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Lit Gay men represent the LGBTQ community in youth literature—why?

Feb. 19, 2019
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“Quick, make a wish.
Take a (second or third or fourth) chance.
Remake the world.”

-Jandy Nelson

“I’ll Give You the Sun”

Just recently, I’ve shed my chains of high-school required reading and begun my old practice of reading for fun. Of the YA fiction books (my primary genre) I have read over the past year, more than half of them have been LGBT+ romance novels. Personally, there is nothing that feeds my soul more than the concept of a love story that has your own name written all over it. In a time when LGBT+ themes are becoming more and more societally prominent, these stories reflect what the youth culture craves: a way to live in an idealized version of our own world. Literature, though always meant to act as an escape, has somewhat more power over these realms than most other art forms, delving into one’s intellectual mind through the use of plot lines and world development.

However, as I have been reading, there has been a common theme present in most modern LGBT+ novels. Gay men are always the protagonists. Whether the author is a man or a woman, queer or not, they always tend to gravitate toward telling the stories of young gay boys. With Love, Simon (which I loved) having hit theatres last spring, we were given a win in terms of our stories being told. Yet it seems that we find ourselves grateful while also in a constant state of waiting for stories that look like ours.

Love, Simon’s mother book, Simon vs. The Homosapiens’ Agenda by Becky Albertalli, follows this “lack of diversity” pattern. Telling the story of Simon, a white, closeted gay high school student, the novel is an excellent portrayal of what it means to come out to a supportive family and an unsupportive school environment. In later books Albertalli brings in a branched-off plot of his best girlfriend’s queerness, but the true centerpiece of the series is Simon in all of his glory. 

Another staple on the YA LGBT+ bookshelf is Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, written by Benjamin Alire Saenz. With a heavy emphasis on the importance of one’s cultural identity and acceptance of self, the romance in this book takes a backseat to the dialogue and self-discovery that is at its core. The novel’s storyline is equipped with immense sweetness, and contrasting experiences with homophobia for boys in a quasi-modern setting. 

Personally, my favorite LGBT+ novel is I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson. Sibling love and individuality take the spotlight here, but there are many nods to the value of art when it comes to the self-acceptance of one’s own choices. Noah, one of the two siblings, is the queer protagonist of the piece and brings attention to his own unique struggles, building themes of acceptance and the need for understanding.

Listen—I have no problem with these books. Like I said, some of them are my favorites, and others are stories that I will devour over and over again. The tricky part is that, as much as I want to say they reflect my experiences, they really don’t. They reflect the experiences of cisgender gay boys. The LGBT+ community is not made up of only cisgender gay boys. That’s something that is very easy for many to forget. Much of our movement was built on the backs of transgender women of color. So many of us identify as women or bisexual or nonbinary or queer or asexual or femme, and yet I don’t remember the last time I read a book with a main character like that. 

Why does this happen? Well, on some level, cis, gay, masculine stories are the easiest to understand. As twisted as this sounds, by giving them this much media they are becoming more and more normalized. This isn’t to say that homophobia does not reach them, because that absolutely is not true. But it is to say that the LGBT+ community cannot be tied to these incredibly specific stories.

As important as it is for these boys to have their stories told, there are more stories in the community that are just as important. Different sexualities require different storytellers and different protagonists; different gender identities require different periods of questioning and self-discovery. The LGBT+ community is not as black and white as youth literature leads us to believe. It is built on deep roots of fluidity and self-expression. There is nothing more confusing than being stranded in an identity when you don’t even have a reference point. Cisgender gay man is not a reference point; it is an accepted standard.

As much as literature is fantasy and fiction, there is an element of realism that must be present when it comes to representation. In building a stronger collection of popularized novels for different identities, the circle for what is accepted becomes larger and encompasses more of those who are viewed as “outcasts.” If acceptance is the foundation of the LGBT+ movement as it has been from the start, there are steps that must be taken so that this is reflected in media. Awareness and the destruction of the “norm,” even in queer spaces, will not stop being important until no identity is taboo.