Last Wednesday’s #yalitchat featured an interesting discussion about diversity and authenticity and it was no surprise that this included the call for more LGBTQ characters in YA books. This is not a new topic and we’re all pretty much preaching to the choir. However, the most interesting part of the discussion (at least to me) was the fact that people didn’t want “token” gay characters, we wanted meaningful characters who also happened to be gay.
Grok the difference? Let me ‘splain:
What immediately popped to my mind was a graphic novel in the post-punk series HOPELESS SAVAGES, specifically Vol. 2: GROUND ZERO. (Haven’t read them? Click the link!) In the introduction, Andrew Wheeler writes that, while talking with creator Jen Van Meter, said “what I really wanted to see was a gay character who was not only permitted a love life, but permitted a kiss, and not only permitted a kiss, but permitted a love story.” And my thought upon reading that was, “Well, sure. Why not?” Maybe I’m naive, but the characters in this series are all so completely and wholly people in their own right, each with a solid back-story full of motivations, dark pasts, passions and dreams that it made total sense that each of them would have a love story. Why not Twitch? Because he was gay? That’d make no sense and I was happy to see it play out on the pages (even though the main love story was Zero’s, we got to peek at Mom, Dad, Twitch, and Arsenal getting “pashed damp” over their honeys as well. Heck, it’s a family show!) and Twitch indeed reflected on the incredibly touching story of the “one who got away” in a way that all of us who have ever loved and lost could completely understand. Twitch is an artist, a dreamer, a drug addict, a brother, a Mod, a classicist, and gay. Guess which aspects of his character I find the most interesting?
The bottom line is that I don’t want to read about a character that’s gay and, well, that’s it, any more than I want to read a character that’s described as any one word (heterosexual, red-headed, Jewish, handi-capable or ADHD) and then left to my own devices to guess what they’re like otherwise. That’s as sloppy as giving a physical description based on eye/hair color alone. No. Real people are multi-faceted folks and I like to read about the girl who colors in her own canvas shoes with Sharpie markers and dreams of being a concert pianist and the guy who is the sixth of ten children and whose most prized possession is a fossilized turtle skull. Their hair and eye color is possibly the least important part of their character makeup; their race, religion and sexuality is a much larger part of who they are, but it’s not *only* who they are. To designate a character’s defining quirk as their sexuality alone is ridiculous. Even in John Green’s novel, WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON, which features a gay main character as well as G/Q secondary characters, it is Tiny who is the “biggest and gayest” of Will Grayson’s friends–not just gay, because there may be gayer, and not just big, because there may be bigger–but to Will, there’s no one “bigger AND gayer” than Tiny Cooper, and that defines the flamboyant football player/actor better than anything else could. We get Tiny from the start because while being a gay male is certainly part of his character, it isn’t by far his ONLY defining characteristic. That’s what makes him such a character!
What I’d like to see is a gay character who collects stuffed penguins or takes ping pong waaaaay too seriously, draws star charts, or practices yoga in the park as their defining quirk. Being gay is a big part of Who They Are but it’s only “part” (as opposed to the “whole picture”). Not every gay character’s story is a Coming Out story any more than every latina-American story is an immigration tale; there are a lot of great ones out there, to be sure, but diversity–true diversity–isn’t defined by skin color or genital plumbing, but by what music we like, what causes we fight for, our choice of friends, our deepest beliefs. No two people are alike, no matter how much we like to stick them in the same box. The truth is, human beings will always surprise us because the labels we’ve stuck on them are OUR labels and it’s a wake-up call to our central P.C.-processor when they are being true to themselves as opposed to who we thought they were/should be.
It’s the exceptions that make us exceptional.
For full disclosure, I have gay characters in all of my published books. In the latest WIP, there is a “coming out” aspect to one person’s story, but it’s far more about secrets and family dynamics than it is about being gay. And for fully full-on disclosure, I am a rabidly passionate GLBTQ advocate who studied sex and sexuality as part of improving youth self-esteem and body-image. I was raised believing that everyone has the right to be whomever they want to be, have the freedom to believe what they want to believe, and certainly to love whomever they want to love. It flummoxes me that some people feel differently, but hey, that’s diversity, too.
Those characters that move me, the ones that live closest to my heart, are the ones that I believed in, cried for, wanted to follow through hundreds of pages, the ones I most admired for their tough choices and stuck to their personal beliefs even in the face of overwhelming odds. Those were the characters (and authors) that most inspired me. Oh, yeah, and some of them are gay.