As a Lesbian, I Resent Your Laughter, and All Laughter: Why are YA Lesbian Novels So Serious?
The funny thing about being a lesbian is that there is apparently nothing funny about being a lesbian. Or at least, being a lesbian character in a television show, movie, or book somehow rids you of any semblance of joy, humor, or irony. When I was a teenager, I was full of even more delightful snark and biting commentary than I am now, but I was also just discovering my own sexuality, and I was looking for characters that might reflect me in popular media.
What I got were a whole bunch of after school specials. Some of these after school specials were important and well-written, but they were after school specials nonetheless. For example, the first novel I ever read that featured a lesbian character was Empress of the World by Sara Ryan. Now, let me be clear: Empress of the World is a fantastic coming-of-age novel. The protagonist, Nicola, attends a summer camp for gifted children (I was sold at this point — doesn’t every teenager want to identify with a “gifted” protagonist?) and falls in love with a girl named … wait for it … Battle. The symbolism was not lost on me, even at fourteen. The characters do not die or go crazy, thankfully (see this article for a quick guide to the death and destruction of lesbians in Western media), but their story is not exactly a fun summer beach romp, either. The novel is wrought with the challenges and internal struggle. This is not an anomaly in YA lit. The other YA books with lesbian protagonists I read that summer were Nancy Garden’s Annie on My Mind, Julie Anne Peters’s Keeping You a Secret, and Lauren Myracle’s Kissing Kate. All of these are important, pivotal books of the genre. None of them are laugh riots.
Upon writing this article, I was hopeful that this was merely a trend of the early 2000s and that maybe in 2013, young lesbians would be able to find books that were a bit lighter, a bit funnier, a bit less heavy-handed. After all, coming out to my parents was as easy as, “What do you want, Chelsea? A cake?” Surely there was someone else out there who had an equally drama-free experience.
But as I did my research, I realize that YA is no different from TV or film or adult fiction. Lesbians have long been given poignant or sad or difficult stories, whereas gay men have been able to branch out into more lighthearted fare thanks to prime time shows like “The New Normal” and YA authors like David Levithan. I am honestly, truly happy for my gay brethren. I’m just left wondering: why haven’t lesbians been able to do the same thing?
In 2012, notable, acclaimed YA books with lesbian or bisexual female characters included emily m. danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post, The Difference Between You and Me by Madeline George, and Elizabeth Hand’s Radiant Days. What interests me about these novels is that both Danfoth and Hand have written novels that take place in the past. While I am all for exploring the ways in which past and present intersect, I can’t help but wonder where the contemporary lesbian protagonists are hiding. George’s novel does take place in the present, and it thankfully features a protagonist who does not have much trouble with her own sexuality, and whose parents are casually supportive. This is a huge positive step, and I wish we could see more books like this. But even George’s novel lacks that crucial element that I’m desperate for in YA lit: the “laugh out loud funny!” blurb on the front cover.
Is it so hard for our culture to imagine a female character who is sassy, hilarious, wacky, and who happens to be gay? Is the final frontier for queer women, in fact, getting people to stop taking us so seriously? We know that lesbians are capable of being funny. Trailblazing comics like Ellen DeGeneres, Wanda Sykes, and Tig Notaro prove that. So I frankly don’t know what’s keeping us from seeing more lesbian comedy in every facet of entertainment, but as a lover of YA lit, I want to call out YA authors in particular. YA is the genre that pioneers the tough stuff, but it’s also the genre that reminds teens it’s okay to laugh. YA authors have always been breaking boundaries, and maybe now the best way to make that happen is to write something simple, funny, and gay. Here, I’ll even get you started:
Chelsea Condren, a sixteen year old aspiring comedian, is a know-it-all when it comes to most things, but clueless when it comes to romance. She might possibly have a crush on her very straight, very pretty, best friend. She might possibly also be intrigued by the new, sexually ambiguous girl at school. She very definitely wants to sweet talk her way into the local comedy club to perform, even though it’s a strictly eighteen-and-up venue. And she’s beginning to realize that keeping it together isn’t as simple as finding the perfect punch line.
There. That wasn’t so hard, was it?
— Chelsea Condren is a recent Denver transplant and library science graduate student at the University of Denver. She’s also an amateur stand up comedian and comedy writer. Currently reading: A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin.