Archive for May, 2011

Rainbow High, by Alex Sanchez (2003)

Rainbow High picks up right where Rainbow Boys leaves off. Kyle, Nelson, Jason, and others at Whitman High School are successful in starting a Gay-Straight Alliance, and meetings begin with the hope that they will help to alleviate some of the rampant homophobia in the school’s hallways. Kyle and Jason are together, but not publicly. Nelson has a new boyfriend, but he’s HIV positive, and Nelson’s nervous about his own HIV status after an unsafe one-night fling and how it will affect his relationship with Jeremy. Kyle has come out to his parents: “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. My mom cried that she’d never have grandkids. My dad argued all this stuff about it being a choice—the wrong choice. I told him it’s not like I asked to be gay. It’s just the way I am” (Sanchez, 2003, p. 4). Kyle endures taunts from his swim teammates and can’t count on his coach to back him up, but soon realizes he has an ally in his dad. Jason’s experience in coming out to his dad ended badly in the first book; his dad left the house in a rage, calling his son a “maricón.” Jason worries that by coming out to his own coach—and the rest of his team—he is putting a much-needed university scholarship in jeopardy. He seeks advice from the GSA advisor, art teacher Ms. MacTraugh:

“Coming out is a life-long process,” Ms. MacTraugh continued. “Each time we meet someone new or move to a different setting, we’re challenged to reveal who we are. It’s not always easy. But no matter how difficult, it’s something I’ve never regretted. So few things in life truly matter. Chief among them are being true to yourself, and being honest with others.”

Sanchez (2003), p. 69

Throughout the book we see that coming out to their parents and close friends is only one of the first steps in the “life-long process” for these teens. Jason, in particular, is seen as a role-model because of his basketball star status. Time after time he’s told to come out, or not come out, for that very reason. What will his teammates say? What will the school at large think? Does he have a responsibility to maintain a certain image because that’s what people expect? While Kyle has indeed come out at school (having added “AND PROUD” to the “QUEER” scratched into his locker door) he has yet to experience being part of a public couple, or to talk about boyfriend troubles with his mom. Sanchez‘s second book in the Rainbow Boys trilogy wrestles with these issues frankly, revealing the pain and triumphs for teens just beginning the “life-long process” of coming out.

Sanchez, A. (2003). Rainbow high. New York: Simon Pulse.

Lambda Literary Award 2003 Finalist

New York Public Library 2004 “Book for the Teen Age”

Rainbow Boys, by Alex Sanchez (2001)

The most amazing thing was how Nelson talked about all this stuff in front of his own mom. She even subscribed to XY magazine for him.

“How did you ever tell her?” Kyle wanted to know.

Nelson lit a cigarette. “You kidding? She knew before I did. I’m her fucking cause.”

Sanchez (2001), p. 14

In Alex Sanchez’s book, Rainbow Boys, we’re introduced to three characters who are in various phases of confronting their sexuality. Kyle is a shy, straight-laced swimmer who knows he’s gay but hasn’t come out to his parents or at school. Nelson is his outspoken friend, gay and proud and lucky to have an ally in his mom (she’s the president of the local PFLAG chapter), yet he faces unrelenting harassment on a daily basis at school. Jason is a popular basketball player who suspects he may be bisexual, but fears the wrath of his alcoholic, homophobic father if he were to come out—not to mention, he has a girlfriend.

Sanchez deftly portrays each character and his point-of-view—the chapters alternate between Kyle, Nelson, and Jason—and it’s a riveting read. Will Kyle ever get up the nerve to tell Jason how he feels about him? Does Nelson like Kyle as more than a friend, and if so, how does Kyle feel about him? Can Jason love his girlfriend, Debra, yet have these unexplained feelings for other boys? We are drawn into the boys’ world, and with them we face typical teen worries (about popularity, sex, friends, sports, weight, braces) as well as those challenges facing gay teens in particular. While Kyle and Jason must come out to their families and friends (and each does so to varying responses), the real issue is whether they can be truthful to themselves.

Sanchez, A. (2001). Rainbow boys. New York: Simon Pulse.

American Library Association 2002 “Best Book for Young Adults”

New York Public Library 2002 “Book for the Teen Age”

Lambda Literary Award 2001 Finalist

Featured Author of LGBTQ Literature: Alex Sanchez

ALEX SANCHEZ, b. 1957

Since the publication of his book, Rainbow Boys, in 2001, Alex Sanchez has been hailed as a foremost contributor to the world of LGBTQ fiction for young adults. All of his Rainbow Boys books have been Lambda Literary Award Finalists, and he has received recognition from the American Library Association and New York Public Library. Recently, Sanchez was awarded the Outstanding Mid-Career Novelists’ Prize by the Lambda Literary Foundation, which offers a cash prize to an author or authors who have self-identified as LGBT and have published at least three novels (Valenzuela, 2011).

Born in Mexico City in 1957, Sanchez moved with his family to Texas when he was five years old. His desire to blend in caused him to hide his Latino descent to some extent, choosing to speak English exclusively and trying to “pass as white” (Sanchez, as cited by McCafferty, 2006). When he was thirteen he was confronted, once again, with recognizing his difference when he realized that he was gay. Sanchez says his adolescent and teen years were fraught with confusion, fear, and self-hatred.

And just as I’d learned to hide I was Mexican, I learned to hide I was gay. One of the places I escaped to was our school library, which I estimate had several thousand volumes. How many of those books portrayed teens like me, struggling with identity and experiencing prejudice? Not a single one.

Sanchez, as cited in McCafferty, 2006

Sanchez began writing LGBTQ fiction while he was in college, but his instructor responded negatively and he abandoned writing publicly for a time.  He received his master’s degree in counseling from Old Dominion University and worked as a family and youth counselor, all the while writing in private. In 1993 he began the story that would turn into Rainbow Boys. About the experience, he says:

When I began writing my novel, Rainbow Boys, every word I wrote was a battle. I had to fight against every impulse to keep silent. Each word I wrote was a struggle against everything I had learned. I was certain I’d be punished for it.

Sanchez, as cited in McCafferty, 2006

Sanchez eventually found a mentor and supporter in his agent, Miriam Altshuler, who worked tirelessly to find a publisher for Rainbow Boys. Since its publication, the author has written two other books in the trilogy, Rainbow High (2003) and Rainbow Road (2005), as well as a book for younger readers, So Hard to Say (2004); a book dealing with the friendship between a gay teen and his straight friend, Getting It (2006); a book dealing with gay Christian teens, The God Box (2007); and a book about a 16-year-old on probation who works to control his anger and violence and confronts the abuse in his past, Bait (2009). Sanchez’s most recent title is Boyfriends with Girlfriends, which appeared in April 2011. His books touch on themes universal to all teens, such as love and friendship, but also those particular to LGBTQ teens, such as prejudice, coming out, HIV, and the spectrum of identities teens fashion for themselves and each other.

Through my writing I hope to give readers an insight into the lives of gay and lesbian teenagers, their families, their friends, and communities–the daily name-calling and bullying they experience, their courage, struggles, and hopes and dreams for a better life for both themselves and for those who come after them.

Sanchez, as cited in McCafferty, 2006

Click here to watch Alex Sanchez’s video for the It Gets Better campaign.

Click here to visit the author’s web site.

References:

McCafferty, D. (2006). Love and accept yourself for who you are: An interview with Alex Sanchez. Young Adult Library Services, Summer 2006, 10-12.

Valenzuela, T. (2011). Alex Sanchez and Susan Stinson awarded Outstanding Mid-Career Novelists’ Prize. Retrieved on June 5, 2011 from http://www.lambdaliterary.org/features/04/21/alex-sanchez-susan-stinson-mid-career/.

What They Always Tell Us, by Martin Wilson (2008)

What They Always Tell Us is entitled based on the remark “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you” and Alex remarks, “Yeah, that’s what they always tell us” (p. 70). Martin Wilson writes a story that appeals to older teens with siblings, or readers who may be facing the issues of sexuality or depression. It is ultimately a story of support between siblings in coming out.

The story is told with a quiet tone to mark the sadness and intensity of, and the contrast between, two brothers, James and Alex. The two brothers, growing up in Alabama, are night and day, James the extroverted high school senior, and Alex more withdrawn, introspective, and considerate. The brothers are initially close, but James begins to withdraw and avoid Alex after an incident at a party in which Alex drinks Pine-Sol in an apparent suicide attempt.

The undercurrent of the story revolves around Alex’s sexuality, which is indicated but not referred to directly at first, much like the subtly referenced gay longings of the character of Peter in William Sleator’s House of Stairs.

The first time the reader knows to whom Alex’s sexual attraction is directed is when Alex becomes very close with James’ friend Nathen. “Alex and Nathen are friends now, for sure. But it’s a different type of friendship. Or it feels like it is. It’s not like he and Nathen are hanging out drinking beers, or talking about girls, or even going to parties together” (p. 100). When the two are at the locker room of a sports club, Alex steals glances at Nathen’s body, while feeling insecure that he is not toned enough, his hips are too wide, and his butt is white and “too plump” (p. 105), all thoughts that are indicative of his sexual preference. This passage still leads one to wonder at times if he is merely idolizing Nathen, as Nathen is one consistent friend while others have stopped being Alex’s friends.

Alex and James’ parents regularly ask James if something is wrong with Alex or if it is just that “[m]aybe he’s going through the whole sullen teenager phase” (p. 31). When younger, Alex was able to maintain an affinity with his two friends Tyler and Kirk because neither of them had dated, either. This dynamic begins to unravel as the story progresses, and it intensifies his depression. Homosexuality is not overtly addressed at first. Alex does not want to go to church, and James does not attend any more either (p. 44).  Alex’s interest in Nathen is returned when Nathen seamlessly and naturally nudges him into the same shower stall at the sports club and they begin kissing (p. 122). In short order, they are dating, and the jock clique that James is a part of immediately begins to notice that there is something going on between Nathen and Alex.

While the story is written in third-person, the chapters alternate which brother the perspective focuses on. The alteration of focus indicates that the sexuality awareness affects more than just one person and has some bearing on the brothers’ relationship. What looms larger is the guilt that James feels for not being able to help Alex or make him happy. This guilt expresses itself by a feeling of hostility James develops towards Alex for not being “normal” (as in not depressed). James immediately suspects that something is going on between Alex and Nathen, and the text implies that he knows it is a relationship, but his real discomfort comes from Nathen’s ability to make Alex happy and lift him up when James could not. Even with this jealousy rising up in him, his love for his brother prevails, and he defends Nathen when there are allegations of Nathen being a “fag” (p. 177). Eventually, Alex comes out to James because he cannot hide some of the taunting going on at school. In spite of the taunting, Alex is happy in his relationship with Nathen. James tells him “I know you’re happy. An I’m glad. I mean it” while patting him on the shoulder, and James sobs with relief because he feels he has finally been a good brother (p. 240).

What They Always Tell Us has a somewhat atypical coming out backdrop because it is almost exclusively in the context of the brotherly relationship. While there is one passage that insinuates their mother knows Alex is gay, this area of exploration is not pursued, perhaps because this will happen after James leaves for university the following year. This story is one of absolute support. James is, in fact, only able to give full support to Alex once Alex puts all of his previous troubles in context by sharing who he is.

Wilson, M. (2008). What they always tell us. New York: Delacorte Press.

Reviews of What They Always Tell Us, from Martin Wilson Writes.

My Father’s Scar, by Michael Cart (1996)

My Father’s Scar, the 1996 novel from American Michael Cart, explores the inner thoughts of Andy Logan, and is told in two different timelines. First, the reader is taken to an undefined time where Andy is a university student and feeling defensive about accusations of being attracted to the much older Professor Hawthorne. The story is given some context in terms of how Andy came to be at university and how his parents and community reacted to his sexuality as a teen.

Andy is an introverted child who is abused by his alcoholic father and indirectly by a mother who will not come to his defense (or her own). The community he lives in is a very religious town where the authority of the Protestant pastor looms large. His uncle is chastised by Andy’s grandmother for being useless, no good, for writing for a career and not being a blue-collar type of laborer. When he dies suddenly, Andy is dismayed when his hostile, domineering grandmother throws away his uncles book collection and also whips Andy’s father into submission with her words. The scar that Andy’s father bears on his cheek is a metaphor, too, for an existence deprived of dignity, leading to his addiction and mistreatment of his son and wife.

In Andy’s uncle’s death, he finds an identity in being an intellectual dissident and grows more confident in this role. The one surviving book Andy finds from his uncle’s collection has a passage his uncle has highlighted, which quotes “The heart has its reasons which the mind cannot know” (p. 66). He finds a role model and first love in a boy named Evan who stands up to the church and pastor by announcing he is gay and stating there is nothing wrong with that, which has disastrous consequences in a life-threatening attack on Evan, instigated under the minister’s guidance. Andy continues on the introverted path and does not get attacked by his community, but it is whispered and insinuated that they know he is gay. He makes one good friend in a girl named Patty upon his confession  (p. 151), but she is the only non love-interest support after the death of his uncle. Evan disappears but leaves Andy angel wings and a note telling him that he loves him, his best attempt at showing a gesture of love and support for Andy.

Coming out only happens in interpersonal relationships for Andy, unlike Evan’s public coming out. Andy is supported by the close friends he tells, and is approached by his next boyfriend, a popular jock named Billy. The morning after graduation, he tells his parents that he is gay. His mother denies it all because she cannot handle anything more, and his father staggers around saying “Jesus, faggot, out” (p. 193), an order Andy complies with, never to return. He also leaves Billy, who operates on a simpler emotional wavelength and just wants Andy to be happy but not intellectually stimulated. This leads Andy to university, where he begins to consolidate the past of his hometown so that he can move forward in a relationship with a Teaching Assistant who expresses interest in him.

In My Father’s Scar, the main issue explored in the coming out dynamic is that all of the oppressors in the story have been victims of child abuse and misunderstanding on some level. The pastor plays a major role in destabilizing the community and its inhabitants so that his own ego is satisfied. The message of hope for the coming out experience is that one has to follow one’s heart and be responsive to what it needs for true happiness.

Cart, M. (1996). My father’s scar: A novel. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

Peter, by Kate Walker (1991)

Peter, written by Kate Walker, is a 1991 novel (published by Houghton Mifflin in the US in 1993) set in Australia, where a 15-year-old boy named Peter suddenly begins to grapple with his sexuality. Peter rides his motorbike on some family property in a suburban development area and has to fend for himself with some hooligan “townies” that he is afraid of. He is always being accused of being too soft and of not being willing to stand up for himself. His peers constantly talk about how they can sleep with a girl, any girl, and how any guy who does not fight or go after girls with such zeal is a “poof.”

Peter does not “come out” as such, given that the story ends somewhat unresolved in determining what his sexuality may be. This is a story of self-exploration and subjective attraction. David, a gay friend of Peter’s uber-masculine brother Vince, becomes a role model to Peter and makes him start questioning who (or which sex) he likes. After meeting David, Peter is come on to by a fast-moving girl whom he rejects, instigating more self-doubt as more friends and peers start questioning whether Peter is a “poof.”

It is with the accusations of being a homosexual that Peter gets indicators of how his parents would react if he formally came out as gay to them. His mother is a no-nonsense, progressive-minded nurse who encourages her kids to express themselves and try things out.  “She’s great, you’d like her” (p. 3) he tells the readers in an aside. She knows that Vince is friends with 20-year-old David, who is gay, but is sensible enough to not jump to conclusions and often invites David to the house for dinner. When there are unspoken indicators that Peter may also be gay, she reminds him that his father will “never withdraw support” in spite of disagreements fathers and sons may have (p. 135), in effect showing that she will not, either. Peter’s father is going through something of a mid-life crisis after the divorce and is very concerned about his image and his boys being sufficiently masculine. He comes to the scene when things go awry, in this case because “the whole neighborhood could be thinking [our] son is queer” (p. 110). He also believes that David has been making moves on his son.

Peter gets support from three fronts. He first makes an anonymous call to a teen hotline where a seemingly indifferent counselor comes through for him by saying he is young, has to experiment, and must not base what he should feel based on what his peers say or may present themselves as being. The second comes from tough love from his brother, who pushes him to resolve his own issues and not worry about what other people think. Finally, he gets support from David, who tells him that Peter’s experience of discovering sexuality is very different from his own (David knew that he was gay from the age of twelve, and never wavered), and that being fifteen leaves many years for Peter to sort matters out. David offers his friendship and support, but clearly says that there is no chance of a relationship due to their age difference and his friendship with Vince.

Peter is a unique story in that it offers support to teens facing coming out, but also allows for readers to embrace more fluid interpretations of their sexuality that live outside of labels.

Walker, K. (1991). Peter. Norwood, S. Aust: Omnibus.

Sprout, by Dale Peck (2009)

Sprout, the 2009 novel by Dale Peck, explores the life of Daniel “Sprout” Bradford, who is taken from Long Island to a small Kansas town by his grieving father. This novel explores the teen experience of coming out, but encompasses a different view of such an event because Sprout’s mother has passed away: the reactions of his surviving parent and peers are influenced by this added dimension.

The focus of the story is on the dynamics between Mrs. Miller and Sprout.  Mrs. Miller is a teacher at the Hutchinson, Kansas school who takes an interest in Sprout’s writing potential, and much of his character development is instigated by her influence. It is with her prodding to improve his writing that Sprout is enabled to analyze himself in terms of his sexuality, though he never denies homosexuality. One suspects that the one reason Sprout dyes his hair green is that it is a way of expressing his state of being without having to articulate it. Mrs. Miller points this out but ironically she fears that an essay pertaining to Sprout’s sexuality might jeopardize his winning a state writing competition she has pushed him into doing.  Mrs. Miller serves as a supporter who crosses a lot of boundaries (some of them inappropriate, supplying him with alcoholic drinks in her home), but at the same time is a major figure in leading Sprout to suppress his feelings, for which she later expresses regret and reverses (p. 273).

Readers are only occasionally provided the reaction of Sprout’s peers except that he is generally picked last in selecting sports teams, despite his running ability. His best friend Ruthie has pigeonholed him as a relationship failure, but what she does not know is that he has already begun fooling around with the same boy she is after, Ian. Ian himself is furtive as the affair carries on in the janitor’s closet for four years, and he is never exposed for his involvement with Sprout.  In fact, Ian later impregnates Ruthie, perhaps to prove a point (p. 262).

Sprout’s mother never gets to have her say on the matter of his sexuality, but the tension her absence creates makes Sprout’s father have sloppier and more erratic reactions.

A year earlier, when my dad found a couple of gay sites in the cache of Internet Explorer, he threw my dictionary into our PC. I think he thought I’d learned how to be gay from the web, although the truth is I’d only looked at those kinds of sites after I was pretty sure about myself…

“I should have seen it coming. Absent mother, poor role model for a father. I apologize, son. I should have found a maternal figure for you.” (p. 70-71)

The initial hostility of Sprout’s father indicates that he sees his son’s sexuality as another blow or failing. Unlike many parents with a negative view, however, he does not blame his child. His father has also developed alcoholism in the wake of his mother’s death, and therefore, the extraordinary circumstances cloud some knowledge as to how the father might react under less duress. Immediately after the first verbal acknowledgement of the situation, his father asks his son to pass him a beer.

     “That’s it? A beer?”

“Oh, okay, two.”

Dad.”

     He didn’t meet my eyes. “Hey. You’re a fag. I’m a drunk. Nobody’s perfect.” … “That was mean. You’re gay. I’m an alcoholic.”

     “Just promise me you won’t tell anyone. I don’t want to have to identify my son at the morgue.” (p. 72)

The father cannot be said to offer any support to Sprout, but his reaction is more indicative of an overall instability and responsiveness to the external culture that might compromise his son’s safety.

Finally, Sprout’s father slowly does a few things that might be considered marginally supportive of his son’s sexuality and overall well-being. He leaves a condom in his son’s room, prominently placed, and with a note that states: “I don’t want to know. But I don’t want you dead either” (p. 135). When Sprout’s love interest, Ty, runs away from an abusive home after Sprout does not stand up for him, his father finally pulls his act together and tries to put a show of tough support for his devastated son, but it is too late in some ways.

Sprout is a work that shows a coming out development period that happens over a number of years, with a few defining, dramatic moments. There are no major moments of affirming support or endangering rejection to the announcement, perhaps suspending Sprout’s ability to become as comfortable with the idea of a relationship with a boy as he is with his sexuality.

Peck, D. (2009). Sprout. New York: Bloomsbury.

ALA Stonewall Book Award Winner in 2010

Lambda Nomination (Dale Peck blog)