It was David Levithan’s the Love is the Higher Law that started me, to what would be a reading of LGBTQ YA books. When I picked up Levithan’s book I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, mostly that it was about the aftermath of 9/11. I finished the book in one sitting and found it interesting and surprising. Levithan’s narrative engaged the mind, and the presence of gay characters was refreshing and unexpected. In my entire reading history I have visited countless bookstores and libraries and have methodically looked through each shelf of even the biggest bookstores and often any queer-related literature had erotica dangling at its tail. If not, it was most likely a non-fiction/documentary on homosexuality, AIDS, and discrimination. However, these too were a rarity in most bookstores or libraries, at least in the Philippines. To see a book such that of Levithan’s on the young adult section was a novel experience, and it was personally a welcome development in YA literature, as all books that give voice to the minority or the marginalized. However, not everyone has been as welcoming as I have been towards this progress.
Still there is a particular group of children whose worlds are seldom mirrored in the books…they are denied these rights as young readers by the influence of the majority who regard lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals and their relationship as morally wrong.
LGBTQ literature written for a younger audience (whether for teenagers or younger children), has been met with hesitation if not direct contention. The issues faced by And Tango Makes Three upon its publication in the US, and the National Library Board controversy in Singapore attest to this. The arguments have explored the age appropriateness of these books, the “values” it propagates, as well as the right of the minority to be represented.
Today’s post however isn’t about to add to that particular discussion. For GatheringBooks’ thoughts on this matter, you can check on Fats’ article (The Tie That Binds) here. My post today will explore the importance of LGBTQ literature and why its presence in our bookshelves matter.
It was in 2013 that I began my personal goal of including LGBTQ books into my reading list. I began with the most popular authors and most obvious of choices. I read all of David Levithan’s novels, followed by other authors such as AS King, Benjamin Alire-Saenz, Sarah Tregay, Julie Peters and recently Michael Barakiva. It was an interesting introduction to this world. While some narratives were still painful, majority of them are hopeful. At first it was an embarrassing exercise, purchasing these books and reading them. I didn’t know anyone else so involved with the literature, but I knew it was necessary. Books have always opened doors for me. It allowed me to vicariously understand people of all shapes and sizes. Being immersed in LGBTQ literature was an eye-opening education that made me arrive at several truths: LGBTQ individuals are no different from heterosexuals. We all ache. We all love and we all live our lives the best way we can. If there was one difference, it was that they were judged for who they are, more than those who fell into the so-called ‘norm.’ It is this realization that convinced me that LGBTQ literature matters. These books are important because 1) it reflects society, 2) brings comfort and voice, and 3) it allows discussion and compassion to develop.
Books and Society
Literary texts are expression of a culture and a significant way of embedding readers in those values and assumptions. Present in every text is the ideology–the body of ideas that control how we view the world and understand our place within—of the author, whose perspective are shaped and conditioned by their times (Nodelman, 1996).
Homosexuality, as history would tell us, is not some recent phenomenon. Some if not all of us had at one point in our lives have met a gay person. Our reaction towards a gay person in a personal, as well as social level has changed over the years. In the most recent years we have veered away from homosexuality as criminal, to homosexuality as a known secret—known but not spoken of. We treat it as novelty – something that feeds the rumor and humor mill of our day-to-day lives. We tolerate it, but we don’t talk about it.
Then books with LGBTQ themes and characters get published, books that aren’t the adult variety, the kind that can be read by our three-year-old or by our teenagers, and people get scared. We think of this literature as some kind of propaganda that teaches and exposes our children too early too soon to a sensitive topic. We treat it with great sensitivity as maybe our ancestors did when books about girls getting an education was scandalous. Yet, young adult literature has been written since the 1940s and 1950s, and since 1969, more than 1000 LGBT-related young adult novels have been published (in Smolkin & Young). What we fail to see is that all literature is a reflection of the time that it was written and published. It is a mirror of that period’s social concern. The LGBTQ literature of today isn’t subversive literature, nor is it propaganda. It is a reflection of today’s society and a historical artifact of the 21st century. It is necessary because it is true, that while in our small controlled worlds this may not exist, our young children, in their discovery of both the real world and its online equivalent will encounter people who belong to the LGBTQ community. Literature prepares and educates them about the world they live in, and since when has getting a good education been a bad idea?
Books and Loneliness
“It is a central tenet of discussion on multicultural children’s literature that all children deserve to have access to books in schools that are reflective of their cultures. Such books are seen as self-affirming mirrors for children of a given culture and as windows into other lives for children outside that given culture (Smoklin and Young, 2011)
Because literature is a reflection of society, it provides children and teenagers of varying cultural backgrounds to have a reference point to their lives.
When I was 10 years old, I fell in love with books. I was fairly new in my school. I didn’t fit in and I was going through a lot of family drama. I didn’t trust people and found more comfort in solitude. This was when I discovered the magic of libraries. I wasn’t much of a reader. Of the 5 siblings, I was the least competent in the English language and found learning it a tedious process. But the solitude I wanted made me walk through the shelves of our library; and as I looked through the books, I found myself enamored by Nancy, George and Beth. Female detectives out to do dangerous adventures seemed something up my alley. I devoured those books, found comfort in the idea of females actively pursuing life without fear of danger. Once I finished every single Nancy Drew book on our library’s shelf, I moved on to the Hardy Boys and eventually found myself exploring the other shelves in our library. I picked up the books that spoke to me, read them as if there was no tomorrow. These books became my confidants during the most difficult period of my life. They became my friends. I learned to be comfortable with who I am through books. I learned to pursue goals with books and I discovered my talents through books too. Without libraries, without books, I wouldn’t be here. It was, after all, books that took my mind away from thoughts of ending my life.
A 2005 National School Climate Survey reports that 33% of students surveyed responded that they have been harassed because of actual or perceived sexual orientation at school and nearly two thirds of surveyed students feel unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation (Koscow & Diaz, 2006)
As I was doing my masters in psychology I was given an opportunity to talk about bullying and technology. Cyberbullying was at the heart of the discussion and I began what would be a dreadful research on the various victims of cyberbullying. Majority of them were children/teens who were queer or suspected to be queer. They were too young to have left the world. These kids were tormented in school and online for being different. These kids were alone. They were in despair and all they could think of was to take their own lives. The increase in suicide rates among the LGBTQ teens inspired the campaign It Gets Better—wherein famous members of the LGBTQ community spoke of their stories and how they overcame their own individual challenges. It was inspiring. But it isn’t enough. There is a need to communicate this message in all forms of media—to provide companionship, comfort and hope to these youth in despair. As much as this campaign is important, so is the presence of LGBTQ YA books. In places not reached by these well-meaning ads and video campaigns, let the stories and words of these YA authors fill the gaps. We need more of these books in the YA section of our libraries and bookstores so that those who seek solitude in the quiet of the library may pick up this book and find a friend they can hang on to until it gets better. While this genre of YA literature speaks to the LGBTQ youth, the ideal is for YA LGBTQ literature to open the doors for compassion and understanding from others that there is no need to fear for ones safety.
Literature and Discussion
Silence is the oxygen of racism and bigotry. Silence allows the dominant assumption about the inferiority of the poor, women and persons of color to remain unchallenged (Herman-Wilmart, 2007)
Literature, to me, has always been a powerful means to communicate one’s activism. And many revolutions have been inspired by literature. Often, one book is all it takes to break the silence. I believe any form of literature is not written for a specific audience, but for every human being in search of truth and growth.
I do not feel that Levithan’s, King’s, Peters,’ Tregays’, Saenz’s and Barakiva’s books are written for the sole use of the LGBTQ audience. They do not only belong in the bookshelves of gay teens, rather they deserve space in everyone’s shelf. I have always believed that a true reader, reads not for mere entertainment, but for the breadth and depth of experience reading offers. No reader comes out of reading with not having grown in his/her perspective and understanding of the world. Whether we like it or not, it comes naturally. While there are other books that we might read for an LGBTQ fix, YA literature with these themes offer perspective on what it means to be a teen and growing through the process of coming out and building relationships. The portrayals in these books are also becoming less and less stereotypical, allowing the outsider to better understand the LGBTQ as more than just a construct, but a truly-lived experience. The age group that YA literature covers is a unique developmental period in its pursuit of identity, independence, and sexuality. It is filled with awkwardness, growing pains and angst. It is one of the most fragile phases in the development of a human being, and for some teens, these books could be their lifeline to sanity especially in a world that is filled with fear and so much hatred.
The YA literature on LGBTQ is not just about love stories or coming of age, some of them offer a challenging perspective and offer not just a present day portrayal of their lives, but the lives of teens coming from different generations, cultural backgrounds and varied societal contexts. Some are easy to read, others harder to swallow; but that is the beauty of these books, they offer a truth that is not so easy to accept. However, to the brave, to the true searcher of knowledge, they are necessary pills to swallow. They open our minds and allow us to bring to the forefront the discussion of the issues that affect the LGBTQ community whether or not you are part of it. In hope, these books challenge our own belief systems and foster in us an open mind and ultimately compassion for the minority.
The LGBTQ YA literature is a growing “genre.” Some titles, as some good readers would probably observe, are still stereotypical. However, as this genre grows and as more titles emerge, what we hope to find are more and more books touching the depths of the experience, and books that are no longer merely LGBTQ-themed but books seen as simply part of the human experience.
The presence of LGBTQ YA literature in our bookstores, libraries, and personal shelves is not an issue of promoting a certain kind of lifestyle or value/belief system. If this would be the case, then one could also rightfully argue that crime fiction promotes criminal activity and supernatural literature promotes witchcraft. This is an issue of providing voice to the silenced. It is about understanding the world, its nuances and how we can all grow as readers and as human beings.