#SJYALit: How does real life and research fit with LGBT young adult lit? A guest post by Alex B
As a young teen, I went to my local bookstore with my family and chose books like Alex Sánchez’s Rainbow Road, David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy, and Julie Anne Peters’ Keeping You a Secret for my parents to buy with no thought to self-censor; in a weird twist that I won’t go into here, I actually became more closeted as I got older. I soaked up the stories, and the representation of LGBT characters was immensely satisfying. Despite my love and gratitude for these books, I still searched for books with LGBT characters that (1) had less drama, (2) had less romance, and (3) were not fictional. Leap forward and in a little over a decade…more books! There are new twists, new styles, and new angles galore. It is clear that many people are working to help teens find LGBT representation in what they read.
I am here to argue for more inclusivity and more diversity in style and content, however, which is not a new argument but one that fermented for me on a recent trip to San Francisco. Beyond being able to explore the Castro, I also spent time researching at the GLBT Historical Society archives and visiting their museum. It got me thinking. I see a need for diverse literature in the same way that they have a specific context and specific gaps in their collection development. In an email message titled “Fight LGBT Discrimination with Education,” they write, “The GLBT Historical Society focuses its collections on gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer life in the wider San Francisco Bay area and Northern California. Currently, we are seeking accessions to fill particular gaps in our holdings. We seek materials documenting LGBT life prior to the 1970s, as well as LGBT people of color, lesbian and bisexual women of all social/cultural backgrounds, LGBT working class communities, and bisexual and transgender people.” Can we give teens LGBTQ literature that mixes with geography in the same way? I read Nina LaCour and David Levithan’s You Know Me Well on the flight to and from San Fran – where the story is set – which made it even more special. But I wish I had more stories set in my corner of the world when I was growing up, and more stories with true settings that helped make the triumphs and tribulations feel real.
If there are any takers, I’ll gladly throw out some ideas or queries that aspiring or established authors could consider, and knowledgeable teen librarians can answer in their collection, clubs, or services.
So, in addition to geography, and in this post-election world with Donald Trump as president, teens may need more than fictional books with LGBT characters that deal with first love – they need books that provide a roadmap for strength, role models to emulate, and reading that fits educational goals such as a history curriculum that may legitimize it in broader circles. It is important to have books that deal with resiliency and empathy, and books that appeal to a wide range of people connected to the LGBT spectrum from a variety of paths, such as siblings of gay teens, children of gay parents, allies, and those who have no visible connections to the community and may have mixed or negative feelings about it.
Other people bring up diversity and inclusivity in LGBTQ lit for teens and provide ideas of what it could or should look like; Dahlia Adler (2016) states, “where it used to be like searching for a needle in a haystack to find queer characters outside of contemp, now you can find queer superheroes and royals and brujas. Where intersectionality used to be an impossible find, now it’s…a fairly difficult find.”
So what am I envisioning?
Let me go back to telling you about my trip. After taking BART to my stop, I ran through a torrential rain shower to a building that also houses Buzzfeed offices, signed in at the front desk, and headed to the basement location. In the archives, I looked at primary documents on Tom Ammiano, Peninsula Gay and Lesbian Youth Group and the facilitator, Rhio Hiersch, Quatrefoil Library’s The Gay Bookworm newsletters, and Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network’s (GLSEN) BlackBoard newsletters. Some of the material I looked at, such as that on education expert Mary Greer and the group OLOC (Old Lesbians Organizing for Change), may not interest teens as much as others, but hey, it would have interested me! From the staff at the GLBT Historical Society Archives, I learned that Tom Ammiano – who has worn many hats as an out public school teacher, politician, LGBT activist, and comedian – is friendly and approachable, so I think it could be possible for someone to write a teen-friendly bio. I also think library events that allow teens to see primary documents related to LGBTQ life and history could be helpful, or representations of key primary documents could be included in non-fiction books. I am all about blending genres, crossing traditional boundaries of how events are run or what is included, and I think there are so many ways we can help teens connect with LGBTQ material in fun and meaningful ways. Can a library help teens understand research and experience LGBTQ artifacts by facilitating a Skype conference with the archives staff? Can teachers add a(nother) book with LGBTQ characters – fiction or nonfiction – to their curriculum? Can more schools incorporate positive LGBTQ experiences not only in their reading material but in their lessons and policies too? In my research, I found a 1993 NYT article that is actually available online now as well; it states, “at a time when other school districts are including material on homosexuality in their multicultural curriculum, so too is Mr. Ammiano seeing that homosexuality is addressed in the classroom here. Sixth-graders learn how hurtful it is to label people and call them names; seventh-graders learn about different kinds of families, and eighth-graders learn about myths and stereotypes surrounding homosexuality.” I would love to have this kind of curriculum widespread and uniform across the country and even internationally recognized, and teen librarians and educators can be instrumental in advocating for them.
While it poured in San Francisco, I dried off in the archives as I read, and I was interested in learning about the history of gay educators’ experiences with being closeted or out. I also hoped to find anecdotes and people involved in teen programming, services, and especially LGBT literature in schools or gay-straight alliances. In the Spring 1997 issue of The Newsletter of the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Teachers’ Network ( “Teaching Respect for All”), I found the promotion of a good idea:
Make your Librarian’s Day. Does your school or community library have what it needs to provide adequate information and support to young people who need it on issues of sexual orientation? Drop by and check out their collection to see if they do. If they don’t, buy a suitable book, make a time to talk to the librarian, and present it to him or her, using your gift as a chance to educate them on the need to have more such books. (p. 10).
Let’s keep doing this, but also look toward how we can help shape the future of Social Justice in YA Lit, adding to what LGBTQ looks like in lit or programming for teens. My research trip helped me feel connected to history and to other LGBTQ people, empowering me to come out here, and teens deserve similar opportunities to experience archival material and powerful primary documents, diverse books, and supportive programming and policies in their schools and libraries.
Stay tuned for another guest post on LGBTQ YA lit in the 90s/00s versus now, from my own experience, in late February. I’m off to read Flying Lessons & Other Stories, edited by Ellen Oh! Thank you for reading.
Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Teachers’ Network. (1997). Get involved: Do your homework! The Newsletter of the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Teachers’ Network. 6(3), 10.
Alex B is an aspiring librarian in a Master’s of Library and Information Science + K-12 program. She’s gay and has a goofy sense of humor. She can read, is testing her ability to write, and is so-so at talking. She does love to listen, so you can connect with her via email (absjyalit at gmail.com) or comment here with your stories or thoughts!
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About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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