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The Invisible Minority: LGBTQ Teens and Their Literature

2012 November 9
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I an unabashed fan of queer young adult literature. This is perhaps partly due to the first young adult novel I read in high school: Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger, a 2000 Printz Honor book, a 2000 Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers and a 2002 Popular Paperback for Young Adults. Even though I’m an adult who can no longer claim the “young” part, coming out stories and novels featuring characters who don’t fit the norm when it comes to their sexual or gender identities always make it to the top of my to-read list. I come back to these kinds of books again and again when looking for a good contemporary young adult read. My only problem? There’s simply not enough of them. When I saw the schedule for YALSA’s Young Adult Literature Symposium, I knew I had to attend the panel on LGBTQ teens and their literature and was excited to hear about upcoming releases in this category of young adult fiction.

Of all the young adult novels published in 2012, only 55 feature queer characters. Not bad, right? I mean, You could read one a week and still not get through them all. But in reality, that’s only 1.6% of the 3325 books published in the YA market, yet studies show that about 4% of teens identify as queer (which is probably a low estimate).

In the past, young people typically discovered their sexual and gender identity later in life, after high school, when they were living on their own. Now, research shows that most queer kids identify between the ages of 11 to 13, just as they are beginning to read young adult literature. Connecting these youth with literature that features characters they can identify with is of the utmost importance — especially in light of some troubling statistics:

  • 85% of queer youth report experiencing verbal harassment
  • 40% report experiencing physical assault
  • Youth who identify as queer have a higher rate of poor academic performance, absenteeism from school, and substance abuse

Statistics for transgendered youth are even more alarming:

  • 9 out of 10 transgendered youth report being verbally harassed
  • 5 out of 10 transgendered your report being physically assaulted
  • two-thirds of transgendered your report feeling unsafe
  • 45% of transgendered youth will attempt suicide

It isn’t just LGBTQ kids who can benefit from an increased awareness and acceptance of queer characters. Many youth are wrongly identified by peers as queer due to stereotypes, so support and education benefits everyone.

Likewise, it isn’t just other people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered who can serve as advocates for queer youth. Brian Katcher, author of the Stonewall Award-winning book Almost Perfect, is a man who identifies as straight and teaches computer classes and kindergarten in rural Missouri. This might not be the type of person you’d expect to write a story featuring a transgendered character, but when he sought to write his second novel, he was simply looking to tell a good story about young love persevering despite obstacles. The idea of a boy who falls in love with a transgendered girl without realizing it and the complications that can arise from that seemed to fit the bill. When he went to do research, he discovered it was a story that needed to be told. His presentation during the program was heart-warming, especially when he discussed how open his editor was to the idea of publishing a book that features a romantic storyline between a boy and a transgendered girl. As recently as last year, authors were claiming that agents and editors were making requests to “de-gay” the characters in their young adult novels.

Despite these setbacks, more queer characters are popping up in different types of young adult novels. While this year has seen excellent additions to traditional contemporary coming out stories, such as emily m. danforth’s debut The Miseducation of Cameron Post, more fantasy, science fiction, and historical novels featuring LGBTQ characters were also published.

  • Silhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin is set in 1926 and tells the story of a girl discovering the science of ornithology and love in an unexpected place.
  • Malinda Lo’s latest novel, Adaptation, is a science fiction thriller with a bisexual protagonist.
  • While queer issues are not at the center of Kristen Cashore’s Bitterblue, two supporting characters are gay.

In the history of LGBTQ young adult literature, it’s getting better. We wrote earlier this month about the next big thing in young adult literature: current trends point to a movement beyond gay and lesbian, to titles that push the boundaries of gender and sexual identities. Characters are more complex and nuanced and reflect a broader notion of what it means to be queer. Hopefully, this trend will continue, and we will see more diverse characters and stories within queer young adult literature in addition to a higher percentage of young adult literature overall including LGBTQ characters.

As promised, the panel gave us a peek at upcoming LGBTQ titles. You can find more booklists and additional resources at LGBT @ Your Library.

Here’s a list of 2013 releases to look forward to:

  • Teeth by Hannah Moskovitz, a gritty, romantic modern fairy tale
  • Sin Eater’s Confession by Ilsa Bick, a crime fiction story about the death of Jimmy, who was, you know… (description found at The Book Depository)
  • The Road to Her by K.E. Payne, a novel about actors in the first lesbian storyline in a UK soap whose romance blossoms off-screen
  • Winger  by Andrew Smith, a part-graphic novel about fitting in and what to do when your best friend likes boys more than girls
  • Dark Metropolis by Jacyln Dolamore, a dystopian novel featuring zombies and LGBTQ characters
  • The Culling by Steven dos Santos, another dystopian novel featuring a male-male romance
  • Made of Stars by Kelley York, a contemporary thriller

What LGBTQ young adult novels are your favorites and what 2013 titles that feature queer characters are you looking forward to?

— Molly Wetta, currently (finally!) reading Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor

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8 Responses
  1. November 9, 2012

    What a great article about a very important (and often overlooked) topic. We definitely need more books featuring LGBTQ characters and hopefully, this will help inspire more writers to rise to the challenge and not give up :-)

    Steven dos Santos
    Author of THE CULLING (Flux Books, March 2013)

  2. Lynette Constantinides permalink
    November 9, 2012

    I, too, am a fan of the LGBT genre (I booktalk it whenever I can get an interested audience) but I’m kind of amazed that you didn’t mention the giants in this field: Alex Sanchez, Julie Anne Peters, and David Levithan. There are other great authors exploring aspects of this field, but these three stand out in terms of both quantity and quality.

    Some of my favorites: [i] The Straight Road to Kylie[/i] by Nico Medina, [i]Hero[/i] by Perry Moore, [i]Getting It[/i] by Alex Sanchez, [i]Deliver Us from Evie[/i] by M.E. Kerr, [i]Will Grayson, Will Grayson[/i] by John Green and David Levithan, [i]Geography Club[/i] by Brent Hartinger, [i]Boy Meets Boy[/i] by Levithan, Sanchez’ [i]Rainbow Boys[/i] trilogy.

    Some of these are “coming-out stories”, but many have moved beyond that to explore other aspects of gay and straight life. Some of these, like [i]Kylie[/i], [i]Boy Meets Boy[/i] and[i] Will Grayson[/i], employ humor to great effect.

    Julie Anne Peters, who’s not afraid to confront the harsher side of life, dealt with the transgendered issue in [i]Luna[/i], lesbian dating abuse in [i]Rage[/i] and the breakup of a lesbian family (from the child’s persepective) in [i]Between Mom and Jo[/i].

    Next one I want to get to: [i]Boyfriends with Girlfriends[/i], Alex Sanchez’ latest. It seems to tackle a wide spectrum of sexualities, from gay to bi to questioning, and has ethnically diverse characters as well (which we don’t see much in this genre).

    • Molly Wetta permalink
      November 9, 2012

      Hi Lynette,

      I love Alex Sanchez, Julie Anne Peters, and who didn’t like Will Grayson, Will Grayson! As to why I didn’t mention them, this post was a recap of the panel on LGBTQ literature at YALSA’s YA literature Symposium, so the focus was on 2012 titles and upcoming 2013 releases. Thanks for listing your favorites!

  3. November 9, 2012

    Don’t forget about The Rainbow Project, put together during ALA Midwinter. A recommended bibliography of newly published GLBTQI books for youth birth through teens, it’s sponsored through GLBT-RT and SRRT. http://glbtrt.ala.org/rainbowbooks/

  4. Michelle permalink
    November 9, 2012

    What I like about your post, and what must have been discussed at the symposium, is that it’s not just about LGBTQ characters, but that there’s a focus on the genre, too. Like, instead of “here’s a book with gay teens”, it’s “here’s a dystopian with a bisexual protagonist”. Also that it’s not just “coming out” stories and realistic fiction, but there is sci-fi, fantasty, etc. with LGBTQ characters. I love that the YA lit world is adjusting in that fashion.

  5. Lauren Donovan permalink
    November 9, 2012

    Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan

  6. November 10, 2012

    I love this post so much, and am so thankful things are moving forward in terms of YA literature. Slowly, but still they are changing. I love that there is a growing movement towards YA literature in general. The nature of this post is one of the reasons I made sure the cast of my YA novel LIGHT OF THE MOON was diverse, both in race as well as in sexuality – in emotions and strengths. I love when a novel is more than one thing, so I focused on the diversity of both words and characters. Great post.

  7. Emily permalink
    November 28, 2012

    Nathan Kotecki’s debut supernatural YA novel, The Suburban Strange, is not explicitly a queer novel, but two (maybe three?) supporting characters are gay. Those two happen to be in the book’s most stable romantic relationship.

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