By E. M. Kokie
Radical launches tomorrow. It is the culmination of more than four years of hard work. Research about guns and the survivalist movement and what it is like to be a butch queer girl in such a hyper-masculine pocket of America. Multiple drafts of first kisses and first touches and deciphering friends from enemies. And now it is book-shaped and people are reading it. I’m thrilled and excited and anxious.
Part of what is making this launch season even more exciting is the amazing number of young adult novels featuring queer characters out this year, especially this fall. If you aren’t following the #FallLGBTQ hashtag on Twitter, go follow it that to learn about and help celebrate many exciting queer YA books out this fall.
2016 is seeing a bumper crop of queer young adult lit. There’s even another book about a butch queer girl! I love that like Radical, Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard also features a butch lesbian teen, figuring out what that means for how she sees herself, and how she navigates relationships and the world. So many queer books to love. And yet, we still need so many more.
In the last few years, I have heard and read so many people say LGBTQIAP+ YA needs to “move beyond” coming out stories and stories where the teen character struggles because they are queer. I bristle every time. Because here’s the thing, it may feel to the adult creators of queer books, or the adult teachers or librarians, or maybe even to the queer readers who have seen themselves in queer stories, that there are “enough” coming out stories and struggle narratives out there. That coming out and struggle stories have been “done” to death. I even get that some young readers are personally tired of the coming out and struggle stories. They are hungry for the humor and the light and the stories that aren’t about the character’s gender or sexual identity. But not all young queer teens live in comfortable and supportive communities. Until queer kids and teens don’t have to come out, until they are safe everywhere, we will still need stories about struggles and coming out.
Now, I completely agree that we need more than coming out and struggle stories. That we need much more balance in LGBTQIAP+ young adult literature. Of course we need more teen characters who are out and comfortable and supported and happy. More queer teen romances, especially funny, happy teen romances. And definitely more stories where the character’s sexual identity and gender identity or expression is not the focus of the story. When a funny or fluffy queer teen novel is treated as a rarity, we don’t have balance or parity in YA literature.
But today’s teens also need fresh, evolving coming out and struggle stories. Because they are still coming out. They are still struggling. The world has changed, and continues to change, some for the better and some not. But the kids and teens coming of age in this changing world need to see their stories – not a version of what their stories might have been eight or ten or fifteen years ago.
I still get letters and emails from kids who are struggling. Teens who are coming out to me because they aren’t safe to come out where they live. And you will notice I didn’t say that they don’t “feel” safe – there are still many places where it isn’t safe for a LGBTQIAP+ teen to come out. There are teens who are just trying to hold on. And of course they deserve happy stories as lights in the darkness. But they also need stories about the struggle, about coming out when it isn’t easy, so they are not alone where they are.
So when someone says we need to move beyond coming out stories or struggle stories, I always want to jump up and say, well, maybe you are ready to move on because your experiences feel well-represented, but there are too many queer teen identities who are barely represented in young adult literature. We need more stories of all flavors about queer teens of color. And poor queer teens. And many more stories about queer girls and genderqueer, genderfluid, and non-binary teens. More stories about asexual, bisexual, and pansexual teens. More stories about transgender teens, especially transgender boys. And many more stories about our truly questioning teens. And unless we are telling historical stories, those stories should reflect our world and be fresh, modern versions of these stories.
When we use LGBTQIAP+ to describe the literature for teens, it should mean that all of the letters are represented. Too often “LGBTQ” or “LGBTQIAP+” is used as a catchall when we are mostly talking about cis male gay characters, and, to a lesser extent, cis female lesbian characters. The other letters have meaning, too, and until they are all adequately represented in our literature for teens, then we won’t have “enough” of any kind of story.
I want more queer YA, of all kinds, of all flavors. And maybe the balance in coming years should tip to the light, the funny, the happy, the stories where the characters’ sexual identities and gender identities and expression are not plot points. Queer characters at the heart of horror stories and space odysseys and grand adventures and rom coms. But it comes from a place of privilege to say that “we” don’t “need” any more of any kind of queer book when there is so very much unexplored territory in YA. “We” not only still have room for stories that reflect the tough realities many queer teens still face, but many queer teens still have a very real need for fresh and modern versions of these stories.
E. M. Kokie is the author of Radical (Candlewick Press, 9/13/16), which explores family, identity, survival, and guns, not necessarily in that order. Her first novel, Personal Effects (Candlewick Press, 2012), was a YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults and Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults Top Ten, a Lambda Literary Award Finalist, and a 2013 IRA Young Adult Honor Book. She also contributed to the anthologies Things I’ll Never Say: Stories About Our Secret Selves (Candlewick Press, 2015) and Violent Ends (Simon Pulse, 2015). Visit her online at www.emkokie.com.
RADICAL is available for purchase.