As a young adult, I got involved in causes like Take Back The Night and the “No Blood for Oil” anti-war campaign during the first Persian Gulf War. This was before I came out as gay. Somehow, it was harder for me to apply progressive principles to my personal struggle. When I did come out, I knew that I wanted to make things better for young people growing up LGBT.
I mention that bit of background because my interests as a YA author overlap with my personal and professional interests in social justice. For two decades, I worked at a not-for-profit that led the way to suicide prevention and safer schools for LGBT youth. That work focused on the social and political aspects of equality. Meanwhile, I wrote fiction to nurture my creative soul. As I got more familiar with the publishing industry, I became interested in the issue of cultural equality, and joined social media actions like #YesGayYA and the annual Hop Against Homophobia and Transphobia.
I believe that YA and other media has a powerful impact on social change. When books portray LGBT teens fairly and accurately, public attitudes become more favorable, and LGBT youth gain status in their schools and families. Change happens in a reciprocal fashion as well. When LGBT youth win battles for equality, such as Constance McMillen’s courageous stand to take her girlfriend to prom at a Mississippi high school, the publishing industry becomes more interested in LGBT stories.
David Levithan’s 2013 release “Two Boys Kissing” is an interesting example of both forces at work. Inspired by a real life event – a young gay couple winning recognition by the Guinness Book of World records for the longest kiss, the book’s cover art portrayed same-sex affection quite graphically and appropriately, which shattered a long-time double standard regarding how YA depicts teen sexuality.
In the past decade or so, there have been tremendous advances for LGBT teens. Youth are being recognized by their peers as homecoming kings and queens, and even football captains like Massachusetts high school senior Corey Johnson. At the same time, LGBT-related TV shows, films and books have crossed the threshold into mainstream entertainment, vis-à-vis “Glee,” “Brokeback Mountain,” and Cassandra Clare’s “Mortal Instruments” series. It’s hard to disentangle one phenomenon from the other.
I think advancing political status and cultural status are both needed to achieve social justice. While it’s relatively easy to measure political progress, it’s more complex to define those terms culturally. Do we strive for a proportionate representation of LGBT characters in YA? Do we measure progress based on the number of books or the “quality” of the portrayal? Or should we be more concerned about increasing LGBT teens’ access to books that reflect their life experience?
In each of these regards, I believe there’s more work to be done. LGBTs comprise somewhere between one to ten percent of the population depending on what type of research you look at. YA author Malinda Lo recently surveyed YA titles over the last ten years. She found that about two percent of books that were traditionally-published last year featured LGBT main characters or even supporting characters. As Lo noted, considering the multitudes of YA titles published over previous years, last year’s output of LGBT books hardly remedies the need for better representation.
How well do those few literary portrayals reflect the LGBT teen community? There was a time when LGBT stories focused nearly entirely on broken, lonely young people who came to tragic ends. Today’s stories have changed, but advocates of LGBT YA still have lively conversations about whether there should be more books about teens who just happen to be LGBT rather than books that focus on personal struggles to come out. We also talk about the merit or detriment of effeminate gay male characters, “butch” lesbian heroines, and bisexual characters who are not fully realized as such. Most of us can agree that within our acronym, not all communities are treated equally. There are fewer transgender, bisexual and lesbian stories for young people than gay stories.
Digital publication, small presses, on-line booksellers and LGBT and ally YA librarians have profoundly increased young adults’ access to LGBT literature. Teens today can find LGBT YA in a variety of genres, including and beyond the familiar high school dramas or romances to include great stories in fantasy, sci fi, historical fiction and more.
I’m still waiting for an LGBT YA blockbuster that garners billboard ads, front house bookstore displays, and a movie franchise. Will we see a lesbian Hunger Games in the future? A transgender Percy Jackson series? I wouldn’t have believed so when I was growing up, but based on the remarkable progress we have made, I believe it is not just possible but inevitable now.