Archive for June, 2011

Introduction to the Fiction Section

General Themes in LGBTQ Literature for Young Adults

The first novel written specifically for young adults featuring a LGBTQ protagonist was I’ll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip, by John Donovan, published in 1969. This novel tells the story of two boys who fall for each other, are discovered together and through a tragedy, are scared straight.  While this storyline does not seem the most enlightened in the 21st century, it was a reflection of the prevailing attitudes of the time which suggested that homosexuality was a disorder which could be fixed (Martin & Murdock, 2007, p. 84).  Fortunately a greater amount of LGBTQ young adult fiction was written in the 1970s and 1980s, but these books were typically “problem novels” in which the protagonist grappled with the “issue” of homosexuality.  Often, the difficulties of coming out were the focus of these novels and took precedence over character development or plot.  It is in the 1990s that more nuanced portrayals of LGBTQ characters began to appear, and by the 2000s new “forms, faces, genres, themes, voices [and] narrative strategies” were commonplace in novels for young adults (Cart & Jenkins, 2006, p. 128).

Our Project Focus

We wished to look at novels which are most applicable to the experiences of teens today and did not present LGBTQ identity primarily as a problem, yet at the same time acknowledged that coming out still remains a central issue among LGBTQ teens.  Additionally, 75% of the LGBTQ literature from the 1970s and 1980s featured only gay boys (Martin & Murdock, 2007, p. 85), under-representing or ignoring the experiences of lesbians, bisexual, transgender and queer individuals as well as most racial minority members.   For these reasons we chose to focus our reviews on literature from 1990 to 2011, hoping for more representative and complex portrayals of LGBTQ young adults.

In the Fiction Review Section we have chosen a number of titles that represent some of the best works of LGBTQ young adult fiction over the last two decades.  These novels tell the stories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and questioning teens from a diversity of racial and cultural backgrounds.  We have examined how they experience “coming out” and highlight these profound and diverse experiences, some of which are uplifting and some heartbreaking. We hope that through expanding our knowledge of this literature, we will be in a better position to assist LGBTQ young adults who come to the library most in need of these stories.

Chronological List of Reviewed Titles

References

Cart, M. & Jenkins, C.A. (2006). The Heart Has Its Reasons: Young Adult Literature with Gay/Lesbian/Queer Content, 1969-2004.  Toronto: The Scarecrow Press.

Martin, H.J. & Murdock, J.R. (2007). Serving Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning Teens: A How-To-Do-It Manual for Librarians.  New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers.

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“Coming Out” in Non-Fiction for LGBTQ Young Adults

Introduction

We have decided to look at LGBTQ non-fiction for young adults as a compliment to the young adult literature we have been reviewing. No matter how profound, enlightening or meaningful a story is, it is not possible for a single novel or even several novels to address every issue an LGBTQ young adult is wrestling with.  It is in these instances that non-fiction specifically intended for teens becomes very important.  In fact in a survey conducted in 2003 by The New York Public Library, self-identified queer teenagers listed “real stories of real people” as their number one information need and this need got twice as many responses as any others (Martin and Murdock, 21).  Unfortunately, there are a surprisingly small number of non-fiction titles for LGBTQ young adults and many of these titles are written in stale language and read more like school textbooks. The following 3 resources stand out as books which will be meaningful resources for LGBTQ teens and in keeping with the project’s theme we have focused on information pertaining to coming out.

 

Coming Out to Parents: A Two-Way Survival Guide for Lesbians and Gay Men and Their Parents, by Mary V. Borhek (1993)

Coming out to Parents: A Two-Way Survival Guide for Lesbians and Gay Men and Their Parents was originally published in 1983, but updated and re-issued in 1993.  Some of the assumptions in this book are outdated almost 20 years later, but much of the insight is still very relevant. In Coming out to Parents, Borhek focuses on the psychology behind common parental reactions and attempts to help young adults understand the many emotions which their parents may experience:

The disclosure that you are lesbian or gay has set in motion grief reactions within your parents. And chances are that they have not the slightest idea they are experiencing grief…After all you are in good health. Why should your parents grieve?…They have lost an image of you, an idea about you, the identification of you as a heterosexual person (Borhek, 1993, p. 28).

Borhek prepares readers for the possible reactions which their parents may have and provides practical advice for how, when and where to come out and how to deal with initial responses.  Borhek does a wonderful job of explaining and contextualizing the roots of parental fear, guilt and shock and explaining to young adults how they can help minimize the impact of these emotions so the coming out process is easier on themselves and their parents.  She does not address bisexual, transgender or questioning teens, but this is more likely a by-product of the lack of visibility these groups had in the 1990s than a deliberate omission.

GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Queer and Questioning Teens, by Kelly Huegel (2003)

 GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Queer and Questioning Teens is an extremely informative manual, written in readable language with text boxes, sidebars and illustrations. It was published more recently than Coming Out to Parents and includes information not just for gay men and lesbians, but also for bisexual, transgender and questioning teens.  GLBTQ has an entire chapter on coming out which includes a list of questions teens can ask themselves to determine whether they are ready to reveal their sexual identity, information about how to deal with being outed and a list of responses to possible reactions which a parent might have upon hearing the news.  This chapter also has a section on how to come out to friends and includes anecdotes from real teens about their own experiences throughout.  For example, “June” reflects on how important safety is to consider when making the decision to come out:

Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of who I am, I just have to be proud quietly because I live in a very small (and small-minded) community. Just last year at my school, a boy people called gay was beaten within an inch of his life. I’m a little scared to be too public about it for now. – June, 19 (Huegel, 2003, p. 47)

GLBTQ also has a chapter on Religion and Culture which addresses the feelings of conflict which some young adults may be facing in relation to their cultural/religious and sexual/gender identities.  Though discussion about coming out is very general in this chapter, some difficulties which LGBTQ young adults may face are highlighted:

Coming out can be difficult in many cultures because its seen as embarrassing or bringing shame on the family (or even on the race) because it makes public something that is considered private (Huegel, 2003, p. 161).

GLBTQ also has a chapter on Transgender Teens which contains a section on coming out.  This section includes information about the impact such an announcement may have on parents and also anecdotes from real transgender teens who have had positive experiences coming out to their parents.

GLBTQ is a very comprehensive and informative manual which contains essential information for all LGBTQ young adults. It addresses coming out with complexity, and from many different angles, making it a valuable resource for teens all across the LGBTQ, cultural and religious spectra.

The Full Spectrum: A New Generation of Writing About Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning and Other Identities, edited by David Levithan and Billy Merrell (2006)

One way to effect change is to share truths. To tell our stories. To make our hearts and minds heard.

-Levithan and Merrell, 2006, Notes to Reader

The Full Spectrum is a compilation of non-fiction account written by LGBTQ young adults under the age of twenty-three.  This anthology was published because of the noticeable lack of young queer voices in teen literature.  Their accounts cover a wide range of topics which include fitting in, first sexual experiences, homophobia, bullying, self-loathing, self-acceptance, growing up gay, struggling with religion, relationships, love and heartbreak. Coming out is also a heavily featured topic in the anthology, in which both positive and negative experiences are represented, but more importantly, these young authors also chronicle their paths to self-acceptance in light of their experiences.

In one account, “My Diary:  Documented. Done.” by L. Canale, a teenage lesbian writes about the twenty month period when she is first outed by her religious and unaccepting father to a time when she has come to terms with that period in her life and forgiven her father. In the beginning, her diary entries have titles such as “Dad found out”, “Oh, its killing me” and “F-That”, and include very angry language such as, “OH MAN. My dad is full of SO MUCH SHIT”(Levithan and Merrell, 2006, p. 45).  However, by the end of the account the author is able to look back at the progress she’s made:

It’s funny how things change. Here I am rereading what I wrote almost two years ago and patting myself on the back. How’d I get through it?…Was I ever really alone, though? I don’t think I was but I felt so alone at times” (Levithan and Merrel, 2006, p. 53).

Heartfelt stories from real LGBTQ young adults are what many of the teens who are going through these experiences crave most, and since information in these accounts is true they have the power to touch readers in ways that fictional stories may not.   The Full Spectrum is a powerful anthology which imparts meaning and hope, and will be of great value to LGBTQ young adult readers.

Resources and References

Borhek, M. (1993). Coming Out to Parents: A Two-Way Survival Guide for Lesbians and Gay Men and Their Parents. Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press.

Martin, H.J. & Murdock, J.R. (2007). Serving Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning Teens: A How-To-Do-It Manual for Librarians.  New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers.

Huegel, K. (2003). GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Queer & Questioning Teens. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing.

Levithan, D. & Merrell, B. (2006). The Full Spectrum: A New Generation of Writing About Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning and Other Identities. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Dare Truth or Promise, by Paula Boock (1999)

Dare Truth or Promise is a love story about two girls, Louie and Willa, who meet working at a local fast food restaurant.  Sparks fly and soon they enter into a passionate and loving relationship.  Willa has been involved with a girl before and her mother is both aware that she is a lesbian and supportive of her sexual identity.  Louie is only discovering her sexual identity so she has not come out to her family, yet her mother takes an instant dislike to Willa and tries to prevent the two from spending time together.  Louie’s mother eventually catches the two girls in bed and in an intense and traumatic scene, kicks Willa out of the house and forbids her from returning.

Much to Willa’s dismay, Louie is devastated by her mother’s reaction and internalizes these feelings of shame and guilt, withdrawing from their relationship:

Louie…looked at her in such pain that Willa couldn’t bear it. “I love you, Louie,” she said, starting to cry though she’d promised herself not to.

“I know.” Louie’s voice sounded ready to snap in two. “I love you too,” she said, at last. “But that’s not the point, is it? (p. 104)

Louie’s mother continues to push her away from Willa and tries to convince her to date men, yet Louie is miserable and eventually comes out to her priest in hopes of receiving moral guidance.  In a very touching scene he explains to her what is really important:

Louie stared at him.

“And she? Does she love you?”

“Yes, I think she does.”

Father Campion smiled. “How wonderful.”

“How lucky you are, to love and to be loved in return.”

This wasn’t what Louie had expected. (p. 147)

This information gives Louie a much more positive perspective to reflect on, but it is eventually a car accident which brings the two back together.  After this near tragedy they realize how lucky they are to have found each other and Louie is able to work through the negative messages which she received about herself and her sexual identity.  At the same time Louie’s parents are so shaken by the accident that they reevaluate what is best for their daughter and open up to Willa as well.

In Dare Truth or Promise, we see how damaging it can be for young adults to be “outed” before they have time to work through their own emotions surrounding their sexual identity.  Louie survives this experience and it ultimately strengthens her relationship with Willa but it is a very difficult time for both girls and highlights just how vulnerable young adults are at this stage in their lives.

Boock, P. (1999). Dare Truth or Promise. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards – 1998 Winner, Senior Fiction Category
New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards – 1998 Winner, Book of the Year Award

Deliver Us From Evie, by M.E. Kerr (1994)

Told from the perspective of Evie’s brother, sixteen-year-old Parr, Deliver Us from Evie is about a lesbian living on a farm in rural Missouri who refuses to change who she is or feel ashamed of her sexual identity.  Though frequently gossiped about for her masculine clothing and hairstyle, Evie has kept a low profile in her rural town until she meets and falls in love with Patsy Duff, the daughter of the town’s banker.

Parr is one of the first to suspect Evie’s romance with Patsy when he spots a telling postcard in the mail box.  While he is very curious about Evie’s sexual identity he is also almost immediately accepting and questions the prejudices around homosexuality.  When his mother tells him that it is against the law he responds: “Maybe something’s wrong with the law” (p. 67).

Evie’s mother also inadvertently discovers evidence of Evie’s sexual orientation and approaches Evie directly.  When confronted Evie is unwavering and unapologetic:

“Evie,” Mom said, “I wasn’t born yesterday. I’m not unfamiliar with lesbianism. Gays. Whatever you call it. Is that what you claim you are?”

“Its not what I claim I am. It’s what I am.”

“You don’t know that for sure, honey.”

“I know it. For sure. I’ve always known it.” (p. 85)

Evie’s sexual orientation is not a surprise to her mother whose reaction is based less on anger than it is on fear for her daughter and the hardships which her sexual orientation will bring.  Evie’s mother tries to hide the truth from her husband, since, as she explains to Parr, “Douglas is not a sophisticated man. He won’t understand this…”(p. 66), but he also uncovers the truth, which leaves him “heartbroken”. Though he does not kick Evie out of the house or react violently, he begins to avoid his daughter and the close relationship which they previously shared deteriorates.

The story takes an interesting turn when Parr fears that Evie will leave town and the family farm, forcing him to give up his dream of going to college. In desperation he helps post a sign which outs her to the entire town.  Parr’s plan is unsuccessful and he immediately regrets his actions, but in the aftermath of this event we see Evie’s parents stand up for her, and recognize that they have not abandoned their daughter.  Eventually Evie does leave the small community and moves to New York and then Paris to be with Patsy, but by the story’s end Evie’s parents have worked through many of their own issues and welcome her back into the family.

Deliver Us From Evie is about an incredibly inspiring young woman who refuses to compromise who she is and a loving family that must overcome their own prejudices and fears so they can come to terms with Evie’s identity and offer their acceptance and support.

Kerr, M.E. (1994). Deliver Us From Evie. New York: Harper Collins.

1994 Best Book Honor Award (Michigan Library Association)
1995 Best Books for Young Adults (ALA)
1995 Recommended Books for Reluctant Young Adult Readers (ALA)
1995 Fanfare Honor List (The Horn Book)
1995 Books for the Teen Age (NY Public Library)

The Bermudez Triangle, by Maureen Johnson (2004)

The Bermudez Triangle, one of the few novels to include a questioning character, looks at the evolving relationships between 3 friends as they explore their sexual identities and struggle to understand themselves and one another. Nina, Mel and Avery have grown up together and separate for the first time when Nina spends the summer before their senior year of high school away.  In her absence Mel and Avery discover they have feelings for each other, share their first kiss and begin dating.  Mel has been sure that she is a lesbian for a long time, but Avery is not as certain and struggles to define her sexual identity.

Though Mel and Avery try to keep their relationship a secret from their parents and their peers, they struggle with how and when to come out to Nina:

“We have to decide, Mel,” Avery said. “I don’t think its time to tell her.”

“When will it be time?”

“Not when she steps off a plane. We haven’t seen her since June.”

“So why don’t we get it out of the way?’ Mel asked. “We can’t lie to her.”

“How do you think she’s going to feel?”

“Fine,” Mel said defensively. “Nina doesn’t have a problem with this stuff.”

“Nina doesn’t have a problem hypothetically.  Nina doesn’t have a problem with other people.” (p. 74-5)

Mel and Avery chose not to reveal their relationship to Nina, but she catches them kissing in a department store dressing room and they are forced to come clean.  After this revelation, Nina struggles with how to respond to this new development. Her feelings about her friends and their sexual identities are complicated by the effect their relationship has on the friendship between the three and her own feelings of exclusion. In a letter to her boyfriend she writes:

I hate feeling like I’m always intruding on my friends. This is MEL AND AVERY! I am SUPPOSED to be with them. But they kind of shift around and look at each other with love eyes and I end up saying that I have to go home…I want my friends to be happy, but I also want my old life back.  I feel like some big homophobe for complaining about Mel and Avery. That makes it even worse. And I’m not. At least I don’t think I am (p. 134).

As the story unfolds and the relationship between Avery and Mel evolves, Nina is at times stuck between her two friends, but ultimately discovers that both Avery and Mel are going through a difficult period in their lives and tries to support both the best she can.

Coming out to parents is not a central theme in the novel, but Mel and Avery are accidentally outed by Nina towards the end of the story and we observe different parental reactions.  Mel’s mother is angry and unaccepting, but her father, while confused and still coming to terms with this development, is quieter and stands up for Mel.  Avery’s mother is surprisingly accepting and even seems a little disappointed to discover that Avery is not in fact gay (p. 324).

Throughout the novel Nina, Avery and Mel all struggle to define who they are and their relationships with one another.  It is a rocky road, but all three come out stronger and rebuild the bonds which originally connected them.  With this foundation it is clear that Nina and Avery will be there to support Mel as she continues to come out as a lesbian and works through her relationship with her mother.

Johnson, M. (2004). The Bermudez Triangle. New York: Razorbill.

 

Orphea Proud, by Sharon Dennis Wyeth (2004)

Orphea Proud is an incredibly touching story about a young black poet who must come to terms with herself in the face of great loss and rejection. We first meet Orphea in an open mike club where she tells us her story, which begins with her love for childhood friend, Lissa. Their short lived romance is discovered by Orphea’s guardian and brother, Rupert, who reacts with fury and beats Orphea.  Lissa then dies in a car crash moments after fleeing the scene, leaving Orphea in a state of grief and despair. It is in the aftermath of this tragic event that Rupert sends her to live in rural Pennsylvania with her elderly aunts. Luckily in this back country setting Orphea finds the warm and supportive family which she has been missing, uses her poetry to work through her anger and sadness and discovers unknown parts of her heritage which help her understand who she is.

After facing her brother’s wrath earlier in the story, Orphea fears being rejected by her aunts for her sexuality and delays revealing this part of her identity. However Orphea eventually realizes that she needs to be open about who she is order to be true to herself:

I was still afraid, but…I wanted them to know me, to know me as well as I was getting to know them. By keeping my love for Lissa a secret from my aunts, I was keeping myself outside of the circle. I was keeping myself apart from what I wanted, a family (p. 158).

After finding the courage to come out, Orphea discovers that she truly has a loving and accepting family behind her:

Relief washed over me. “You don’t think I’m unacceptable?”

“Of course not,” said Aunt Minnie. “I worry about how other folks who don’t understand these things might treat you, though. But you’re strong. You know who you are.”

Hearing her say that, I began to feel stronger. (p. 160)

Once Orphea comes out to her family she begins to really accept herself and is open about her sexuality with neighbours and acquaintances as well.  She has another very negative run in with her brother later in the story, but survives this with the support and backing of her aunts and cousin. Eventually Orphea develops the courage to follow her dreams and moves to New York to pursue a career in performance arts.

Orphea Proud delivers a strong message about being true to oneself, but the story also highlights what a journey self-acceptance can be and the value of identifying loving and supportive family and friends along the way.

Wyeth, S.D. (2004). Orphea Proud. New York: Delacorte.

2005 LAMBDA Literary Award Finalist
2005 New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age

Almost Perfect, by Brian Katcher (2009)

Almost Perfect

Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher is a story told by Logan Witherspoon, a high school senior in small-town Missouri.  He is upset about – and borderline obsessed with – the recent breakup with his ex-girlfriend, Brenda.  Then Sage Hendricks moves into town and changes his world: she is tall, vivacious and beautiful in her own quirky way.  Sage and Logan hit it off immediately, but she is not allowed to see him outside of school, and sometimes she reacts strangely to his touch.  Sage is obviously keeping a secret from him.  They finally kiss, and Sage reveals the truth: she was born a boy.  Logan reacts with anger, and treats Sage badly for weeks.  He is confused: if he was (and still is) attracted to a male, does that make him gay?  Does anyone else know that Sage is really a boy?  Logan eventually realizes that Sage desperately needs a good friend, so he decides to reach out to her and rekindle their friendship.  He cannot help but see Sage as a girl, and he finds himself falling in love with her.   Almost Perfect is an honest exploration of an uncommon relationship and a topic that is seldom discussed.

Throughout the course of the novel, very few characters know that Sage was born a boy, and they have a variety of reactions.  Logan is angry, and later finds himself cycling through feelings of love, disgust, and fear.

Why couldn’t she just be a real girl?  Our lives would be great.  She was so close to the real thing.  But close didn’t count. (p. 285)

Sage’s parents are permissive, but not supportive: they only allow her to live as a female because of a suicide attempt.  They forced her to be homeschooled for several years and moved to another town so that no one would find out her secret.  Sage’s sister Tammi is loving and very protective, but she feels guilty for encouraging Sage to become a girl: Tammi knows how much easier Sage’s life would be as a normal boy.  Logan’s sister is immediately accepting: she thinks Sage is a wonderful person, and could not care less that Sage was born male.  An unnamed college student has an unfortunately violent reaction: Sage is badly beaten and left for dead.  Will this incident convince Sage to go back to being a boy?

Katcher, B. (2009). Almost Perfect. New York: Delacorte Books for Young Readers.