It’s Pride Month, and a couple of conversations I had recently reminded me of something I don’t think I say enough as a queer author: thank you to the authors who came before me.
Like pretty much everything else in the queer community, the present is built on the work of the past, which often didn’t (and still doesn’t) get the recognition that the present does. I talk a lot about how we (the queer “we”) don’t inherit our stories—spoiler: here it comes again—but this is one aspect of it that I’m not sure I’ve said well personally.
Writing a queer YA over the last year was daunting. I’m still worried, still nervous, and still working on the proofs (they’re due this week). I’m constantly second-guessing myself, flinching at the potential for something to go truly, massively wrong, and staring in the mirror and thinking, Dude. You’re not a young adult. What are you doing?
The answer, of course, is I’m trying to do what I always do: write stories for people like me to read, because I remember what it was like not finding stories with people like me, or—worse—only finding stories with people like me that ended with the people like me not surviving to the end of the book, because they were people like me. That was awful.
I was trying to remember the first YA I read where there was a gay character, and whether or not I read it when I was a teen or not, and I think the answer might be a Christopher Pike book. There was a character in the Final Friends series who turned out to be gay. It wasn’t a particularly great bit of representation, and in no way was the book at all about him (in fact, his gayness was part of the murder mystery red herring and a comedic b-plot where the heroine of the book is basically throwing herself at him and he tries to shame her as an escape and… yeah, anyway, not great).
I’ve mentioned before that prior to that, in a high school class, we studied a story where the gay character died and my teacher was incredibly blunt to the class about how and why the character had to die. It was a terrifying moment, and that came before. It was my first fictional “me.”
By the time I was older and working in the bookstore, I realized that there were stories out there about people like me—and some of them were even YA—but I had to jump through hoops and make special orders to find them. They existed while I was younger, but no teacher had them at hand to pass them to me. They sure weren’t in the library. Annie on My Mind was published in the early 80’s, and the two girls not only made it to the end of the book but so did their relationship! There’s a part in the book where one of the characters is reading an encyclopedia about homosexuality and they notice that there’s no use of the word ‘love’ in the entry. She goes to bed thinking that the writers of that entry maybe needed to speak to someone like her, because she could tell them what she feels is love.
That moment stuck with me. And I cannot tell you how much I wish I’d had that book in my hand back during the time it was written.
There were queer YA books when I was a young queer. Blackbird was written in 1986. It could have been incredible had I read that book when it came out. I would have been able to walk into my teen years with my head up with language about what I was and the knowledge others like me existed. But I had no idea, no access, and no way to do more than randomly stumble across a character here and there if I was lucky. (And given I jumped ship from YA quite early into reading contemporary fantasy where there was metaphorical queerness to be had, if not literal queerness, I didn’t have much luck at all, and even then the occasional gay guy showed up just to die, but that’s a rant for another day).
Young queer me could have read queer YA. But he never got the chance.
Instead, it wasn’t until the early nineties, when I was a bookseller and a university student, and I had access to backlist titles I could research and order (using a microfiche, no less), and I was learning about books like Ruby (it came out the year after I was born!). I could special order books for myself, if I pre-paid for them.
I couldn’t put them on the shelf to sell to customers, though.
Then it was the aughts, and I was shelving David Levithan and Alex Sanchez and Michael Thomas Ford in YA, thinking, Holy shit. Look at this. Gay boys in YA books. That was nearly twenty years ago now, and I still reel about that sometimes, with the enormity of what it might mean that queer people in their thirties had access to queer YA books with queer YA characters.
But then, almost to a person, I’ve heard them say, “There were no queer books when I was young.”
But there were! And then I realize things hadn’t changed. Or at least, by the nineties and aughts, they hadn’t changed enough. Because queers still grew up thinking they didn’t have stories.
It’s that same damn inheritance problem we’ve always had: if no one is passing our stories to the next generation, queerlings can’t even know what they don’t know, and although the present day is a different place, it’s not like the shelves at local brick and mortars are spilling over with queer rep (especially if we talk intersections with racialized characters or with disability or neurotype, or step away from gay or lesbian rep and look at the rest of the queer rainbow). Back in the 90’s I was starting to put some of those books on the shelf, but the kids who were queer youth in the 90’s weren’t finding them. They didn’t get front-and-centre placement. And their parents sure as heck weren’t out there looking for them and making sure their kids had them, just in case. Libraries were still being challenged.
Those books were there, even when I was a queer kid. Not enough of them, of course. Nowhere near enough of them. But some existed, and more existed every year. It’s just no one gave them to the queer kids. We didn’t find them. We couldn’t find them.
A lot of that hasn’t changed, especially depending on where you might live. Libraries still get challenged. Adults still buy books for young adults with a boat-load of assumptions. But when I was working on my own YA, I got to speak with some queer teenagers through a few high school SAGAs, GSAs, and Rainbow Clubs. They have language around identities and concepts I didn’t learn until I was in university (and after). Queerness is evolving and growing and it’s brilliant.
And they know full well they deserve stories about people like themselves.
So I look at the proofs for Exit Plans for Teenage Freaks, and I have hope. When I was a kid, a book about a nerdish gay kid who develops a teleportation problem would have been exactly what I wanted to read. In many ways, my writing career is about time-travel: I’m trying to write back in time. I was an X-Men nut, loved board games, and a giant nerd. Back when I was that kid, my parents would never, ever had gotten me a copy of the book.
But if I was that kid today? Thanks to Rosa Guy and Nancy Garden and Larry Duplechan and M.E. Kerr and Michael Thomas Ford and David Levithan and Alex Sanchez and so many other authors who put those first books out there and forced the glacial publishing industry queer YA stories needed to exist, that time-traveling kid might have a chance find it on his own.
Maybe this time, thanks to all the authors who came before, queers will grow up knowing they have stories.