As a Lesbian, I Resent Your Laughter, and All Laughter: Why are YA Lesbian Novels So Serious?

annie on my mind nancy garden coverThe 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.

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