Two kick-ass authors (Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith) of young adult (YA) fiction have recently written an open letter about their experiences seeking publication for a novel they co-authored in which the main character just happens to be gay:
We are published authors who co-wrote a post-apocalyptic young adult novel. When we set out to find an agent for it, we expected to get some rejections. But we never expected to be offered representation … on the condition that we make a gay character straight, or cut him out altogether.
Our novel Stranger has five viewpoint characters; one, Yuki Nakamura, is gay and has a boyfriend. Yuki’s romance, like the heterosexual ones in the novel, involves nothing more explicit than kissing.
An agent from a major agency, one which represents a bestselling YA novel in the same genre as ours, called us.
The agent offered to sign us on the condition that we make the gay character straight, or else remove his viewpoint and all references to his sexual orientation.
Rachel replied, “Making a gay character straight is a line in the sand which I will not cross. That is a moral issue. I work with teenagers, and some of them are gay. They never get to read fantasy novels where people like them are the heroes, and that’s not right.”
The agent suggested that perhaps, if the book was very popular and sequels were demanded, Yuki could be revealed to be gay in later books, when readers were already invested in the series.
We knew this was a pie-in-the-sky offer – who knew if there would even be sequels? – and didn’t solve the moral issue. When you refuse to allow major characters in YA novels to be gay, you are telling gay teenagers that they are so utterly horrible that people like them can’t even be allowed to exist in fiction.
You can read the whole thing after the jump.
I was particularly pleased to see that the piece was not just a rant but an explicit call for change top-to-bottom in the industry (from writers to agents and publishers, to readers and reviewers). The authors’ point out how much teen literature continues to have white, hetero protagonists and ask how many of those characters have been whitened and straightened by the publishing industry afraid the book won’t sell. In order for this to change, they argue, readers need to convince publishers that they want books with more diverse, representative characters:
Please vote with your pocketbooks and blogs by buying, reading, reviewing, and asking libraries to buy existing YA fantasy/sf with LGBTQ protagonists or major characters. If those books succeed financially, more like them will be written, represented, and sold. Your reviews don’t have to be positive – any publicity is good publicity. Review on blogs, Amazon, Goodreads, anywhere you yourself read reviews.
As a number of folks (including the authors above) have pointed out, this goes beyond publishing queer fiction as a genre. It goes beyond throwing in a “gay best friend” so you can check that box and pat yourself on the back. As my friend Shoshana writes:
There are great (and not-so-great) works of “LGBT fiction” out there, and that’s awesome. But the mainstream needs to work on letting everybody in. YA needs more non-straight and not-sure-they’re-straight teens slaying dragons and worrying about their SATs. More kids in middle grade need to get grounded by their two moms, and yes, even kids in picture books need their wild flights of fancy to end in the comforting arms of both their dads. Whether you’re gay or straight, life is not all about sex, folks. It’s not even all about dating. Life is about all the things it’s about, and that’s true no matter whom you love, where you’re from, what you look like, whom you worship, what your abilities are, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
So in the spirit of recommending/promoting awesome youth literature that isn’t heterocentrist (etc.), please share your favorite YA reads in comments and write a little about why you think they rock. When you were a teen, did you read books featuring characters whom you identified with? What aspects of identity were particularly important for you to find in your fiction? Were there specific characters whom you may or may not have identified with but who widened your realm of possibility for building a life for yourself on your own terms?
I might chime in later in comments with some of my own favorites, but I thought I’d get down off the soapbox first and let y’all have the floor.