The picture above shows the queer young adult novels in my personal library.
I know the word turns you off. Queer. Gay. LGBT. Homosexual. Transgender. Some of you may not agree with many issues revolving around those communities. And I would also bet quite a lot of money that many of you also know very little, if anything at all, about all of those words and identities. And if that is true, you probably had no clue there was such a thing as young adult literature for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender teens.
I don’t normally feel comfortable talking about my own identity within classroom walls. Avoiding awkward questions and looks is a specialty of mine. Maybe it comes from hiding my nose in a book for ninety percent of my childhood. But I am willing to talk about it briefly here, if it means others will learn that it’s alright to explore different identities. In literature, of course.
I read my first queer YA novel in the 8th grade: Keeping You A Secret by Julie Anne Peters. I remember secretly buying it on ebay and hiding it from my mom, because I didn’t want her to know I was reading about gay people. In the novel, the protagonist, Holland, meets a new girl at school named Cece. She thinks it’s odd that Cece is open and honest about her attraction to other women. People made fun of her for it; they graffitied her property and threatened her. But Cece makes Holland realize that she’s not happy just floating along in life, settling for a guy because he’s “nice.” It’s a story that shows many aspects of being LG or B in an American high school. Anyone who is just coming to terms with their sexual orientation or identity can relate to the book, and I think that’s why I’ve read it over ten times since I was thirteen years old.
A couple of years after that came a book called Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger. Parrotfish is about a transgender boy, recently named Grady, who is beginning his first year in public high school. He also lives in a house famous for its elaborate Christmas decorations, even though the inhabitants (his family) are Jewish. Sounds like hell to me, but Grady is brave. He makes it work. He acquires the friendship of a wonderful nerd and a beautiful girl, from whom he receives his first kiss. He proudly walks the halls of the school as himself, never giving in to their social expectations. He is who I wish I could have been in high school. I remember this book being the first time I ever read anything that was relevant to how I felt about my gender. All I could think after finishing the last page was, “I want more.” But unfortunately, books like Wittlinger’s are very scarce. It seems to me that young adult authors are afraid to delve into the world of transgender characters, or maybe they just don’t know enough to do so. My high school composition teacher once told me, after making this complaint, that I needed to be one to add to those stories; that I should write my own Parrotfish, so that others can know there isn’t just one way for things to go. I hope that I might some day do that.
My adoration for queer YA literature has faded some over the years, mainly due to my no longer needing to define myself, but I still enjoy the new stories that “come out” every year. David Levithan is a massively popular author who most often writes from the perspective of gay teenagers. His most recent novel, Love is the Higher Law, is a book about three teens, two of them gay, coping with living in New York City at the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
It’s unique stories like Levithan’s that are causing queer young adult books to be read by non-queer teens and adults everywhere. The books are moving from being a tool to help kids find themselves, to being a tool used to teach acceptance and diversity. With all of the bullying and teen suicides in the media right now, it’s good to know that the bright sides of holding a “non-traditional” identity are being displayed in the written word. I’m hoping some of my classmates would pick up a book without a heteronormative story line and learn from the queer perspective.