We talk a lot about the importance of representation here at The Hub. Your friendly neighborhood bloggers are incredibly passionate about the ways in which YA literature is not only capable of expanding horizons, but of affirming the existence of teens who might otherwise not see themselves reflected in media-whether it’s because they’re a person of color, or gay, or trans, or all of the above, or whether they are simply just going through a difficult time.
Now I want to tell you a story.
Picture, if you will, the year 2003. It was a different time. Cropped tops were worn to display pierced belly buttons, not over structured high-waisted pants. Teens on the Internet mostly frequented blogging sites like Xanga or Livejournal. Most of us still didn’t have cell phones. We had not yet begun to make “fetch” happen (by the way, Happy 10th anniversary, Mean Girls!). And the LGBT young adult literature scene was a delicate, fledgling baby bird.
2003 was also the year David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy came out. I was almost a freshman in high school. I wore studded belts, wanted to dye my hair purple, wrote really sad poetry, and had just recently [spoiler alert] watched Tara Maclay die on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, although I believe this episode had aired about two years prior. Tara was the first lesbian character I had ever seen who wasn’t straight off the pages of a Virginia Wolf novel (I was a precocious kid), who talked and looked like most other girls on television but just so happened to be gay.
And she died.
I wanted to believe that this was an anomaly, you know? It’s Buffy, after all. Nobody makes it out of a Joss Whedon vehicle alive or seriously damaged, and our beloved Willow did get another girlfriend later on. Then freshman year I acted in a play called “Stop Kiss,” which is about two women who fall in love. It ends with a hate crime and one woman beaten into a near-comatose state. I also read, for the first time, “The Children’s Hour”. It’s a play where–you guessed it!–Lesbians die.
I hope you’re starting to see the pattern. I certainly was. In fact, I was starting to sense that maybe for gay people there just aren’t any happy endings. Maybe we didn’t deserve them. Maybe when you’re gay you have to resign yourself to pain and suffering and being kicked out of your house and stared at on the street and killed. It seems silly to think all this now, but at the time, I didn’t know any different.
You can imagine, then, how I felt when I read 2004 Best Books for Young Adults selection Boy Meets Boy. It didn’t matter that the book was about two boys, not two girls. It’s right there in the first chapters of the novel–happy lesbian moms, gay men and lesbians building friendships, planning school dances. Not everybody knows what it’s like to read a book and, for the first time, feel like there’s hope for your future. But I know, and I remember. I remember and when I found out that David Levithan was going to be at the Colorado Teen Literature Conference earlier this month, I stood in line with a bunch of teens and adults, and I had him sign my copy of Boy Meets Boy.
That’s when I cried. It’s hard to articulate to someone when you’re standing in front of them that their book probably saved your life. It’s even weirder to look back and think that he probably doesn’t remember and certainly hasn’t thought about our meeting since, while I’ve turned it over in my head a dozen times. Because, of course, I had this really eloquent speech all prepared and then when I stood in front of him I think I managed to say, “I just want you to know that I read Boy Meets Boy when I was a teen and it was the first book with gay characters where nobody died and it changed my whole life and I didn’t feel sad anymore this was back before the Internet was a gay mecca so these books were all I had and Julie Anne Peters is also an author who is important to me and I’m a grown woman I’m so sorry I will stop this now.”
It was not, as you might have guessed, as eloquent as I had hoped it would be. And I guess I surprised myself because I thought I wasn’t that sad gay kid anymore, you know? I have a girlfriend, I pay taxes, I’m in graduate school, I’m a stand-up comedian, I eat vegetables and drink a lot of coffee. I thought that terror and sadness at not seeing yourself represented in the books you read, the plays you perform in, and the television and films you watch had long since passed. I thought I was over that part of my life, the part where I was afraid I wouldn’t live to see twenty-four.
Turns out there’s still a sad gay kid inside of me, after all. And she came out (pardon the pun) ten years later, when I cried all over David Levithan at a conference while he signed my copy of a book he wrote more than ten years ago. Because without him, or Julie Anne Peters, or Lauren Myracle, or any of the trailblazers who helped change the landscape of teen media, I would have not found the strength in myself to be a well-functioning gay adult.
-Chelsea Condren, currently reading She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not by Julie Anne Peters
3 thoughts on “The Time I Cried All Over David Levithan (Or: Representation Matters)”
CLAPS AND SNAPS AND CLAPS AND SNAPS. This says perfectly why representation in the media matters so much and it should be required reading for anyone who thinks that it’s totally not a big deal that the same kinds of identities get recycled and given the spotlight in media over and over and over again. It’s important for people to see themselves represented in media AND it’s important for people to see and relate to identities different from their own as well!!! Anyway, as always, this was a moving and beautifully written (yet still funny) piece- love yaaaa.
Though it may have been for different reasons, I too have blubbered all over a favorite author (Diana Peter Freud *twice* at BEA – and God help us all if I ever meet Tamora Pierce!!) So DO NOT feel bad about being so passionate that you emotionally break down… About anything. The words and works that authors create can mean so much to readers and that response should be encouraged by all. We should always all remember too that someone out there *needs* any given book and the best thing an author can do is keep striving to create new life amazing characters and world’s to touch and inspire readers.
Wonderful article, Chelsea!
I’ve been a Teen/YA Librarian since 2007 and, since then, have seen the GLBTQ genre grow exponentially. It’s not a topic to approach delicately any longer. There is no longer a stigma attached to reading books with GLBTQ characters–and both gay and straight teens (and adults) do read them. Or, at least, not as much as there once was. I’m not sure if this is because the generations becoming progressively more open minded or if it’s just because they’ve seen it/heard it before (thank you Internet, reality TV, Glee, Pop Culture, YouTube, etc.). But I agree. The trend is a good thing.
p.s. God forbid I ever meet MY favorite author! (no names) I’d likely dissolve into such a babbling idiot that the first words out of her mouth would not be “Hello” or “Thank you” or “Nice to meet you too”, but “SECURITY!!”
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