In Memory of Artie: Sexual Orientation in Young Adult Literature

Why do we read? T.S. Eliot offered three reasons: the pleasure of entertainment, the enjoyment of art, and the acquisition of wisdom. But when it comes to young adult literature, more particularly young adult readers, I would add two other factors for readable stories: one is, as Michael Cart terms it, “the shock of recognition,” the realization that there are others out there like you.  The second is fiction’s use as a life road map, or a shelf of social masks to try out and on, for teens to better understand the world they occupy. This is especially true for homosexual teens. In young adult literature, heterosexual teens have a lot of varied examples of how to live life successfully and unsuccessfully. Homosexual teens have . . . less than that. There were approximately 4,000 YA titles published in 2010. That same year, only eleven LGBT YA titles were published. That amounts to 0.2% of YA books. The numbers the following year weren’t much better, which means: Less than 1% of YA novels have LGBT characters.

Does young adult literature have the power to expand and shed light on the usually complicated lives of teenagers, particularly for those whose sexual orientation differs from relationships portrayed in over 99% of that literature?

First, consider the amount of bullying LGBT teens face. Gay and lesbian teens are two to three times as more likely to commit teen suicide than other youths. About thirty percent of all completed suicides have been related to sexual identity crisis. In a school setting, where most abuse and bullying of gay teens happens, discussion about sexual orientation can be brought into the classroom in the same way as any other multicultural issue: through literature, discussion, and writing.

Young adult literature—any literature really—has the power to elicit empathy, and meaning can be doubly heightened for a young reader when he/she reads (or doesn’t read) about themselves when their self-identity is considered the minority.  Fiction, particularly in novel form, is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life. There’s evidence that the brain treats interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters. Earlier this year, an article in the New York Times described recent neuroscience research that showed that reading enables us to better understand and empathize with other people. Dr. Keith Oatley, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, told the New York Times: “Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.”

Malindo Lo, YA writer and LGBT activist, has added: “For teens (or anyone, really) living in a real world where they’re unable to be themselves, or where they’re struggling to figure out who that self is at all, reading can be a wonderful way to imagine different possibilities. That’s why books can be so important to teens coming to terms with their sexual orientations, particularly if they’re not in environments that are supportive to them.” But are teens able to find these role-models they seek? There’s already a shortage of LGBT YA books, and from those, it’s still harder to find accurate, nonjudgmental, comprehensive information about homosexuality. It’s difficult for teens to find positive role models in fiction either written and published expressly for them or – if published for adults – relevant to them and to their lives.

The LBGT market is saturated with stereotypes and gay characters who are in various ways punished for their sexual orientation. Until the early 90’s, LGBT YA fiction was limited, and some of its pioneers like Annie on My Mind and I’ll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip were cultural shockwaves. Now, however, the subject matter is less taboo and it’s easier to find books written for children and young people that portray LGBT characters, from authors like Nancy Garden, Jacqueline Woodson, Julie Anne Peters, David LaRochelle, David Levithan, Ellen Wittlinger, Aidan Chambers, and Alex Sanchez. But even within this influx, there’s prejudice. As of 2011 50% of LGBT YA books were about boys (most of them white), with only 25% about girls, which is somewhat disheartening, considering the predominant readership of YA is female. The remaining 25% featured adult, transgender and undetermined protagonists.

The typical gay male is portrayed in one of three ways: fashionable and funny, and sometimes a bit camp; supposedly feminine, tending to like musical theatre and often described as weak and womanly; or the athlete, “butch,” with a muscular, fit body, and usually pretends to be heterosexual, which sometimes involves dating girls, in order to get along with his coach and teammates. The girls are similarly typecast and fall into two categories: the “butch dyke,” the sort of girl who often plays sports, might use a male name, probably has short hair, and not too concerned about fashion; the angry, humorless feminist, who might annoy or bore other characters with her mini-lectures about the patriarchy.

And what about Artie, a supporting character in Judy Blume’s 1975 novel Forever? Judy Blume is to be admired for her courage in depicting sex in such a frank way, but then there’s this brilliant teenage actor who fails to have sex with his girlfriend, Erica, who in turn tries to help him find out whether or not he’s gay. He also fails at killing himself, and his parents have him institutionalized—a sharp reminder that until 1973, only two years before Forever was published, the American Psychiatric Association continued to list homosexuality in its official Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders.

But are these reminders and agenda-filled novels really helping gay teens come to terms with their sexual identity? In making a character’s sexual identity his/her most defining trait, these authors are demeaning gay teens’ true value of self. In presenting teens with LGBT literature, the focus should be about gays in regard to community and culture, and not gay sex. Happily, more novels are emerging with deep, rounded, insightful characters . . . who happen to be gay, instead of a Gay Character whose life revolves around his/her sexual and romantic activity. Some, like Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat and Klein’s My Life As a Body, have begun to deproblematize the gayness of gay characters, but most focus on the larger social and personal implications of sexual identity.

Young adult readers need more good books that provide role models to homosexual teens and offers the knowledge that they’re not alone. And not just them—we, as a conglomerate reading mass—need more good books that that express gay sexuality in less emphasized terms, so that teens will feel they can be more than their sexual identity; more good books that also inform the minds and hearts of non-homosexual readers, helping them gain insight and empathy by shattering stereotypes and humanizing their LGBT peers. To ignore this literary market, to limit it, is an invitation to ignorance, which leads to fear, and as a consequence, demonizing instead of humanizing, which will continue to lead to violence and bullying—not only physically, but in a spiritual and emotional way as well. There is much to be gained by an increase of both quality and quantity of LGBT YA literature, regardless of your belief system. As one of Garden’s characters states in Annie on My Mind, “Don’t let ignorance win.”

2 thoughts on “In Memory of Artie: Sexual Orientation in Young Adult Literature

  1. Yes! (that is the answer that my heart and brain screamed out as you made your points in this post.)
    As a mother of young children, I was fortunate enough to find children’s books that describe the various families in existence, but I was at a loss when it came to YA that portray all different kinds of teens.
    As a teen, I stopped looking for characters who faced what I did because the books I found were either sexually inappropriate for me at that age or were more historically based when non-fiction was not my thing.
    Thank you for putting this out in the ether, McKelle. It appears that the awareness that this genre should evolve is out there, and is occuring. Perhaps as a result of this and other evolution, one day when I say I am married, the response won’t always be “oh, and what is your husband’s name?”

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