Identity in Queer Young-Adult Novels
In the university courses I teach on both children’s and queer literature I include a section on young adult novels that feature LGBTQ characters. While 50 or even 30 years ago this subject matter would have been unthinkable, now only a few of my more conservative colleagues seem disturbed and make impolite or impolitic comments. The students themselves often seem to relish the opportunity to discuss issues of gender and sexuality. A number of them blatantly confess their own queer identities or behaviours or same-sex crushes. Their classmates encourage and support them. This is, of course, great from the perspective of creating a liberal, accepting environment, but when it comes to the literature itself it seems there’s more cause for concern.
The following questions have all been asked in class:
“So maybe bisexuality is just an in-between stage.”
“Is asexuality real?”
“Should sadomasochism be included in books for young readers?”
“Gays can only be butch or femme.”
“Are transgender people mentally ill? After all, they need to be ‘cured’, right?”
This suggests that the messages readers get from these young-adult novels are rather limiting, especially when it comes to queer identity.
First, though, it’s worth pointing out that it’s great that these books exist. Not that long ago there were very few YA books with LGBTQ characters, and many of those books ended on a negative note: unhappy relationships, institutionalisation, suicide. Now, however, there has been something of an explosion of books written in English for children and young people that portray LGBTQ characters, and authors of such works include Nancy Garden, Jacqueline Woodson, Julie Anne Peters, David LaRochelle, David Levithan, Ellen Wittlinger, Aidan Chambers, and Alex Sanchez.
There is a question, though, as to whether these authors illuminate the themes. I won’t necessarily say that the writers should be LGBTQ themselves. In some cases, though, I wonder if that would actually be a benefit. Some of the messages tend to rely on stereotypes.
Characters in YA books can often seem more like caricatures than fully developed people. There are distinct types for gay male and female. As is typical of popular culture in general, many gay males are portrayed as fashionable and funny, and sometimes a bit camp. A typical example is Ely in Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn. Ely borrows Naomi’s clothes and always has the perfect one-liner or put-down. Another gay male type is the supposedly feminine boy or man. This kind of male tends to like musical theatre and is often described as weak and womanly. Examples include Michael in Esmé Raji Codell’s Vive La Paris, who enjoys cooking and singing, or the so-called “sissy” Bo in Julia Watts’ book Finding H.F.
A third distinct male type is the athlete. This boy is rather “butch”, with a muscular, fit body, and he usually pretends to be heterosexual, which sometimes involves dating girls, in order to get along with his coach and teammates. He is accepted due to his seeming strength and maleness. Once he comes out, however, there is usually a “shower scene”, where the boy is showering with his teammates after a match or practice, and he is bullied and/or the teammates make comments about how he is a pervert and is watching them and desiring them. Jason in Robin Reardon’s A Secret Edge, and Jason in the three Rainbow books by Alex Sanchez, follow this pattern. Both Jasons are star athletes and they shock people when they come out, because of the perception that “masculine” boys cannot be gay.
Similarly, the young lesbians tend to be typecast and fall into two main sorts. One is the “butch dyke”, the sort of girl who often plays sports, might use a male name, probably has short hair, and is not too concerned about fashion or style. Examples include the softball-playing Mike in Far from Xanadu by Julie Ann Peters, the tough, independent H.F. in Julia Watts’ Finding H.F., or Avery in The Bermudez Triangle by Maureen Johnston, who is called a “rough dyke” because she wears grungy clothes and little make-up.
The other type is the angry, humourless feminist. This girl often thinks seriously about heavy matters, the way Ellie in Gravity by Leanne Lieberman tries to understand Judaism so she can decide whether it is possible to be both gay and an Orthodox Jew. Another example of this type is Behiye in 2 Girls by Perihan Magden (although this was translated from Turkish by Brendan Freely, and should be viewed with a slightly different lens than an original English text). Behiye rants about fashion magazines and the way women are raised to serve men and to make themselves appealing to men. The feminist type can in many texts be labelled as the stereotypical man-hater and she might annoy or bore other characters with her mini-lectures about the patriarchy. In other words, then, as in the texts that feature gay males, the gay females have a narrow range of feelings, appearances, and traits.
When it comes to their sex lives, the lesbian and gay young adults continue to live up to the stereotypes. The men have quite a bit of sex, often with a number of different people, while the women are more hesitant and nervous and are more likely to engage in sexual activity with just one person.
Polyamorous gay men in YA novels include Ely Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn and Nelson in the three Rainbow books by Alex Sanchez, while monogamous lesbians include Annie and Liza in Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden, Ellie in Gravity by Leanne Lieberman, and Avery in The Bermudez Triangle by Maureen Johnston.
It’s no surprise that students repeat stereotypical comments about gays and lesbians – “So there’s always one ‘woman’ and one ‘man’ in the relationship, even if it’s two men or two women.” or “See, men just have to have more sex than women”). The books repeat the stereotypes they already know, and so a teacher’s lone voice protesting against that doesn’t make much of an impact.
The BTQ part of the spectrum is not well-served. There are gays and lesbians in young adult novels, but few bisexuals, transgenders, genderqueers, asexuals, or other queer types. Bisexual and transgender characters do feature to a certain extent, but not always in very positive ways. I found one main bisexual character, in Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan. Kyle is portrayed as unhappy because of having a divided sexuality. In this quote, he is talking to his ex-boyfriend:
“I’m so confused.”
“I still like girls.”
“And I also like guys.”
I touch his knee. “It doesn’t sound like you’re confused, then.”
“But I wanted to be one or the other. With you, I wanted just to like you. Then, after you, I wanted to just like the girls. But every time I’m with one, I think the other’s possible.”
“So you’re bisexual.”
Kyle’s face flushes. “I hate that word,” he tells me, slumping back in his chair. “It makes it sound like I’m divided.”
The book suggests that being “divided” is problematic and that bisexuality is an unwanted identity. Similarly, in The Year They Burned the Books by Nancy Garden, Jamie and Terry call themselves “maybe”s, because they are not certain about their sexuality yet. They talk about shades of meaning and “probably maybe”s or “maybe probably”s, but they do not see bisexuality as a possibility. The implication is that they must go one way or another.
This is the same situation in Pink by Lili Wilkinson. The main character, Ava, is out as a lesbian, but she secretly is interested in boys as well, and this causes a lot of heartache and bewilderment for her. Oddly enough, it’s not until the very end of the book that Ava even considers the possibility of bisexuality and she, like Kyle, Jamie, and Terry, seems to find the idea off-putting or worrying. She seems to think that since she’s out as gay, it would be going back in some way to call herself bisexual.
The portrayal of transgender characters is rather more mixed. Luna by Julie Ann Peters is about a transgender m2f, Liam, who wants to transition and become known as Luna. The story is told from the point of view of Regan, Luna’s younger sister, in first-person. In a way, the story is mostly about how Luna’s identity affects Regan; Liam/Luna comes across as self-involved and selfish (she routinely wakes her little sister up in the middle of the night to talk, to show off her latest outfits, to use her mirror/room, and she also causes trouble for her at her baby-sitting job, so Regan loses the job). In return, Regan seems to get little from the relationship. It gives a sense of transgender people as being egocentric and only interested in their own issues.
Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger does a much better job. Wittlinger’s novel is about an f2m, Grady, and is told from his perspective. This book is far more positive in that while Grady does encounter some difficulties, he is supported by his family (to the best of their ability) and also by one particular teacher. Wittlinger’s book focuses on Grady’s identity as a whole and not just on the gender aspect, which is no doubt why it is more successful. Nevertheless, in both of these books, the characters can only feel happy if they transition, and this gives readers the idea that transgender identity is problematic and can even be considered a sort of mental illness. The solution (or cure) to this illness is medical and psychological intervention.
Considering the way the LGBTQ characters in YA novels are often portrayed, it is fair to question the messages these books are sending about queer identity. Personally, I’m concerned about some of the negative issues discussed here, but I will continue to use the better young adult novels in class, and I will continue to recommend them to parents and young people who get in touch with me. I will do this while also being aware of their flaws. I hope that in the next few years, we’ll see a change and more writers from inside the LGBTQ community will write YA books about their own experiences. I hope these novels will feature a broader range of queer identities and queer feelings, because limiting the way we portray LGBTQ people in literature is potentially damaging to the next generation of queers.