Pride! June isn’t Gay Tolerance Month, or Gay Awareness Month, or Gay History Month, or Gay Acceptance Month. It’s all about PRIDE in ourselves, in our partners, in our history, in our future, or maybe just in our new leather chaps.
YA literature hasn’t always reflected this sense of pride. Until the 1990s, nearly every book written about a gay teen was a typical problem novel. Each of these books features a teenager who fears s/he is gay; feels attracted to someone of the same sex; tries desperately to hide it; and then eventually accepts her/himself and comes out. Generally, life outside the closet is dangerous and scary, as parents, teachers, or peers may be angry or violent toward the teen.
For Pride Month, however, I encourage you to read outside of these scary coming-out stories. Yes, bullying, queer-bashing, and parents who just don’t understand are real problems today, as they have been throughout the twentieth century. But many teens today face far less of this than kids did even ten years ago. The generations before paved the way for today’s teens to not only feel pride in their queerness, but to show that pride, to celebrate it.
Fortunately, today we have some proud and passionate authors out there who are able to put this feeling in writing. Some of their characters are actually out and proud, while others are closeted due to their culture or era, but nonetheless demonstrate what it means to live a courageous queer life.
Candy Everybody Wants by Josh Kilmer-Purcell (2008) falls into a subgenre of queer YA that I call Big Gay Books: splashy, chaotic, happy, slangy novels narrated by protagonists who exemplify pride. Check out the silver cover and hot-pink lettering – this is one novel whose cover art is evocative of the content. Narrator Jayson is the kind of kid who writes scripts for a Dallas/Dynasty crossover (called Dallasty, naturally) and casts himself in the lead female role. He also finds himself in bizarre situations, like visiting his father’s house and being mistaken by guests as a new rent boy. A romp of a read.
My Invented Life by Lauren Bjorkman (2009) is equally dramatic but takes a different angle: an identity crisis with Shakespearean overtones. Roz has a lot going on: her sister Eva, might be gay, although Eva does have a boyfriend, Bryan, but he keeps flirting with Roz. Roz, in turn, flirts with Jonathan, who turns out to be actually gay. Then there’s Carmen, bitchy genius and surprisingly good theatrical director, and Nico, whom no one can quite figure out. Eyeliner Andie, who describes herself as “no-sexual,” rounds out the ensemble of teens putting on a production of As You Like It. The book tells the story of their complicated-to-the-point-of-farcical love lives as Roz pretends to be gay in order to find out if Eva is, and then has to figure out how to get a boyfriend despite pretending to like girls, and then has to deal with the possibility that she does indeed like girls. This is complicated by her role as Rosalind in the school play, for which she has to dress as a woman dressing like a man. Lots of fun on a lot of different levels from the literal to the postmodern.
A quieter book that nevertheless celebrates pride is John Green & David Levithan’s Will Grayson, Will Grayson (2010). Two teenage boys with identical names happen to meet in a porn store that neither of them planned to enter – really – and their lives begin to intertwine in interesting ways. One Will Grayson is straight with a proudly gay best friend; the other is gay and way into that friend. Funny, complicated, and brilliantly written. Also see Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy (2003), a sweet romance that takes place in a gaytopian world where the football quarterback is a drag queen.
It would be nice to see more books written from the perspective of trans characters. Jumpstart the World by Catherine Ryan Hyde (2010) is told instead by a straight girl confused about her feelings for a trans man. Hyde escapes the clichés of the genre by not allowing her trans character to be hurt or changed by the protagonist’s fear and self-doubt. Instead, trans Frank is proud to be who he is: a man.
Beautiful by Amy Reed (2009), on the other hand, is all about the chicks. Thirteen-year-old Cassie and Sarah are BFFs, serious partiers, and occasional lovers; they sleep with other characters of both genders, with no worrying about how this affects their identities. Is it because they’re really bisexual or because the drugs cause them not to care or notice? Cassie’s lack of self-awareness means she isn’t really proud in the sense I’ve been using it, but her perspective of sex as a behavior rather than an expression of self bodes well for her future as a bisexual woman. Let’s call Cassie pre-proud.
How Beautiful the Ordinary, edited by Michael Cart (2009), is a mixed bag of average stories and great ones. The best of the bunch is Jennifer Boylan’s “The Missing Person,” about a trans girl borrowing her sister’s clothes and sneaking out to the town parade in them. “It was the first time in my life I had ever felt the sun on my face as a girl,” says the narrator. “I felt like someone who had been released from jail, like someone who’d spent her whole life in a prison only to be unexpectedly paroled, at the age of fourteen, and set loose upon the world.” Damn.
Hidden Voices: The Orphan Musicians of Venice by Pat Lowery Collins (2009) is a refreshing take on unrequited love. The story is set in early-eighteenth-century Venice at the orphanage where Antonio Vivaldi trained young girls to sing. Anetta is our lesbo heroine – she has a huge crush on her friend Luisa that, of course, she can’t voice or even identify with, considering the era. She knows she has a yearning to be close to Luisa but can’t relate that to the sort of desires her friends have for boys. A sad, moving story with a fascinating historical backdrop.
Randa Jarrar’s A Map of Home (2009) is set in Kuwait during the invasion by Saddam Hussein. Nidali’s family — including an abusive father, a confused but loving mother, and a little brother she mainly ignores — moves first to Egypt and then to Texas. The war and politics are relegated to the background in this coming-of-age story in which Nidali never actually quite comes of age. It’s her attitude about her sex life that really makes her character shine. When she describes orgasm via the bathroom bidet, there is no confession in her tone (and her dismay upon moving to Texas and finding that American bathrooms lack this fixture is hilarious); she then experiments with her female friend because “I wanted to be the first one Jiji kissed instead of some slimy toad of a guy.” That’s a sex-positive teenager for you.
[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://www.diversityinya.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/060611daisyporter.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Daisy Porter is Manager of Innovation at San José Public Library, where she leads efforts at continuous improvement in user experience, staff empowerment, and reimagined environments. A lifelong reader, Daisy has been reading YA fiction since well before she was a young adult herself, and has reviewed it for VOYA and ALA’s GLBT Newsletter as well as on her own blog: daisyporter.org/queerya. She lives in San Jose with her fiance, two dogs, and two cats, and still reads at least 250 books per year.[/author_info] [/author]