There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the need to move beyond coming out stories in YA novels. To some extent, I disagree.
While I’m thrilled to see more YA and MG novels with lgbtq characters where the central plot is not a coming out story, I think there is still a very real need for coming out stories. But we don’t just need “coming out stories,” we need more contemporary and more relevant coming out stories.
Understandably, some of the people writing YA and MG novels are tapping into how it felt for them to be an adolescent, and may be missing the important and sometimes nuanced ways the experience is different for today’s LGBTQ kids and teens.
The process of coming out to one’s self and to one’s friends and family, and the larger world, remains a huge milestone for many adolescents. Of course some find the process overwhelmingly positive and affirming, but for many LGBTQ youth it is still a difficult, at times painful, world-altering, emotional rollercoaster. Many still struggle with if and how to come out, and face backlash when they do. But whether affirming or painful or a little bit of both, coming out, in whatever form, is an integral part of many adolescents’ coming of age – and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.
What has changed is the context in which contemporary adolescents are coming out. And it’s not just coming out stories that sometimes feel dated. Many novels with LGBTQ teen characters don’t accurately present the many subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which the world has changed, and continues to change. They ignore the presence of GSAs, LGBTQ people on TV and in magazines, out celebrities, LGBTQ issues discussed on mainstream news and talk shows, and the debate over gay marriage. They miss that – sometimes for better, sometimes for worse — an LGBTQ kid coming out today is not likely to be the first kid who’s come out at their school, or even the only out kid then attending that school. They miss that parents and peers are far more likely to question a teen’s sexuality or gender identity at an earlier age, meaning that adolescents are coming out to themselves and others at increasingly younger ages, often before they even get to high school. They often miss the double-edged sword of the Internet – free-flowing information and opportunities for LGBTQ kids to connect, versus the relentless, public, 24/7 attention of social media. They miss that the reactions from peers, parents, teachers, society, etc. may still be negative or painful for many kids, but they may be negative or painful in different ways than when the author was a teen. Sometimes today’s lgbtq teens have no way to escape, since those negative and painful reactions may follow them everywhere in the form of social media. LGBTQ teen characters grace the halls of prime time TV schools and very few middle schoolers don’t know a classmate who is out or whom they suspect might be LGBTQ.
We as writers need to keep writing YA and MG novels with LGBTQ characters — including, but not limited to, coming out stories – but we need to do our research and make sure the stories we are telling accurately reflect the world today’s LGBTQ adolescents face. Here are a few examples of novels for MG or YA audiences that get it right:
In AFTER TUPAC AND D FOSTER, Jacqueline Woodson deftly captures the book’s 1994-1996 Queens, New York setting, and its inhabitants’ varied comfort levels with homosexuality. The novel’s core focus is on the friendship among three girls, ages 11-13, but subplots examine issues of identity and belonging, and it includes an exceptionally well-done LGBTQ secondary character — Tash, the gay older brother of one of the girls. From the girls’ almost protective love of Tash to his mother’s discomfort with his flamboyance to the disapproval of some in the community and even the homophobic lyrics of the girls’ favorite rap artists, Woodson’s POV character makes astute and sometimes subtle observations that paint a very real picture of the societal views and the specific characters’ individual experiences with Tash’s homosexuality. And Woodson doesn’t shy away from allowing her young protagonist to feel embarrassment, anger, confusion and sadness, all in a novel that is not even close to a coming out story for secondary character Tash. It’s a study in how a well developed LGBTQ secondary character can allow for a meaningful examination of identity and belonging. And while the book is set in the mid-1990s, the world she has captured still feels like it exists in many areas today.
Many contemporary LGBTQ teens are out at school, organizing GSAs and active in sports and clubs and their school communities. Their existence, and their coming out experiences are not the gasp-shock-mourn events they might have been even ten years ago. Last year’s WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON, by John Green & David Levithan, embraces the modern, post-coming out world many LGBTQ teens live. Green & Levithan’s Tiny Cooper is very out and very proud. He is exploring his sexuality with gusto, as he does pretty much everything, including forming a GSA and writing a musical about his life. Green & Levithan’s world didn’t strike me as particularly unusual. It is one where coming out might still be an emotionally difficult and personal process, but the world you come out to is less likely to hold a grudge. Now, not every high school in the United States is as accepting as Tiny’s (just like not every family is as accepting as his), and not every teen has Tiny’s self confidence and size advantage, but Tiny’s largely accepting post-coming out world is becoming more and more common, and Green and Levithan do a terrific job of showing how accepting some modern communities can be.
Of course, many contemporary LGBTQ kids still face ostracism, bullying and even violence. Many U.S. high schools and junior highs have GSAs, and a growing number of middle schools have anti-bullying initiatives that include sexual orientation and gender identity. But even those schools that don’t have a GSA have heard of the concept. It won’t be uncommon, except in the most conservative of communities, for teens to know LGBTQ adults, have LGBTQ teachers and administrators, and to know other LGBTQ kids. And books that treat the LGBTQ character as an anomaly, the first of his or her kind in this school, have got to work hard to show why. Two books that effectively pull off a less enlightened school environment are 2007’s FREAK SHOW by James St. James and this year’s SISTER MISCHIEF, by Laura Goode. Both schools are in what are described as more conservative communities. Both lack established GSAs and the trained, supportive faculty that already exist in many contemporary schools. But both still read as contemporary and realistic because the authors demonstrate through their characters the expectation that the teens should expect more form their schools. And both authors do so without a heavy-handed message and with a very real nod to the reality that many, many kids still walk every day through hostile school hallways.
In FREAK SHOW, the protagonist, Billy Bloom, is not only gay but what he describes as GenderObscurist – in his own words, a “Twinkle Queen.” His flamboyance makes him the target of horrendous bullying that’s ignored by the faculty, until Billy decides to challenge his classmates with an over-the-top, in your face drag ensemble. He ends up hospitalized after a group of classmates attack him. The way the teachers (especially one in particular) look the other way to ignore the taunts and threats by the school’s power jocks may strike some as a little dated. But against the background painted by St. James, and Billy’s simultaneous flamboyance and belief he can change his world for the better, the story retains its relevance. After all, we continue to hear that teachers and administrators in too many contemporary schools continue to look the other way in the face of bullying and threats to LGBTQ youth, and with the conservative context of Billy’s school, and with St. James’ modern voice, it’s believable.
Another example — even more contemporary, perhaps — of the less than enlightened school, is Laura Goode’s SISTER MISCHIEF. Again, this is a school described as existing in a conservative, Christian community. This time with an administration fighting the protagonist’s efforts to start a GSA – and not just any GSA, but a hip-hop GSA designed to challenge the school’s official ban of hip-hop and unofficial hostility toward LGBTQ students. Goode’s main character, Esme Rockett, aka MC Ferocious, is a “Jewish lesbian lyricist” in an all girl hip-hop crew. While SISTER MISCHIEF is in many ways a coming out story, it is a thoroughly modern one, with a character comfortable with herself, if not her environment. Esme’s self-awareness and self-acceptance, even in the face of confusing relationships and reactions, keep SISTER MISCHIEF from feeling like “just another coming out story.” And Goode does an excellent job of showing the juxtaposition of a more conservative school environment in our less conservative overall world of social media and information overload. Especially contemporary are Esme’s friends’ and family’s reactions, and the overall lack of angst her coming out draws once the initial wave of reaction passes. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a huge nod to the need for more YA and MG books with lesbian and bisexual female characters.
Finally, it is worth mentioning this year’s WITH OR WITHOUT YOU, by Brian Farrey. Many would not call this a coming out story at all because the main character is already out as a gay man when the book begins. But within the context of this discussion, WITH OR WITHOUT YOU serves as a great reminder that coming out and coming of age rarely involve a single line to be crossed. There are layers to coming out and layers to coming of age, and WITH OR WITHOUT YOU tackles several layers of each milestone with a distinctly modern sensibility. It also explores a decidedly “now” counter-culture subset of LGBTQ kids — one some people will be uncomfortable to experience. Finally, Farrey pulls no punches in exploring two interesting ideas: first, that the hardest aspects to coming of age can be internal; and, that lgbtq kids can, by their very existence and by their experiences, be especially vulnerable, and that sometimes danger lurks within the gay community itself.
There are, of course, other YA and MG novels that “get it right,” that explore the real and contemporary issues facing lgbtq teens in relevant ways. We need to keep writing those stories – whether as coming out stories, post-coming out stories, out and proud or out and a mess, and those having nothing at all whatsoever to do with lgbtq issues, except for including compelling LGBTQ characters through whose eyes readers can experience the world.