THIS GENRE IS NOT GAY

Posted by James Dawson on February 17, 2014

TWO BOYS KISSINGFebruary is LGBT* History Month (at least it is here in the UK) so I’m doing various events, either as a role model for Stonewall or in my position as a gay man who also happened to write some queer characters in his books. This is not ‘leftie whiny bombast’, I passionately believe in using my (admittedly small) platform to increase visibility of a gay man in schools and in publishing.

Of course, all of this was made possible by HOLLOW PIKE. Although I was a 2012 debut, I actually started writing it in early 2009. I was reading a lot of YA (still am, obviously) but I was struggling to find young gay characters. They were out there, I’m sure, but at the time I wasn’t trawling blogs and Tumblr accounts, I was (like most YA fans) going into Waterstones or my local library and pulling the fanciest covers. Nothing wrong with that – I organically discovered Noughts & Crosses and Looking For Alaska that way.

Something I also wasn’t doing was shopping in the ‘LGBT section’ or ‘Gay Interest’ section of the bookshop. That segregation is something I’m still not sure I understand.

Anyway, as I’ve said before, I made three of the four characters in Hollow Pike queer because they were based on me and my friends at school. It was, as Kevin Bacon tells us, a ‘no-brainer’. I always say queer because Kitty, Jack and Delilah are in the process of establishing their identities. IF there were to ever be a return to Hollow Pike, each would have gone on to explore further. That’s my big sad about Hollow Pike not being a series – Jack never got a snog!

I braced myself to defend Kitty, Jack and Delilah but I can honestly say NOT ONE PERSON EVER in the publishing industry asked me to straighten them out. Instead I was praised for using LGBT characters in a story that was not ‘about’ being LGBT. It’s a story about witches. In fact, when I submitted my second novel, CRUEL SUMMER, it was actually my editor at Indigo who suggested making supporting gay character, Ryan, the lead. To tell the truth, I had thought they wouldn’t publish a murder mystery in which a gay boy was in charge. HOW WRONG I WAS. Amber, for that is her name, simply said – “he’s the best character, readers will love him”.

I’m proud of Ryan in Cruel Summer, although I don’t like him. He’s all my worst traits with the filter removed: he’s selfish, devious and surely has a borderline narcissistic personality disorder, but sometimes gay people are pretty evil. More on that later.

Since 2009, representation of gay characters has come on leaps and bounds. Even since Hollow Pike came out there’s been more and more LGBT characters popping up. I stress this is in YA. Queer characters in picture books, early readers and MG are still few and far between, but I’d argue this is, at least in part, due to the fact that romantic pairings of ANY sort are pretty rare in these books. A romantic subplot often pushes a text towards YA territory.

YA is booming. Massive authors Cassandra Clare, Patrick Ness, David Levithan, Maureen Johnson and John Green are all factoring LGBT characters into their texts. Even better, more and more ‘incidentally’ gay characters are being featured in thrillers, science-fiction or contemporary novels.

Last week two novels with LGBT themes were announced by Atom and Puffin. That’s alongside releases from Orion and Hot Key, and probably more I haven’t spied as well. Last week at an event, during a conversation about these deals, someone very innocently joked ‘Gay is the new Dystopia’. Of course I laughed and said ‘I don’t need a book to tell me that!’ but it did ring an alarm bell too.

I am over the moon that publishers are falling over themselves to acquire novels with LGBT characters. I would have given my left nut in 1995 for a WHIFF of a gay character ANYWHERE. What worries me is treating so-called ‘Gay YA’ as a genre. It’s not. Being gay is not a trend to be cleared off bookshop shelves in twelves months time when Mermaids or whatever become the Next Big Thing. Similarly, as each publisher had its own post-Twilight supernatural romance or post-Hunger Games dystopia I worry that if gay characters are treated like a genre, publishers may satisfy themselves with acquiring ONE book featuring LGBT characters.

I have friends with science fiction books on submission and despite NO SIMILARITY to The Hunger Games or actually any hint of dystopia, publishers are running a mile. It’s over. I would hate to think the same fate would befall LGBT characters. If treated as a FAD, this is what will happen. I suppose it’s about maintenance and diversity monitoring. DO publishers monitor the diversity of the characters in their books?

This brings me to my next point. Far cleverer writers than me have identified that, of the LGBT characters appearing in YA books, there are more L and G with very few B or T characters and precious few intersectional characters i.e. black or latin American gay characters. Middle class white gay boys are the most commonly featured. More often than not they are in contemporary love stories. Malinda Lo, author and activist, studied the trends in detail HERE.

As both writers and readers, we must be careful not to treat LGBT people like unicorns. We wouldn’t have to look very far online to see ‘gay’ being fetishised to almost mythical levels. Seriously, google ‘Klaine’. We are not trinkets to be collected and displayed like trolls or Pokemon. Being gay doesn’t wholly define gay people and nor should it. Sexuality alone isn’t going to get anyone very far in life. We need LGBT characters with dreams, foibles, ambition, jealousy, pet-peeves and obsessions.

Despite the 2015 titles being announced, LGBT characters are not a fad – they had a great year in 2013. Dozens of YA books quietly featured LGBT characters. A list is presented below.

More Than This – Patrick Ness Undone – Cat Clarke
The Night Itself – Zoë Marriott Two Boys Kissing – David Levithan
Cruel Summer – James Dawson Far From You – Tess Sharpe
Every Day – David Levithan The Glass Republic – Tom Pollock
Trouble – Non Pratt Shadowplay – Laura Lam
Grasshopper Jungle – Andrew Smith What’s Up With Jody Barton? – Hayley Long

 

That is but a selection from 13/14, there are many many more, but I selected texts I knew to have UK publishers. Hurrah! Hurrah to all the publishers representing the full spectrum of human sexuality. The trick is now making it last forever and ensuring LGBT characters are not a trend, but an estimated 5% of all characters to represent the estimate 5% of the world who deserve to see themselves in fiction. The first person to say ‘we’ve done gay’ gets eaten by the aforementioned unicorns. I told you they could be evil.

But let’s celebrate. Between equal marriage rights, the reaction to Sochi and Tom Daley, it figures that publishers would want to ride this wave of gay PR positivity. My own LGBT history is testament to the fact I had NOTHING in 1995 and now we have, actually, quite a lot. This is twenty glorious years of progress. Here’s to another twenty! What’s more, YA is doing this WAY better than adult fiction. Seriously. Let’s make a list of adult books with LGBT representation – I bet we can’t find NEARLY as many.

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