaun. In high school, I experimented - played spin-the-bottle with a group of girls. When the entire school found out (the next day) we were ridiculed and shunned for being "lesbians". Really, I could have cared less, but it was a private school so we were made to feel that we, at least, should have FELT ashamed. Ugh. It breaks my heart to think that there are still kids out there who are confused, and rather than being able to talk about it, feel they should have to hide, or, like in your case, conform to some "ideal". Bravo for breaking the mold! Something that I hope to keep doing in my own writing.

  10. I loved these posts.

    You said it exactly: every kid needs to see a reflection of him/herself in the books they read.

    I always saw a reflection of myself, so I don't know what it's like not to have those connections. But I do know how important those connections were in my life, and how I would want the same touchstone available for every young reader.

    Now to put it in my writing...

  11. Rach: Aww, thanks :)

    Mindi: Friday will be the fun day!

    Andrea: Thanks for the link up! You're the best :)

    Tricia: Thank you, and me too. I hope people will recognize that gay characters are for more than just the fashionable best friend.

    Sarah: You're totally right. This can apply to people of color, different ethnicities, kids on the autism spectrum. There are so many kinds of people in the world, there's not reason not to represent them all.

    Sandra: Right on. Movies and TV too are guilty. I know people will laugh, but CAPRICA a show on the SYFY channel has such a non-judgmental view of sexuality. It's refreshing and doesn't pander to stereotypes.

    Shan: You're totally right. One of the things that bugged me about Will & Grace was that the straight female lead was portrayed as a needy woman in love with her gay best friend. Stereotypes go both ways.

    Cynthia: I loved ASH. So beautiful. Melinda Lo is awesome. And I agree with you about gay books not being about being gay, but I'll talk about that on Friday :)

    Cole: Thank you...I'm blushing here. That's a horrible thing, I'm sorry :( Being a teen is supposed to be about experimenting and trying on personalities, so it's sad when others try to beat their peers into conforming. I think it's a lack of confidence on their part. And you ARE breaking the mold. I expect I'll be hearing good news soon :)

  12. Found you thru my awesome crit partner, Andrea. These posts are really touching and totally necessary. I'm so glad you're sharing your story, tho I'm sure it's not easy. I have family members who have struggled in similar ways to you, so these posts mean a lot to me. Thanks so much for doing this series.

    And, I'm so glad you're not wearing shiny shirts anymore =) Can't wait to read your book.

  13. Fantastic post. Broadening the view of homosexuality in YA is important. Like you said, someone is gay but that's not all s/he is. It made me think of an author in a writing class my friend took. He submitted a short story--where the MC happened to be gay--to a lit magazine, and the editor wrote him a letter that said if the short story is not about coming out or what it's like being gay, then the MC needs to be straight. What kind of message is that sending? That the only times we're allowed to see gay characters in literature is if they're going through angst? With straight characters, the stories and books are not about them being straight. They just are. I look forward to the third installment.

  14. Shaun, brave and honest are never easy. Thank you for these posts. They are important. They are also brave and honest.

    Glad you and your liver are still here - and writing. :)

    People have a natural tendency to categorize and organize and analyze... so there's always going to this desire for labels and boxes and categories. And sometimes even self-imposed. But what I love about your posts is they remind that people are varied, and variable, regardless of sexuality, and that sexuality is only one facet of us. And that those things should be true of the fictional people we create, and we should look for them in the real life people we encounter. :)

    Thanks for having this discussion.


  15. Well, you do fantastic now talking about being gay. You're going to do great things for people, Shaun.

  16. Lisa: Thanks! My shiny shirts are safely hidden in a box in my closet :)

    Margie: I can't believe that! But if you head over to Justine Larblestier's blog, she had a guest post. It was a writer who wrote a fantasy book that featured a woman of color. Instead of being shelved with the other sci-fi/fantasy books, the bookstore shelved it with the African American books.

    Emily: You are AWESOME and I'm so glad we're agent-mates :) Go Crows!

    Laura: awww, thank you :) And I'm so glad to see how well ESCAPING THE TIGER is doing. You deserve all the success in the world :)

  17. you are my hero. I've been struggling with my bia-sexuality for many years now and have just recently admitted it. Being gay or bai-sexual is just a part of someone and it isn't something to be asshamed of. It should be embraced. As a writer myself, I totally understand how you feel. I'm not JUST a bai-sexual. I'm a writer, a fairytale lover, a tv addict, a nerd, a girl who laughs at everyones jokes. Being gay doesn't make a person. It's part of a person. There's a definate difference and I thank you for these posts.

  18. Thanks for such an honest post, Shaun. I'm glad you are alive and kicking and bringing these issues to everyone's attention. I really dislike stereotypes. Trying to categorize people always leaves someone alone on the outside. Great post!


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