YA Lit Symposium: Authentic Portrayals of Trans* Youth and GenreQueer: Smashing the Closet

Diversity was part of the conversation during many of the panels and sessions at the 2014 YALSA Young Adult Literature Symposium. Here at The Hub, coverage of these discussions continues with an overview of two panels that focused on the representation of LGBTQ experiences in young adult literature.


Authentic Portrayals of Trans* Youth

Arin Andrews, Katie Kill, Jillian McCoy, Talya Sokoll, and Kyle Lukoff Photo courtesy of Talya Sokoll
Arin Andrews, Katie Kill, Jillian McCoy, Talya Sokoll, and Kyle Lukoff (Photo courtesy of Talya Sokoll)

This session was moderated by Talya Sokoll, a librarian with experience writing about trans* representation in YA literature, with librarians Jillian McCoy and Kyle Lukoff participating in the discussion as well as trans* authors Katie Hill and Arin Andrews whose memoirs Some Assembly Required and Rethinking Normal were published this year.

The presenters compiled a helpful resource packet that includes a list of suggested titles, discussion of terminology, and links to resources by state.

In addition, these were my key takeaways from the session:

The trans* community exists on a spectrum; there are as many stories as there are people. No one story or memoir is going to speak for the experiences of all transgender individuals. Katie and Arin were quick to acknowledge that they were only seeking to share their own stories.

Responsible RA for marginalized communities should include trigger warnings. The panel expressed concerns over promoting certain titles that while good works of literature, may not be stories that transgender individuals are seeking. Warning them of potentially problematic elements or stories should be disclosed as part of responsible readers’ advisory transactions.

Books about transgender people can speak to anyone who has felt other or out of place. While Arin Andrews and Katie HIll both wanted to share their stories in the hopes of other teens grappling with issues of gender identity would know they were not alone, they hope that even cisgender teens can relate to their experiences. Books with trans* characters can show everyone that “different” is not “weird.”

Gender identity and sexuality are complicated. Librarians don’t need to know all the answers, but where to find them. Katie Hill related an experience of going to her local library and asking a librarian for help finding books about what she was going through as a teenager, and the librarian was unhelpful and confirmed her suspicion that the library had nothing to offer her. As a librarian who wants teens to be able to come to me to find answers to any question, this was heart-breaking. Luckily Katie did find the information she needed, primarily through websites and YouTube, but this started a great discussion about the best ways that librarians can provide support for transgender teens. Creating passive ways to discover information, through a link of resources on a web page or a list of titles on a bookmarks right next to similar RA resources promoting all genres makes this type of information easily discoverable without having to ask for assistance or outing themselves in a public way. Librarians can also designate their library as a safe space, casually let it be know they are an ally, and partner with local organizations that work with LGBTQ youth.

 More titles need to be published by authors who identify as transgender. This is not to say that transgender authors can only write about their own experiences or that fiction should all be thinly veiled memoir. While there have been several memoirs published this year that relate the experiences of transgender teens in their own voice—in addition to Arin and Katie’s books, Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out edited by Susan Kuklin includes essays from six transgender teens—but very little fiction for teens has been written by transgender titles. The panel was split on the issue of whether cisgender authors should write about trans* characters. Katie Hill recognized that not all transgender people are writers, and thinks that if a writer approaches the story from a place of compassion, could do it justice. Kyle Lukoff was more skeptical and encouraged cisgender authors considering telling a story of a transgender character really examine their motivation for doing so.

Overall, the panel was very informative, and allowed those in attendance to ask questions of both librarians and transgender teens.

GenreQueer: Smashing the Closet

Malinda Lo, Kristen Elizabeth Clark, and Robin Talley
Malinda Lo, Kristen Elizabeth Clark, and Robin Talley

This panel, led by Christie Gibrich, Katelyn Browne  with participation from authors Malinda Lo, Kristen Elizabeth Clark, adn RObin Talley, focused on books with LGBTQ main characters in YA genre fiction. The idea of “genre” was loosely defined, and focused on books that were not considered “problem” novels or contemporary, realistic fiction.

There was a discussion of the history of the intersection of LGBTQ fiction and genre fiction, including an analysis of award winning LGBTQ genre fiction. My main takeaways from the session included:

We need diversity of all kinds in young adult literature. LGBTQ people are more than their sexual orientation. While coming out narratives are important, queer characters should be represented in fantasy, science fiction, and other genres. These characters should be able to go on adventures and grapple with issues beyond their sexual orientation.

Queer identities in science fiction and fantasy offer the possibility of normalization of these identities. 

Historical fiction with queer identities reminds us these aren’t “new” and have always been around.

Small LGBTQ presses are great and offer a variety of titles, but distribution is still an issue and major publishers more likely to get in libraries. Mainstream publishers are more often reviewed in professional journals and are more likely to be available for libraries to purchase through their normal vendors.

The authors also called for librarians to not be afraid to shelve LGBTQ titles just because they might be challenged. How would LGBTQ teens feel in this sort of environment?

The panelist also offered the following resources for selecting LGBTQ literature:


And I would also suggest the following resources:

The session also included an overview of the wealth of resources that Malinda Lo has compiled on her blog regarding statistics about the LGBTQ young adult literature published from over the last ten years.

Bottom line: we certainly need more LGBTQ titles.

— Molly Wetta, currently reading The Winner’s Crime by Marie Rutowski