A lot of people live in fear: fear of the written word. They don’t want their children to read Harry Potter because it might turn them into wizards. Brave New World was banned in Ireland, to prevent children from learning about sex. Leaves of Grass was banned in the United States for being too sensual. Dozens of books are banned around the world, even today, for being “immoral” or for containing “graphic depictions of sex.” Which, I get. I have five younger brothers, I used to be a daycare teacher. I know what it feels like to want to shield the “innocents” from potential harm. But pretending that my brothers are never going to have sex is not actually going to prevent them from having sex. And reading about being gay isn’t going to turn them gay, or into wizards.
But reading about being gay might make them feel less alone. It might help them be less confused.
If I had grown up as a young gay boy I might have seen myself in a lot of the characters I read. In 2002 I purchased Tithe by Holly Black at the Barnes & Noble in Boca Raton, Florida. The bookstore was right next to a movie theater, where I was supposed to meet my friends eventually. Instead I curled up into one of the oversized hotel-style armchairs B&N offered (these were the glory years before they got rid of all but their cafe seating) and read straight through Black’s first novel.
Tithe is still one of my favorite Young Adult books, and Black is still one of my favorite YA novelists. The romance is interesting, the female characters are cool and strong, and the supporting characters are complex. Especially Corny. Cornelius Stone is a super nerd, who happens to also be gay. This is revealed to Kaye (the main character) and the audience when he explains that he has a thing for Yaoi, japanese comics that feature pretty gay boys. I too had a thing for Yaoi. I too was a super nerd who hid in her room. I too already had a thing for love interests who treated me badly. Yet, I wasn’t a boy.
Even then, at the age of thirteen, snuggled into a cozy spot reading modern faerie tales, I had a pretty good idea that I didn’t just like boys the way my friends did. Reading about Corny thrilled me because I couldn’t talk to my friends about Yaoi, or thinking about girls, or being weird and lonely. My friends were cool, and I had to pretend to be cool. I didn’t yet know that owning your own sexuality was cool, because no one told me that. In books and movies the cool kids were straight and thin and pretty. I was possibly not straight and fat and still didn’t know how to dress myself. There were enough struggles going on that “coming out” seemed like one too many.
Before I had cool friends, before I pretended to be cool myself, and way before I realized I didn’t give a damn about being cool, I was reading another book that made me have fuzzy feelings about ladies. Alanna: The First Adventure came out way before I was born. My local library had a raggedy, much-loved copy in the children’s section and I brought home the whole set, one-by-one, and read them until I could quote them. Tamora Pierce’s books are about a young woman who disguises herself as a boy so that she can become a knight instead of having to learn to be ladylike and practice magic. These books are awesome. Do you have a young person in your life in need of reading material? Give these to them. (Except for Book #3 which suffers badly from white savior complex, just skip it! Read the other three. Pretend Alanna went on a long walk for the third book.) The books cover everything from love to regicide to birth control to friendship to menstruation to attempted rape.
From what I remember there aren’t any gay characters in these books. But reading about Alanna dressed as a dude, being wooed by dudes, was enough to bring the first flush of early arousal to my cheeks. As a child these were life changing books. I had started feeling sexual feelings, but was too embarrassed and confused and scared to talk to my family about it. I thought I was suffering from some bizarre fever-inducing disease. A disease that felt pretty good. The Alanna series helped me through this strange time without me having to endure overwhelming embarrassment.
It wasn’t until high school that I actually began to seek out characters like me. Somewhere there must be lesbians, right? Or, rather, “young teenage girls who think they’re bisexual and strongly confused about what that means.” But in those years I couldn’t find any. Instead I picked up Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan. There are a bunch of gay teenage boys and lots of romantic drama, and no lesbians. Again, I had to distort my vision to see myself in the story. This would not be my story, if I was in their world, I would think. Being a gay boy and being a whatever I was were not the same. As I got older I grew more frustrated with the lack of representation of gay women in the books I was reading.
I turned to romance novels, adult contemporary fiction, and memoirs to find what I was looking for. Sometimes it was helpful, and sometimes it was confusing. Let me try to explain this. Straight kids grow up in a context made for them. They see reflections of themselves all around them in society, and in their own families. Books, TV shows, movies, video games, comic books, advertisements, and magazines all readily explain, without having to be asked, what being straight is like. But being a not-straight lady? There was no bridge between my own queer young feelings and the graphic depictions of lesbian sex in the adult books I picked up. No cute and innocent scene in the latest blockbuster film of two young girls reaching for each other’s hands in the backseat of their parent’s van.
I needed to know how to stop writing bad poetry for the first girl I crushed on. I needed to see the geeky girl be swept off her feet by the captain of the girl’s soccer team. Instead I settled for whatever gay teenage boy characters I could find, it was closer to home than the straight romance of Sarah Dessen novels. Books clarified things for me, they were the wise sages I turned to in my times of need. But they were silent when I needed them most.
Times have changed. I went looking for a YA lesbian book to read recently and was met with so many options I had to do research to figure out which one I should buy. People are writing characters like me now, slowly more and more. This is important; there are thirteen-year-old girls who want to read about thirteen-year-old girl feelings about other girls, and not have to sneak to the Erotic Literature section to find adult versions of their feelings. There are thirteen-year-old girls scared and pretending to be cool and feeling horribly alone that need these stories. I still need these stories.