I hate labels. So imagine my hatred every time I see the labels “Gay & Lesbian Young Adult Literature” or “Queer-Lit.” Why is a love story involving two teenage males or two tween girls any different than the typical male-female pairing? It would be ignorant to say that there are no more prejudices out there, because if there weren’t, there wouldn’t be a need to sub-categorize. Now, I know that every book is sub-categorized, but the books with straight characters who fall for each other aren’t sub-labeled “Straight Fiction.”
But, I digress. This isn’t mean to be a commentary on labels in our society. I want to highlight some really great YA titles, who just-so-happen to feature gay characters, and discuss the pitfalls and advantages of writing gay characters. Two books (out of the many on my shelf) that I’ve chosen to write about in this particular post are Perry Moore’s Hero, and David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy.
Hero is one of the best books I’ve read with a gay male protagonist. Hero centers around Thom Creed, a high school basketball star who mysteriously suffers from seizures. Abandoned by his mother and living in his fathers shadows, who is one of the world’s most famous ex-superheroes (who was disgraced following his inability to save innocent lives during a horrible incident in the past), Thom is battling everything from being a social outcast to his own sexuality. As his powers start to develop, he has more secrets to keep from his father than just his attraction toward other guys. When he believes that his dad is about to find out about his sexuality, he runs away from home and right into a battle between a group of villains and The League, a group of superheroes fighting evil. When the leader of the group, Justice, witnesses Thom’s healing abilities, he extends an invitation for him to train with them. And so ensues an epic battle between Thom against his own hormones, sexuality, budding powers, and how to hide it all from his dad, who he believes will never understand.
What drew me to this book was the idea of a gay teen superhero and how he struggles with super powers on top of the usual coming-of-age fodder. And let me tell you – it was a wild ride, with twists and turns. Moore has this way of writing so that you think all of your questions are answered, and then he flips it on his head and surprises you. Not to mention, he did a great job of capturing what it’s like to grow up feeling completely different from everyone around you. This is a must-read for everyone out there who knows what it’s like to feel like you have to hide who you are from the world. In that respect, this is more than just a Gay Teen book, and really, it shouldn’t even have that label. Overall, it’s just a great book, with wonderfully written action scenes (which, in my experience and opinion, are frickin’ hard to do!), and a very relatable protagonist. Thom Creed is human, and his story is a part of the human experience. If you like action, this is a great book. If you like comic books and superheroes and have room for a brand new hero in your collection, this is a book for you. If you want to read about a slice of the human experience, then pick this up. If you want a book with social commentary about our society, try it out.
Another notable book is David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy. Now, I have to warn you that this book is fiction at its finest. I’d even venture so far as to say that Boy Meets Boy is more fictive than Hero. Why? Levithan’s story exists purely in an ideal world, an optimistic town where being gay is as normal as eating cereal for breakfast. Nobody bats an eyelash when two boys walk hand-in-hand down the street, and it’s only natural for them to go to the school dance together.
While I admire Levithan’s creation of this town (which, in my opinion, is just as wild and imaginative as Narnia or Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardly), I didn’t exactly find it relatable. Though, I can see how a teen struggling with their sexuality would pick this up and immediately dream of a place and time when they too will be able to walk down the street and be proud of who they are. In that respect, it’s truly a remarkable novel.
Still, for me, I found it hard to look past the idealistic setting and the sheer fabulousity in characters like Infinite Darlene, a drag queen and the star quarterback who demands to be referred to as a “she.” Alas, I kept reading. And boy was I glad that I did. One of the most remarkable characters in all of teen literature is, in my humble opinion, Tony in Boy Meets Boy. Tony is Paul, the main protagonist’s, best friend.
In Boy Meets Boy, Tony is talking to Paul about his on-going struggle with his parents:
“I know you won’t understand this but they love me. It would be much easier if they didn’t. But in their own way, they love me. They honestly believe that if I don’t straighten out, I will lose my soul. It’s not just that they don’t want me kissing other guys – they think if I do it, I will be damned. Damned, Paul. And I know that doesn’t mean anything to you. It really doesn’t mean anything to me. To them, though, it’s everything.” (152)
He continues talking to Paul about the possibility of leaving and running away, then says:
“All I know is that I can’t just run off. They think being gay is going to mess up my whole life. I can’t prove them right, Paul. I have to prove them wrong. And the only way for me to prove them wrong is to try to be who I am and show them it’s not hurting me to be that way.”
His struggle is the most true to real life. As I read further his character developed even more. For example, when a friend of his parents outs him to his mom and dad, I found myself breathless. I was experiencing what Tony was going through in the power of Levithan’s words. Beneath the idealism in the backdrop, was a struggle so many are familiar with. It’s one that made the entire book worth reading.
There are a lot of ups and downs in writing a gay character, and a special care that normally wouldn’t be there. You have to be aware of the stereotypes and pitfalls of gay or lesbian character. In Levithan’s case, he took those stereotypes, the fierceness and the fabulousness of living a life out loud-and-proud and exemplified them. As a result, he created a world where being exactly who you are, is exactly who you’re supposed to be. Moore’s character, Thom Creed, is a big “eff you” to the stereotypes: a straight-acting athlete with super powers. By all counts, he sounds like any other male teen out there. But therein lies the struggles of writing gay characters: How much is too much? What is believable? What will resonate? As writers, we’re committed to getting experiences right, to make them resonate, no matter how fantastical the circumstances.
Personally, I would love to live in a world where books like Boy Meets Boy are written without characters like Tony. By that I mean books that don’t have to treat coming out as some life-altering decision, but is just accepted as another part of life, like eating cereal for breakfast.
Unfortunately, that isn’t going to happen anytime soon.
In the meantime, it’s up to us as writer’s to get it right. To humanize the experience. To appeal not just to the gay audiences, but straight readers as well. It’s our job to tear down the labels, and write. We must work on creating love stories as realistically as possible. We must treat the love as complex and with as much care as the love between a guy and a girl. That’s the only way to tear down the walls, to write gay characters fully and completely, with the same mastery and understanding of Levithan and Moore. Isn’t the whole point of books to get us thinking, to broaden our horizons, to find something out there we relate to, to latch onto?
What do you think? Are the labels still necessary? What YA novels do you think capture gay characters effectively, positively, and masterfully? What books can you suggest I add to my list? Get involved in the conversation and let’s work together to tear down the labels.
Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images, Alfred A. Knolf Publishers, Hyperion Publishers