#FSYALit: From Rejection to Reconciliation: Changing Notions of Faith and Spirituality in LGBTQ YA, a guest post by Rob Bittner
“What I would love to see more of in Queer YA with Christian sub-plots is the ability of characters to reimagine their spirituality—their faith—in ways which incorporate gender and sexual identities, instead of feeling the need to abandon all religious and spiritual components of their identities.” –Rob Bittner
Back in 2015 (was that really two years ago already?) I wrote a piece for TLT exploring the role of religion and religious communities on the lives of queer teens in YA literature. In these last two years (though more like the last two months) I’ve been coming across a significant number of the texts that I had been hoping for in my last post. I wanted nuance, and I’m starting to see it. I wanted complexity, and it’s happening. I can’t tell you how excited that makes me! But first, let me go back and bit and plot how I got here and why I think this progress is so important.
I have been keeping an eye on books featuring queer characters in religious contexts for the last decade. When I was in my undergrad, I started on a directed study on books with LGBTQ content. My supervisor asked me about the direction in which I was hoping to go, and at the time I wasn’t entirely sure. Looking back at my own past and my history as a gay man within the Christian church, I wondered how, if at all, such experiences were being discussed in books for young readers. Keep in mind that only ten years ago, it was still difficult to find much in the way of LGBTQ literature for YA audiences, so trying to find religious representation within that limited subgenre felt at first like an impossible task. It certainly took a lot of effort to find materials, but I came across a few examples, and some from larger publishers, too. I discussed a number of these in more detail in my previous post. Here are some main points to refresh your memory:
- Early LGBTQ YA tends to frame Christianity (or any major religion really) as the enemy, often in the form of a religious leader preaching fire and brimstone for any and all non-normative genders and sexualities (Nothing Pink, Desire Lines);
- Queer teens often sent away to camps for degayification (Caught in the Crossfire, Thinking Straight, The Miseducation of Cameron Post);
- Earlier narratives often include long and didactic passages with characters debating scripture in an effort to show which side is right (Nothing Pink, The God Box, Gravity);
- The novels were basically able to be split into two categories: novels of reconciliation (characters are able to reconcile queerness and spirituality, though not very often), and novels of abandonment (characters have to abandon either their faith or their sexuality in order to survive, and this is the more common trope.)
After reading so many of these books, I started to feel as though I was just reading the same narrative multiple times with different characters at the center. It became quite frustrating. In a way, I started to avoid books with religious content if I knew about it beforehand. Recently, however, I started reviewing for a mainstream review journal, and they started to send me books with LGBTQ characters in religious contexts. I almost rolled my eyes, but I’m glad I didn’t. After reading the first book, Dress Codes for Small Towns by Courtney Stevens, I realized that the narrative wasn’t following my assumptions; the story was actively working against the tropes I noted above! In the last two years I’ve read a number of novels that I’d like to briefly talk about in terms of the ways that they reject stereotypes and normative tropes for the complexity and nuance I have been advocating for.
Autoboyography by Christina Lauren (due out in September 2017)—the combined pen name of authors Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings—follows once-openly bisexual Tanner Scott as he moves with his family from California to Utah, where he is asked by his parents to go back into the closet for a bit to avoid causing trouble. Tanner’s mother is an ex-Mormon and she is concerned about how Tanner being bisexual will affect his standing within the conservative community. Tanner himself is ready to coast through his senior year so he can leave for college and be himself once again. His plans, though, get interrupted when, in a writing seminar, he finds himself distracted by the seriously hot Sebastian. In the wake of this sudden infatuation, Tanner and Sebastian develop a relationship and are both placed in a precarious situation because Sebastian’s family is very much Mormon and very much opposed to non-normative sexuality. Though some of the descriptions of Sebastian’s family could be considered overly biased, I feel that the conversations around religion and sexuality between the main characters is ultimately hopeful. And the narrative also avoids use of scriptural debates, anti-gay preaching from the pulpit, and the use of a gay conversion camp within the overarching plot. I think it’s ultimately a novel that will provide food for thought for those who want something along the lines of Latter Days but without the stilted characters and the choppy plot.
Another novel that uses the back-in-the-closet story, is Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit by Jaye Robin Brown. In this novel, Joanna Gordon has been out and proud for years, until her father, a radio televangelist, moves her family from Atlanta to Rome, Georgia. Similar to Autoboyography, the new, more conservative setting leads Joanna’s father to ask her if she might be willing to go back in the closet, at least until his ministry has had a chance to grow and find a following; he doesn’t want her to rock the boat. As always happens, Jo meets a new girl at school and falls for her. She begins to wonder if she will be able to keep her promise to her father, or if the request itself was just plain wrong in the first place. The role of the televangelist father could have led to fire and brimstone preaching, but the narrative is refreshingly devoid of such a problematic trope. The novel is actually a lot more nuanced than the plot might initially suggest, and religion and sexuality are allowed to coexist without either being demonized or made out to be wrong. Along with this, Brown puts queer sex on the page, and she isn’t afraid to discuss sex and religion within a larger spiritual context, something which is entirely missing from so many books that contain both non-normative sexualities and faith and spirituality. Quite a refreshing read!
Perhaps my favorite, though, is the aforementioned Dress Codes for Small Towns by Courtney Stevens. Stevens herself was previously a pastor, and therefore has an insider knowledge that I think really helps to elevate her narrative. When reviewing the novel for Booklist back in July, I gave it a starred review because I felt that it was an exemplary text in what was previously a very small and problematic body of work on gender/sexual difference in YA with components of faith and spirituality. In Dress Codes, Billie McCaffrey—an artist, troublemaker, and the daughter of a preacher—finds herself at the center of a rather difficult situation after she and her friends accidentally burn down a section of their church. To make things worse, the Harvest Festival is coming up and one of the main supporters has just passed away, leaving the Festival in jeopardy. Billie has to find a way to keep her friends out of trouble while also performing community service, trying to save the Harvest Festival, and trying to explore her own gender and sexuality. Stevens builds characters with incredible depth and confronts expectations and assumptions of gender and sexuality head-on, but with delicacy and nuance. The representation of religion is one of compassion and a desire to build bridges rather than walls, giving teen readers the impression that reconciliation between religion and gender/sexual difference is indeed possible.
This brief glimpse at changes since my first post on the subject is not meant to be a comprehensive examination of all of the books released since 2015 that match the criteria, but rather to give a sample of the literature available and to show how representations have changed to be more inclusive, less didactic, more compassionate, and less polarizing. Other books such as Jeffrey Self’s A Very, Very Bad Thing (out in October) is a really interesting novel, but the obvious bias against evangelical Christianity is evident in the depiction of a number of characters and makes it easier for readers to demonize Christianity within the context of the novel. There is always room to grow and improve, but the last two years have shown me that sometimes change can happen more quickly than we sometimes think in children’s and YA publishing. I would love to hear of other examples that people have come across and recommendations from those who are also interested in this topic.
Meet Rob Bittner
Rob Bittner is an instructor in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Okanagan College in Kelowna, BC. He studies long-term trends in representation in YA fiction with LGBTQ content. You can find him on Twitter (@r_bittner) or his review blog, Sense and Sensibility and Stories (unquestionably-palatable.blogspot.com).
Filed under: #FSYALit
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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