Queer Young Adult literature is an important resource for youth growing up because of the ability it possesses to empower them as individuals who are alienated or otherwise unexposed to near-accurate reflections of themselves in the mainstream.
One thing YA lit does excellently (when well-written) is exposing its readers to new modes of expression and new ideas. Take dating, for example. In the mainstream, dating as a cultural practice is gendered with male and female role expectations. Male does X, female does Y. By taking this model and merely imposing it wholesale onto queer youth, it reinforces a heteronormative standard of meeting and being that might not be wholly beneficial for any of the same-sex (or queer non-same-sex) people involved.
For me, my first date was awkward for two minutes at the beginning, but fantastic all the way through. I was openly queer enough (to myself) to have gone to YouthPride’s Youth Ball during Gay Pride at Piedmont Park where I met the guy I would gather up the courage to talk to. Before he left the Ball, I figured if I got rejected, I’d never see him again, so I asked him for his number and a date. And I got both. And so we went on our date. We ate, we talked, we traveled the city in his car at dangerous speeds that should have made me vomit and visited some awesome haunts (including an abandoned house in a part of town I didn’t know existed and still can’t find on a map. I’m convinced he was magical). And he was connected enough to get us into a tower that overlooked the entire city, literally giving me the vision of the city that made me not move back to NYC. I literally had a perfect first date.
I was sixteen and pretty sure I was asexual a few months prior—to be fair, I might have been using it to bide time in understanding and articulating my sexuality—but it was Rainbow Boys by Alex Sanchez and Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan and Geography Club by Brent Hartinger that helped me come into my own. I couldn’t identify with the cast from Queer as Folk—they were grown and went to bars and acted gay. Will and Grace’s Will and Jack did not appeal to me as role models—both were adults, one was a boring lawyer and the other was gaaaaayyyyy. Queer Young Adult literature was literally my lifeline. (Horray for aLITeration? Sorry.)
Sanchez, Hartinger and Levithan gave me the tools to express myself in ways that the mainstream did not. Sanchez’s Rainbow Boys series showed me a new way to see flamboyant people as actual people and not embarrassments (institutional homophobia will do that to a person). A good YA book can tap into the confusion, angst, denial, and desire of a young person and help them navigate the volatile mix of emotions. It can inspire the courage needed to brave the possible ridicule you risk by grabbing your date’s hand in public. It can suggest ideal situations you might have never considered as you focus on just trying to survive in a society that tells you in no uncertain terms that it despises you (or at most tolerates your existence as it robs you of political and social capital.)
Reflecting on my first date, it was literally perfect. I had confidence enough to be myself and assert my agency in a time where my self-esteem was so low it emerged in China. I had a vision of an American Dream where I could coexist next to straight and lesbian neighbors in heteronormative bliss (the white picket fence I later eschewed, but at the time it was a big step). And I was assured that I was somebody of value whether conservative a politician said I should die, whether a religious leader said I should burn in Hell, or whether some FOX “anchor” said I should be disowned from my family.
Thanks for reading the first installment of my series on Queer Young Adult literature. In the second, I’ll talk about the ways it can inspire young people. Also, if you have any queer young adult fiction, essays, or poems, drop them in the comments section! And check out the 100 Queer Words–queer microfiction that I typically write, but which I would love to have people contribute to!