I impulse bought 3 books while waiting for the bus earlier today, all queer YA. I started reading one this evening and was struck at how different it was to the books I read when I was figuring out my sexuality back in middle school (around 2005). When I was a tiny queer just coming to terms with the fact that I wasn’t straight, queer YA books were relatively hard to find, at least in my area. I read things like Annie on My Mind, Dare Truth or Promise, Good Moon Rising, and Rainbow Boys. Mainstream, popular books didn’t have queer characters, and the library only carried a couple “gay books.” (I remember sending a check to Amazon to buy a book that had a lesbian character. Asking my mother to write the check and trying to avoid talking about the subject of the book was super frightening and awkward.) The characters in those books dealt with hostile school administrations (threatens of expulsion, for instance), HIV, not knowing any other queer youth or any other queer people at all, horribly homophobic parents, not having a visible queer community, etc.
But things have changed. It’s only been 10 years, but a lot has happened and that is reflected in the books that are published. Queer YA books actually sell nowadays, and mainstream authors include queer characters. I looked at my goodreads account and besides Aristotle and Dante, which I read earlier this year, the last queer YA book I read was published in 2009, so I’ve got some catching up to do.
But to go back to the book I got today, it includes the following lines:
“At school, there are one or two guys who are out, and people definitely give them crap. Not like violent crap…And I guess there are a few lesbian and bisexual girls…”
When I was in middle school, no one was out, and the idea that someone could come out in middle school, which happens more frequently now, was foreign. When I was at the public high school, I knew 3 other people who were out at some point during my time there, all girls. One was a senior though, and graduated. Only one of the four of us was vocal about our identity (not me). None of us had an easy time in terms of the social climate at the school. [side note: by this point I knew I wasn’t cis, but the idea that I could have explored my gender identity in such a setting is laughable; coming out as trans didn’t cross my mind until I was 18. I didn’t even try to find books with trans characters, as I basically ignored the fact that I wasn’t cis for most of high school.]
The book I got today also mentions slash fanfic and tumblr, and it makes me think about how when I was figuring out my sexual orientation the only examples I got of queer people were from the few books I could get my hands on (we didn’t watch TV), and none of those characters were out and happy and successful. I think there was a queer couple that came to my church sometimes, but I didn’t know them personally. They were the only queer people I knew of, however. And when people talked about them, they never used the words gay, lesbian, or queer to describe them. There were neutral things like “partner” and “companion.” I also didn’t have access to online communities like Tumblr, as this was in the days of dial-up, and I wasn’t usually allowed to use the internet other than to find photos to use for school posters.
Books were how I escaped the awful things going on, and the fact that I couldn’t find more than a couple of novels that had people like me made me feel alone. I am so happy that queer kids figuring stuff out now can find communities online, and that there is way more representation in books (not enough, but more than there was).
I didn’t mean for this to get so long. I guess my point is that things have changed a lot in the last decade, and I am so happy that I got through it in one piece and was able to (eventually) find a community, and that I also started seeing people like me represented more often.