The last time we were in an “LGBTQIA in YA” panel, we were at RWA (Romance Writers of America) and they were afraid to write “gay characters” (said in a whisper) into their books because of the conservative backlash. To my joy, the tenor of this panel was completely different.
Authors Zac Brewer, Cinda Williams Chima, Alexandra Duncan, and Shaun David Hutchinson and librarian Christopher Elliot manned the panel and were passionate about writing characters with whom LGBT+ youth can identify. The idea of gay protagonists in YA is a relatively recent concept. In fact, We Are the Ants author Hutchinson started his career writing heterosexual narrators for his novels because he didn’t think publishers would accept gay characters in mainstream YA. However, having grown up with literature where he couldn’t see himself within the pages, he felt it important to give future generations better visibility of LGBT+ characters. Eventually, they would like to see gay characters in books not categorized as LGBT+ fiction, but simply fiction.
They talk about how LGBT+ YA books are no longer becoming dominated by books whose sole focus is the character’s sexuality. We’re getting books where their sexuality is still a problem or a plot, but it’s not the entire book. Hutchinson commented at one point he uses the word “bacon” more often in one of his books than the word “gay,” so there wasn’t a neon sign hanging over his character’s head. Audience members and panelists alike commented on their wish for more genres with gay characters, including sci-fi/fantasy and historicals.
Underrepresentation became a prevailing undertone to the panel. One member of the audience put it well when she said LGBT+ fiction had become heavily dominated by capital G and capital L, the B and T were smaller and lowercase, while the rest of the acronym turned into … as it trickled off. Some great recommendations that came out of that discussion included Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith and Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz.
The panelists also discussed how important sexual education is for a population of teens who may not be getting that education at school or at home. Showing the emotions, awkwardness, and safety of sexual activity is just as important as showing teens choosing abstinence and should be reflected in YA fiction.
I’m looking forward to reading offerings from each of the authors on the panel. They were fascinating and engaging in their own unique ways.