Where are all the gay books?

I can’t watch the “It Gets Better Campaign” videos without getting really emotional. I think because when I was 13 years old, I felt suicidal. I’m not sure how related to being gay this was. I had barely started considering the possibility that I might be at that point. Certainly I was teased a great deal, horrendously bullied. I was called into the principal’s office practically every other day because some girl had threatened to beat me up. And they didn’t always stop at threats.

But I think the “It gets better campaign” is really important not just for gay kids but for any number of kids, teens in particular, because they are basically trapped in whatever situation they’re in. There is very little hope that whatever their situation is–domestic abuse, school bullying, foster care–they will get out of it until they reach adulthood. And as kids, they usually don’t have the perspective that this is a horrible phase that they are living through and that it will pass.

I’m not sure why I didn’t kill myself as a teen, frankly. I’m fairly certain no one told me that it would get better, and I wonder, when I try to watch these videos, what it might have meant to me if someone had told me that?

Sometimes I think that’s one of the big reasons that literature for kids is so important. It provides perspective, it shows situations that are different from your own. It shows you kids getting out of their situations, it shows them being rescued–it shows that getting out is possible. Many books show that, in fact, it can get better.

If you are a trans teen, for example, trapped in a homophobic small town, books can be a lifeline, like those “it gets better” videos. They can show you that there are other kids like you, that there are other places where you could be more welcomed, that you can still find love, that you can still live a normal life.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this campaign. And inevitably I’ve started to wonder why I don’t write more “gay” books? Don’t I owe that to gay kids? I’ve been a self-proclaimed lesbian for almost ten years (since I was 19–you can do the math). Certainly this is an important part of who I am and was the source of a lot of teen confusion, bullying, and general identity formation issues. But out of 7 novels I’ve started, only one is a love story between two girls.

Why is that? Am I repressed or uneasy exploring gay issues? That’s probably part of it, honestly. But I was thinking about the “gay books” for teens that I’ve read and loved, and I realized that most of the books I would identify as blatantly “gay books”–Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden, Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger, Freak Show by James St. James–are all about characters who are either way more self-aware than I was as a teen or live in an area where different gender and sexual expressions are at least openly talked about.

My school district fired all the potentially gay teachers in the middle and high schools while I was going through high school. People didn’t talk about it. Or gayness. My family is mostly socially conservative. I only knew one gay boy and one bisexual boy in high school–certainly no girls, no lesbians, no trannies, and I only knew the few I knew because I was in the drama club. Add to that the fact that I had been abused, and I was just really confused about both sexuality and gender as a teen.

I’m not exactly sure where I’m going with this. It’s not a big, clear call to action. But I realized that one of the reasons I don’t write more “gay books” with teens doing big “gay things” is that I just wasn’t “gay” as a teen. I mean I was. I was pre-gay, maybe. I was confused. And I don’t think that’s uncommon. We can’t all grow up in Cambridge or have that one gay aunt who lets us in on the facts of life or be so innately certain that we’re really a boy in a girl’s body from birth that we’re ready to fight for ourselves in that way as a 16 year old.

Because in most parts of the country, homosexuality is not the norm, is not even one of the obvious options, and because our sexual identities take a long time to develop, and because abuse has a big affect on sexual and gender identity, and for just a lot of reasons, I think it takes a lot of us beyond the YA age to claim our gender/sexual identities.

I wonder if that’s one of the reasons there aren’t more great “gay” books for kids? To be an obviously gay book, the characters need to be expressing an alternative gender or sexual identity, but unless we’ve grown up in a relatively progressive area or are more self-aware than most teens normally are, we don’t actually get there while we’re still YA age.

A look back at my current WIP shows that it deals very much with gender and sexual uncertainty, confusion, and identity. But she loves boys–as I did as a teen. My MC, like me at that age, has no clear gender or sexual identity. She’s mostly confused. I think this is the big hallmark for most teens–period–and especially most gay teens.

So the question becomes: if we want to write more gay books for teens in order to help them understand themselves and know that “it gets better,” what new stories do we need to tell? This is not an idle question: GLBTQ teens have long been at the highest risk for both homelessness and suicide. So what can we do? Lambda Literary has a great list of YA books that tackle LGBT issues and suicide head on. This is a great start.

But I wonder if we don’t need to widen the definition of what we call a “gay” book into the arena of confused/questioning/asexual/unformed characters and then get these books into more kids hands, as well? And maybe widen the definition for, say, the Lambda Literary awards for children’s books, as well. And then provide more narratives about kids who aren’t either certain of their identities or who don’t come from relatively open-minded communities.

Not that I’m faulting the great gay books that are out there for being what they aren’t. They are great books. But I think it’s hard to write those other books for gay teens, and hard to spot them as gay books, and hard to get them into the hands of potentially gay teens, and even hard to spot the teens, sometimes, who might be future gays or be wrestling with these issues. It’s all very hard. This post probably doesn’t make much sense.

Maybe one of you will read this, and come up with the answer. Or an answer. If so, let me know. Or better yet, let me read your book.


Next Week’s Topic: Where are all the evil parents?


About pamwatts

Writer, Reader, and Children's advocate
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4 Responses to Where are all the gay books?

  1. Susan says:

    As the campaign says “it gets better”. You were born the year AIDS came to light, and that was the beginning of more talking and acceptance of gays (and the back lash). Change takes time, and it may not seem like much progress, but we have made some. I started to school during the first years of integration, and it took 40 years to elect a black president…when my generation with fewer prejudiced people finally out numbered the older more racist ones.

  2. Susan says:

    btw, you once told me you knew since you were 5 that you were gay, I think it was while you were in college. do you still think that?

    • pamwatts says:

      I think that it’s really complicated. Growing up, my friendships with girls ALWAYS had a romantic flavor. And girls/women frustrate and disturb me in a way that I can only describe as erotic. But I’ve loved many males in my life, and I’ve even wanted a few of them. So I’m not sure where that leaves my sexual orientation. Mostly I think it’s a pretty deep and confusing issue.

      • Susan says:

        Well, I like & love Pam no matter what she is from day to day. Just be yourself, don’t apologize, don’t feel guilty. More people will eventually learn to treat LGBT as they would anyone else. We are still working on getting rid of racism, so don’t give up and don’t get in a hurry. 🙂

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