LGBTQA Characters in YA: Have We Moved Beyond "Best Friend" Territory?
As much as Dragon Con is about Steampunk and Joss Whedon, it is also about providing a platform to discuss issues, large and small, in the world of literature and pop culture. One incredibly popular annual panel is the LGBTQA in YA Fiction discussion. On hand this year were a number of publishers, librarians, and writers including Stephanie Perkins, author most recently of the book Isla and the Happily Ever After.
In addition to Stephanie, the panel included Christopher Elliot, the Senior Executive public library purchaser for southern Oklahoma, Cinda Williams Chima, the author of the Seven Crown series, and Nessa Warin, an editor at the small LGBTQA friendly publisher Harmony Ink Press. We got to ask the entire panel some questions about their thoughts on the state of the representation of LGBTQA in YA and we got some interesting answers!
Q: What are some of your favorite books out right now that feature LGBTQA characters?
Cinda: I did read, just recently, Grasshopper Jungle and I thought it was an unusual niche for the main character to play, and I liked that a lot. I like Cassandra Clare's fantasy. Malinda Lo's books are all excellent.
Stephanie: My favorite books with LGBTQA characters this year are... David Levithan's Two Boys Kissing. My very favorite love story this year was Nina Lacour's Everything Leads to You, and it's a story about two ladies and it has zero drama. It's just a really, really good love story. It's not about people being angry or trying to get over anything. It's just a really beautiful love story.
Q: How do you classify this category? What makes something LGBTQA?
Nessa: Well for us as a publisher, we want main characters that identify as LGBTQA. In the industry you can classify [as LGBTQA] with major side characters. It doesn't really count if you've got that guy that appears on page 36 for two lines. The person's best friend or something... that can be included. Or "issue" books. The story doesn't have to revolve around the issues. A lot of what we publish doesn't revolve around the issues. We publish a lot of fantasy and paranormal... they just happen to star an LGBTQA character.
Christopher: Malinda Lo, who a lot of people love, is really keen on having LGBTQA novels with an LGBTQA protagonist. It may not be a "coming out" novel or a realistic novel, but she's said "we're past the stage of the 'gay best friend.'" That may have worked in 1989, but it doesn't work today.
Q: How challenging is it to get these books into bookstores and libraries so kids who want to find them can find them?
Christopher: It's very important for adults, especially if you're a teacher or librarian, to be proactive, because a lot of kids are very shy and may not have even come out yet. And if they have, it's not something they want to advertise to the world. And coming to a strange person to say "Do you have a copy of Two Boys Kissing" is like... teens have problems as it is. That can be stigmatizing.
Q: How has the wider acceptance of LGBTQA in pop culture affected your writing, if at all?
Stephanie: I don't think it's changed much for me. It's always been something that's important to me to have those characters in my books anyway. I'll put it out there... all of the protagonists in my books are straight. I'm definitely of the ilk where it's the best friends, and in my second book it's the parents... I definitely want to add a protagonist soon. It's just such a natural part of our world. All of my role models as a teenager were gay men. I was a deeply unhappy teenager and I felt really out of place and I didn't connect with my peers. I lived in a community that had a lot of gay men, and it was those men who reached out to me and saw that I was suffering and they gave me that "It gets better" message fifteen years before Dan Savage was out there. So, it's always been crucial to have those characters in my books because those were the people who saved me. So, it being accepted hasn't changed my work, I'm just really grateful that it is that way.
What's your favorite YA story or novel with LGBTQA themes?