If someone only knew when I was twelve years-old, I saw myself reflected for the first time in the characters of THE OUTSIDERS. If someone only knew how I hungered to see more of myself in the books I was reading. Where were the Mexican-American and mixed race kids? Where were the bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning kids? Where were the gender-fluid, tomboy, popular-geek kids?
Where were the kids like me?
The kids who grew up in homes that seemed solid from the street, whose lives behind pulled curtains and locked doors were a volatile and cruel place. Where self-harm became a coping mechanism. Where the struggle of being unseen, even when everyone was looking, felt paralyzing.
Where were the characters in books to reflect the challenges of my emerging sexual identity? To mirror a truth similar to mine while living in a town of 5,036 plus two stray dogs and a Pizza Hut. The restaurant we drove in circles around Friday nights after football games. Girls hanging out the back of truck beds. Guys cruising in their parents’ Buick or mini-van (the latter would never be cool).
Girls flirting with boys.
Boys flirting with girls.
I wanted to flirt with both, and often more with girls.
I flirted with boys on those Friday nights though because there were no books to show me it was okay to consider other. And I searched for other.
Cautiously, I combed the small stacks of broke back book spines in the public and school libraries. I could go on an adventure with THE HARDY BOYS (story way before my time) or discover the scientific reasons for Texas weather.
But ANNIE ON MY MIND would never be shelved in my hometown.
There were also no movies or television programs to mirror to me the possibility of other. The gay character on Dynasty was killed. Gay or lesbian films were nonexistent on the shelves of Video Arts & More.
A group of friends mocked a teacher named Mr. J (yeah, that’s not his real name) for being a “faggot.” That was my formal introduction to the word. Mr. J was highly effeminate and some kids said he was a child molester. He had never committed a crime against any child. He was gay. End of story.
Where were the books that gave depth and truth to a gay teacher? One who was normalized, not criminalized?
If someone only knew how hard it was to not feel complete because there were no stories like mine, then they would know why I am so passionate about stories of diversity. Why it is so necessary to have kids like all of us in books.
Kids who exist somewhere on the LGBTQ rainbow. Kids who are mixed race, black, Hmong, Native American. Kids who are Jewish, Catholic, agnostic. Kids who are having a human experience in a diverse world that isn’t always sweetness and apple pies. Sometimes their world is complicated by race and class. Sometimes it is complicated by religion and sexual orientation. Sometimes it is complicated by guns and fear and hate and things we can’t always fully understand.
This world is not an easy one.
This world is not an ugly one.
This world is a place for all kinds of kids’ stories.
If someone only knew that they weren’t alone in their struggle, maybe they would be more willing to share their own story.
And in sharing their story, might share a truth that could motivate and inspire others, which in turn might help ignite change. Maybe they’d talk about a moment when they were bullied, or were the bully, how a moment of clarity or kindness lifted them out of that place. Maybe they’d share what it was like to feel alone when a loved one died of cancer, only to discover that others shared and understood that experience. If someone only knew, maybe they’d reach out with their voice instead of writing a suicide note.
When we see ourselves in a piece of art, we recognize that we have a voice that can be heard.
When I reflect on growing up without books for a kid like me, I celebrate how fortunate young people are today. To be able to still be empowered by THE OUTSIDERS and A.S. King’s ASK THE PASSENGERS. Where kids can pick-up BEAUTIFUL MUSIC FOR UGLY CHILDREN and ANNIE ON MY MIND.
The library stacks continue to expand their shelves with LGBTQ books, giving young people unprecedented access to a world that closely matches their own. This is so important, because as author C.S. Lewis said: “We read to know we are not alone.”
And we do.
Reading is how we find our tribe and our truth. One book at a time.
Author, filmmaker and youth activist e.E. Charlton-Trujillo is the recipient of the American Library Association’s 2014 Stonewall Award for her third novel, FAT ANGIE. In 2013, she embarked on a self-funded book tour across the U.S. to empower at-risk youth via free writing workshops. The feature documentary At-Risk Summer chronicles this experience, showcasing inspiring stories from youth, educators and award-winning authors: A.S. King, Meg Medina, Laurie Halse Anderson, Kathy Erskine, Matt de La Peña, Ellen Hopkins, Pat Zietlow Miller and Michelle Embree. Continuing the empowerment of at-risk youth, Charlton-Trujillo and author C.G. Watson co-founded the non-profit Never Counted Out. Charlton-Trujillo’s fourth novel, WHEN WE WAS FIERCE, will be published in 2016 by Candlewick Press.
Never Counted Out Challenges American Teens:
The prompt If Someone Only Knew… featured in this blog is an example of a challenge that Charlton-Trujillo and NCO have extended to teens across America. Kids are encouraged to submit essays, photography, mini-graphic novels and more. If selected, the art will be published with a pen name for online and bound. They want to hear young people’s truths!
For additional information, visit: www.nevercountedout.com
At-Risk Summer Trailer: https://vimeo.com/96545142