Friday, March 12, 2010

YA & Sexuality - Part III: Do Something

Once again, I want to thank everyone who's reading these posts and everyone who's commented and linked and tweeted.  When I decided to do these posts I knew I was going to have to be as open as possible and, for an introvert like me, that's a scary prospect.  But you all have been fantastic.  So, thank you.

In parts one and two I spent some time talking about my personal journey and how having good LGBT literature could have really helped me come to a better understanding of what being gay meant.  How it might have helped me stay sane and not feel lonely. 

In this last part I want to talk about some authors I admire, how they're including LGBT characters into their work, how I plan to contribute, and what you might be able to do.

As you've now guessed, having LGBT characters in books is ├╝ber important.  Kids and teens who are questioning their sexuality should be able to see themselves and their questions reflected in the characters they're bonding with through the pages of the books they love.  It's just like how different races, and geeks, and jocks, and every type of person under the sky should be represented.  The problem I have with a lot of LGBT literature of old is that it focuses on the pain.  I know that it's useful and important to show that pain and show that there's an other side to that pain, but the following authors are some who have moved beyond that portrayal onto something new. 

David Levithan -  The author of Boy Meets Boy and co-author of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, Levithan blew me away with his unabashed optimism.  I was first introduced to his work through N&N.  I was shocked to see this straight boy playing in a queer band.  I remember thinking that it was going to be way over the top and full of cheese.  But instead, he took all these characters--gay and straight and everything in between--and he put them in a blender and mixed them up until they were indistinguishable from one another.  Boy Meets Boy was even better.  Levithan's enthusiasm and optimism are downright inspiring. 

Malinda Lo - Through The Tenners, I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Lo prior to the publication of ASH.  Not only is she kind, but she's got a genuine talent for writing YA that I think LGBT teens are going to latch onto.  What I like about ASH is that it's NOT a lesbian retelling of a fairy tale.  I've read books like that and they always feel forced.  Lo's characters and their motivations are so natural, that I BELIEVE it when Ash falls in love with Kaisa. ASH isn't a book about being gay, and it's not a gay book, it's a beautiful fantasy that happens to have gay characters.

Emily Horner - A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend is a book you haven't read yet, but you're going to want to.  Seriously.  Horner weaves LGBT characters throughout her book so seamlessly.  There's no drama.  They're just there.  And they're awesome.  I wish I could talk more about it, but I don't want to spoil anything. 

More and more, authors are including LGBT characters in their books...and despite the popularity of the hilarious YouTube videos, they're not always playing the Sassy Gay Friend.  Just as in life, LGBT teens are football players and cheerleaders and drama geeks and debate geeks and that quiet kid who rarely speaks and that one kid in the back who never shuts up. 

When I started trying to write seriously at the end of high school and in college, I spent a lot of time writing coming out stories with tragic endings.  Then I moved onto triumphant love stories where being gay was the central theme.  When I returned to writing and tried to do it seriously, I made the conscious decision not to write any "gay" stories.  Like I've said, there still exists a need for stories about being gay, but I decided that I wanted to present worlds where LGBT characters just exist.  Sure, sometimes they come out, but it's no big deal.  There are gay characters and lesbian characters and straight characters and heteroflexible characters.  The theme is that their sexuality is not the central issue.

That's what I want to contribute because that's what I needed to see when I was a teen.  I needed to see LGBT characters for whom their LGBT status wasn't a big deal and wasn't the focus.  Sure, there are times when being gay will be important to the story, but most of the time, it won't.  I want to present stories where readers can look at any character and think:  he could be gay.

My favorite example of this is Dumbledore.  I know that a lot of people were up in arms about it, but I thought it was brilliant.  There were clues but it never came up because it wasn't important.  Rowling gave us all a gay hero of epic proportions and we didn't even know it!

I think there will be a time when this won't be an issue.  I wish I could say it would happen in my lifetime, but when I look at how whitewashed books still are, I know that including LGBT characters in books is going to be important for a long time. 

And we all have a part to play.  Readers can demand more books with LGBT characters.  Writers can include them in their books.  And it doesn't have to be some huge declarative thing.  But that wouldn't be so bad either.  I'd also like to see more books with LGBT protagonists where the story is about anything other than them being gay.  Would Harry Potter have been any less awesome if Harry had hooked up with one of Ron's brothers instead of Ron's sister?  Just like with color and race, the more representative characters are of the types of people that there are in the real world, the better they're going to be. 

The most important thing we can all do is be supportive.  If you know LGBT teens who are struggling, direct them to great books and other resources.  If you're a writer, write more diverse books.    If you're an editor or an agent, don't shy away from books with LGBT characters.  Buy them and promote the heck out of them.  There's a market for them.

I know that there are social issues and that there's a whole political war being waged over LGBT rights.  And I support the fighters.  But what I care about is that gay teens are still four times more likely to attempt suicide than normal teens.  FOUR!  They're still facing discrimination at school (a town recently cancelled a senior prom because two girls wanted to attend together), discrimination at home, discrimination in their churches.  Being a gay teen is better than it used to be but it's still hard.  We can't go door to door rescuing every LGBT teen in a bad situation but we can provide them with an escape.  We can show them that their situation isn't typical.  That their worst fears about being gay aren't true.  We can give them hope and a reason to live. 

Does that sound cheesy and melodramatic?  Probably.  But twelve years ago to this day I tried to kill myself, and one good, honest book could have made all the difference.  And one book could probably make the difference to loads of other teens too.  We just need to get them out there.

One last thing:  I'd love to start compiling a list of LGBT books for teens (and MG if there are any).  So please, in the comments, leave me a list of some of your favorites.  They can be any genre, new, old, whatever.  And if you have any questions, I'll do my best to answer them in the comments.  Thanks, y'all!


  1. The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare has gay and lesbian characters. Awesome books.

  2. Excellent post, Shaun! And I agree that there is a need to show all kinds of people, including lgbtq people, as multi-faceted human beings in books for teens and kids.

    Lee Wind has a fantastic website where he has a comprehensive list of lgbtq books for teens: books

    Also, check out ALA's Rainbow Books Project for annual best of lists of lgbtq books for teens and kids:

    You've hit on some of my favorites already. But a great one coming out soon is Will Grayson, Will Grayson, a terrific collaboration by John Green and David Levithan. I was lucky enough to get my hands on an arc, and it's a great read, with more to say about love and friendship than sexuality.

  3. I LOVED Ash! I would recommend anything by Alex Sanchez, Down to the Bone by Mayara Lazara Dole, Orphea Proud by Sharon Dennis Wyeth and Hero (which I haven't read but I've heard it's really good, GLBT superhero).

    as someone who promotes books about people of color, I completely understand what you're saying. Just like, I want to see more books where race isn't the main focus, it just so happens that the cast is diverse. So too, do I want to read more books where people are just GLBT and it's no big deal and it doesn't necessarily have to be all about the pain of coming out.

    I haven't read the rest of your posts yet but bravo for this one! I wil read parts 1&2.

    It makes my heart break that people are so cruel to those who are GLBT, I hear people say derogatroy words in reference to those who are GLBt far too often for my test and I'm working on speaking out agnainist it even more. I've told my friends that I don't want to hear them using those words, at least not around me. Ugh theose statistics you showed me made me SO MAD. And the sad thing is, they aren't suprising. When will people become more open minded and let people love who they want to love?

  4. Inked: A friend at work keeps trying to get me to read those...I'm going to have to take her up on it now :) Thank you!

    Emily: You are SO lucky! I can't wait to read it. And thanks for the websites. :)

    MissAttitude: I've heard a lot about Alex Sanchez, and I'll have to pick up the others. Thanks for the suggestions :) I love your points and I agree. Books should be more about people than about race or sexuality or any other characteristic over which people have no control. Thanks for dropping by :)

  5. Great third post, Shaun. I don't know you personally (we're both Upstartians) but this series of posts has truly made an impact on me.

    One of my best friends wrote the book THE WAY HE LIVED about a boy in a conservative town grappling with these issues. Actually, the story is told after the boy dies on a boy scout hike, and it's told from six different perspectives.

    That's not a very good description, but it's great. It's by Emily Wing Smith, and I highly recommend it.

    Can't wait to read more from you.

  6. Thanks so much for these posts, Shaun.

  7. While I've definitely read numerous books with lgbtq characters, the first that comes to mind for me is Geography Club, by Brent Hartinger. (

  8. Ash is in my pile, I just haven't gotten to it yet. I actually just bought Hero also. I'm looking forward to reading both of them.

    Someone mentioned Lee Wind. His blog, I'm Here, I'm Queer, What the Hell do I Read, reviews a lot of LGBT books.

  9. Thanks for the shout-out, Shaun!

    I think in a lot of ways LOVE STORY was the kind of book I needed to read when I was a teenager. Although I'm not gay, I was bewildered enough by the very idea of sexuality that I needed to hear that things were going to be okay however they turned out, and that I didn't have to be in a rush to figure things out. I think maybe everyone could stand to hear that.

    A couple years ago, in a bookstore, I saw two teen girls in head scarves and an awkward teen boy sitting on the floor and reading manga. The boy was reading "Gravitation," a gay love story, and I was startled by how much suburban North Carolina had changed in the years since I'd been to high school there. But there's still such a long way to go.

  10. I love this blog series! I've read and loved both ASH and A LOVE STORY (I got the ARC on the Tenner tour) and they should be high on the list. LIAR has a little bit of sexual ambiguity that is done nicely as well.

    My very first (not published) book has a gay uncle as the father-figure, but I always feel a bit odd writing gay characters as a straight gal - like I'm treading on other's territory. Just like I don't think I'd write from a first person, African American POV, I don't think I could do justice as a first person gay character (and apparently I can only write first person).

    It's up to you! Go write the books that you needed to read.

  11. Shaun,
    Thanks for this series of posts. Your honesty and motivation for writing are really powerful - and will make a difference!
    Just to share, I've been compiling a list of all the YA and Middle Grade books with GLBTQ characters and themes for the last two and a half years - it's at my blog, I'm Here. I'm Queer. What the Hell do I Read?.
    I look forward to reading your book!

  12. I read Boy Meets Boy last week and loved it so much, almost as much as Nick and Norah. I'm so looking forward to Naomi and Eli's No Kiss List.

    A few of my favourites right now are:

    Empress of the World - Sara Ryan
    The Mariposa Club - Rigoberto Gonzalez
    What they Always Tell Us - Martin Wilson
    Saints of Augustine - P E Ryan

    and I just went on a big GLBT YA book buying binge, which sort of just started out as me buying the follow up to the Sara Ryan book...but it's so easy to buy much more. I wish you'd had access to the wealth of books that are around now and I'm glad that literature is now able to provide a safe space for teens to examine sexuality and see that how they feel is ok. And do you reckon there will be some sort of gay boys own mystery series soon, because I'm desperate for someone to write one.

  13. I just finished a wonderful MG book called The Popularity Papers by Amy Ignatow. It was a very funny. I loved it.

    It features two best friends. One of the girls has two dads.

  14. Wow! So many great books. My reading wish list is getting out of control! Thank, everyone :) Keep 'em coming. In a week or two I'll compile a list to add to this post.

  15. Terrific post. I really liked Naomi and Ely's No Kiss List and also Jacqueline Woodson's (I love all her books) The House You Pass on the Way and From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun. Her writing is just beautiful, along with her themes.

  16. I just found these posts (I've been on a bit of an internet exile), and they are seriously AWESOME! Thank you so much for them!

    Off the top of my head I can't think of any othet GLBT books that haven't been mentioned (WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON; NICK & NORAHS INFINITE PLAYLIST; NAOMI & ELI'S NO KISS LIST; MORTAL INSTRUMENTS SERIES; ASH) I know I must have read more so if I remember I'll be sure to share:)

  17. Wow, 4 times as likely? That's just insane and really sad. Thanks for the great series, Shaun. I now have a bunch of new books to add to my reading list.

  18. I love Levithan and Cohen's Naomi and Ely's No Kiss List. That's a fun read.

    But one of my all-time favorites is James Howe's Totally Joe. Jim is visiting my school tomorrow and has agreed to an interview. I'm working on some fun and, I hope, profound questions for him. You can see my interview on my blog this weekend:

    And finally, Michael Harmon's Last Exit to Normal. The teenage protag isn't gay, but his dad is. This is a fabulous book!

    I'm hoping to add my own novels to the list soon. I have the first of three with my agent. I'm a sucker for love stories, so expect some serious passion!

  19. I've only read Ash but was definitely impressed by it! I can't wait to check all of these other books out, and yes, I tend to be turned off when a book featuring a GLBTQ character has that character's sexuality as their defining and only characteristic. I mean, I think those characters deserve a bit more.

  20. Shaun,

    I just finished Nick Burd's debut novel THE VAST FIELDS OF ORDINARY. It's a 2009 pub and is up for a Lammy award this month. I have to say, this is perhaps the BEST lgbtq book I've read. When I finished it, all I could think was, "Wow." It's a must read for all your fans here.

    Nick has agreed to an interview for my blog, so be sure and watch for it. In the meantime, you might be interested in my interview with James Howe:


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