The most common phrase uttered at Flame Con’s “Breaking the Rules of Teen Lit” panel was “And yet at the same time…” The panelists, all accomplished queer YA authors, got themselves into a contrarian competition. One panelist would state why their queer YA was important to them and another panelist would say the opposite, always prefaced with “And yet at the same time…”
Such is life for writing LGBTQ literature, much less ones for young readers. This is only natural—our community lies at the intersection of sexuality, identity, gender, religion, class, and race. There will be no one book to capture us all. “We don’t have a queer Harry Potter breakout hit yet,” said panelist Laurent Linn of Draw the Line. As much as I would love to see that happen, I can’t see how one could happen without it becoming contentious. Our community’s experience is too multi-varied; many queer experiences get left out.
Alison Cherry, author of the questioning coming-of-age novel Look Both Ways, may have the solution: “For example, write multiple bisexual characters. The more diverse your story is, the less your bi character has to stand for everyone.” Cherry went on to explain that a single bi character in a novel could put readers on guard. “If [the main character] ends up with a man, that could be read as experimenting. If she ends up with a woman, it could be bi erasure. If she ends up alone, that could send the message that bisexuality leads to loneliness. However, if there’s multiple bi characters in a story, there’s multiple outcomes for young readers.”
Same with trans characters, same with sexualities of minority races. Bil Wright, author of Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy, wrote his main character as Latino to capture the sometimes turbulent experience he saw with his gay Latino students. However, Michael Barakiva of One Man Guy (with an Armenian main character) countered that his partner is from Mexico and had a very smooth coming out process. Multiple experiences within the same novel could account for such differences, as well as (shockingly!) multiple novels in multiple genres with multiple tones. Many times something becomes problematic because it’s the only queer story to punch through and falsely appears to represent everyone.
The future of YA—not just queer YA—lies in these possibilities. Cherry said she wants her young readers to know that “‘Maybe’ and ‘I don’t know’ are acceptable answers.” Teens don’t have to have their lives figured out right away, nor do the characters they represent. There are many ways to be an LGBTQ teen, so let’s start showing them!