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Mini Rant: The Coming Out Novel and Queer Characters in YA Lit

Malinda Lo’s latest blog Coming Out 2.0 makes me think of the larger conversation surrounding “coming out” stories and queer characters in YA novels–a convo that’s been going on for…well, a while now. Mainly, it has to do with the evolution of the LGBT young adult story: this need to move away from storytelling focused largely on the negative, and to also move away from the Problem Novel. There’s also this: “Let’s put queer teens in stories and not have it be about them being queer.” Yes, I’m all over this–let’s do it!

But, I read a lot about this topic and I have to admit that a lot of the times, I’m kind of hesitant to accept all the arguments for updating LGBT YA literature.

First off, I think that putting queer teens in stories where you don’t have to address their queerness seems to lend itself better to genre stories: a gay Hunger Games, a bisexual Harry Potter, why not? There’s no good reason not to. These stories allow you freedom with worldbuilding, which means you don’t have to play by the rules of today’s realities.

rainbow m-eBut when you take realistic, contemporary teens—character-driven stories—how can coming out not have anything to do with most of those stories? The teen years = forming identity. Stage 5 of Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, anyone? All young people come out in their teens—they come out as different things and it’s a big jumbled mess and they try to figure out who they are, where they fit in society, and what life’s about. But in today’s world, being queer makes you pretty different from the bulk of teens—even if you’re totally OK with being gay, even if no one gives you a hard time about it—you’re probably not living in a town that’s 90% queer, and your classroom likely doesn’t have 23 queer kids to 2 straight ones (I’m making up statistics here, but only to make a point). You’re probably going to wonder about community and where you fit, in relation to your queer identity. How can it not be a significant part of any realistic, contemporary novel?

I understand what people mean about needing to move beyond the traditional “coming out” stories, the ones that make the queerness the big problem of the entire story. I don’t feel we even need those stories anymore, because we know that writing stories about people is better than writing stories about problems.

But, I’m sort of tired of people looking at LGBT YA lit and saying a lot of it is so 2003 and we need to reinvent it. Here’s my reality: I’m concerned that anytime a teen protagonist in a realistic, contemporary novel has hurdles even slightly related to their queerness, readers are going to make these sweeping comments like “Oh, I’m so sick of queer kids only being in books to struggle with their big gay problem!” Storytelling is about exploring the character’s reality—all of it. The “coming out” isn’t the only element to base a story on—definitely—but it isn’t gone. It just looks different.

So, I love Malinda’s term Coming Out 2.0, because I really hate to think of the whole “coming out” aspect of queer teens’ lives as becoming stigmatized in YA lit. That would just…suck.

6 thoughts on “Mini Rant: The Coming Out Novel and Queer Characters in YA Lit

  1. Oh my god. THANK YOU for writing this! Seriously.

    I’m currently querying my YA MS, which is essentially about coming out, but that’s only one aspect of the novel and my main character’s story arc; it’s largely about him figuring out that he has to make decisions for himself and pursue his passion, despite naysayers (which has nothing to do with him being gay, though it does factor in to his lack of decision making, general lying about small issues that shouldn’t even be lied about). I have quite a few agents currently considering it now, but one rejection I got a few months ago haunts me all the time: the agent said that I’m a wonderful writer, but that the story felt like Coming Out 101.

    My issue is this: There is NO SUCH THING as a “typical” coming out. And I strongly feel that, despite living in a post-DOMA world, kids are STILL afraid to come out. That fear is there, despite being potentially surrounded by understanding friends and family, and to marginalize that and say that the whole coming out process is “typical” is, well, quite ignorant.

    SO THANK YOU for writing this because, yes, there shouldn’t be novels that focus SOLELY on coming out and having that be the only focus throughout, but to ignore the process is just doing any potential readers a horrible injustice. Teens need to know that they are not alone. I needed to know that I was not alone. And had I had books while I was a teenager that spoke to me on that level, maybe I wouldn’t have been deathly afraid to come out until my early 20s.

    I think of it this way: Readers will read because they connect. If they don’t connect, they won’t read. The readers who get their undies in a twist over a queer character aren’t the readers that would connect with my character, because being gay is essential to his growth. And I’d love to reach a period where a characters sexual orientation is merely mentioned in passing and nobody bats an eyelash because it’s normal, but we’re not there yet. Hell, we’re not even at a point in time where we can deal with Rue from The Hunger Games being black yet! So until that day comes, when sexuality is no longer a “thing,” coming out stories, of all shapes and sizes, are essential. In my opinion, there aren’t nearly enough as it is.

    1. Sorry for replying so late, but I didn’t want to just type a short reply via my cell phone.

      So, thank you for reading!

      I completely agree with what you’re saying. This whole issue I’ve been mulling over for a few years now. I try to keep in mind that I am 31, so that probably factors into how I feel about the whole thing. I didn’t have access to those books when I was a teen (for various reasons, but mostly because the internet was super new, and big book store chains weren’t yet prominent) so I’ll probably always want them, even if they become completely irrelevant.

      There’s a balance when it comes to editors and the market for LGBT YA. I don’t even know a lot about it, but I do know that there’s always a certain amount of Queer 101 that has to happen, but if there’s just that tiny bit too much, then it becomes an Issue/Problem book.

  2. thanks for what you said! i agree with it! i wrote a novel (which is still trying to find a publisher) and in it, the main character does have a moment when he comes out to someone very important to him. however, at that same moment, something tragic happens and his coming out is not the urgent issue he thought it was. instead, he has to deal with another identity so far beyond what he could ever imagine that his coming out as gay happens vicariously through discovering his whole self and through his literal fight for survival (which has nothing to do with his homosexual identity). eventually, he will deal with his coming out in later books, but this first book simply mentions it before other things necessarily have to take precedence.

    one publisher actually told me he wanted me to change the story to focus on the character’s coming out, to which i said, “no, not going to do it, it’s already been done a million times; my character comes out, but it no longer looks like it did 15 years ago”.

    coming out will, for the foreseeable future, necessarily be a part of a queer young adult’s life (whether they do it or not, it will be a part of their thoughts), but it does not necessarily have the same urgency or priority that it once did. coming out does not necessarily have to have the same compartmentalization that it used to. nowadays, for young adults, coming out is more and more part of the whole process of discovery of the self, not a part that requires its own after school special at the expense of everything else that young person is.

    1. Hey! Thanks for reading my little blog post. 😉
      i totally agree with you. If it’s a contemporary YA story, in today’s world, there is no such thing as queerness not impacting the story. It just needs to start looking different, the characterization needs to be more layered and complex, and we need to get to a place where we’re not spending so much time doing Queer 101. So while I don’t necessarily need another “gay boy kisses another boy and…drama!” story, I cannot get behind the whole “coming out stories are so old school” thought. There are other places for our queer stories to go, but it’s a long path to updating and tweaking the way queer YA lit looks.

  3. I love this. I understand the frustration of only reading coming out stories, and I love books that don’t deal with a whole lot of drama around being queer, but at the same time, sometimes it seems like any representation of what it’s like to actually be queer is met with “Oh, they made it all about them being gay.” Just like any person of colour character who even mentions race in passing will be accused of making it all about race.

    What it comes down to is that we don’t need any fewer coming out stories, we just need more of every kind of story. I am chomping at the bit for queer Harry Potter. I loved Fingersmith by Sarah Waters partly because the plot is so incredibly complex and queerness is only an element of that.

    But also, every person’s story is different. I really like your point that every young adult is coming out about something. It’s all about discovering your own identity. Of course if you’re queer that’s going to be a major point. It’s silly to think that we can gloss over that, at least not at this point in our reality.

  4. Hi, and thanks for reading my post. (It makes me all giddy that I blogged this one time and it got people interested. I’m a terrible blogger… :P)

    Yes to your point about needing more of every kind of story!
    The other thing I think we need (what I mentioned in my response comment to Brad above) is for the stories to be more complex and layered. Moving away from the “I’m a girl and I felt tingly looking at another girl–what is wrong with me?!” and maybe looking at it more deeply. How does a queer teen feel about the heteronormativity their world is saturated with? What does gender presentation have to do with sexual attraction? It’s not always just about being gay–queerness is the bigger picture here. Those stories would be so much bigger, and yet they’d still contain an element of the “coming out” in some way.

    (I must reread all my Sarah Waters novels! I read them way too long ago. It’s time to dive back in.)

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