Literary Alphabet Soup: Denied?

The Alphabet Soup movement. The LGBTQ movement. Gay rights. Whatever you want to call it, getting equality and public acceptance of homosexuality is a big focus politically and socially right now. It’s also one that’s fairly close to my heart; since coming to college, I’ve made several good friends who are transgender, pansexual, and asexual, to scratch the surface of the sexual diversity. Some of the resistance to the movement is obvious, in the form of anti-gay protests, hate crimes, and bias incidents. Some of it is much more subtle, though. For instance, in this story by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith.

Our novel, Stranger, has five viewpoint characters; one, Yuki Nakamura, is gay and has a boyfriend. Yuki’s romance, like the heterosexual ones in the novel, involves nothing more explicit than kissing.

An agent from a major agency, one which represents a bestselling YA novel in the same genre as ours, called us.

The agent offered to sign us on the condition that we make the gay character straight, or else remove his viewpoint and all references to his sexual orientation.

Rachel replied, “Making a gay character straight is a line in the sand which I will not cross. That is a moral issue. I work with teenagers, and some of them are gay. They never get to read fantasy novels where people like them are the heroes, and that’s not right.”

The agent suggested that perhaps, if the book was very popular and sequels were demanded, Yuki could be revealed to be gay in later books, when readers were already invested in the series.

I find this to be incredibly sad. I am a self-professed bibliophile, and young adult fantasy and sci-fi are among my favorite books. I’ve been lucky enough to read a lot of good ones, including ones with main characters who are gay or queer. But those, like Daja in Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic books, are few and far between, and often don’t “come out” until later in the series (Daja doesn’t realize her sexual orientation until The Will of the Empress, which is approximately the 9th book in the sequence). In fact, Malinda Lo has written another article with graphs on how many LGBT young adult novels have been published in the United States since 1969.

The publisher has since rebutted the original posting, and the two authors have responded. While some of the specific details of the story may be in question, both publishers and authors agree:

So let’s continue this conversation, and let’s base it on the truth, which is:

There are not enough mainstream books that depict characters of diverse race, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, and physical and/or mental disabilities.

The original article has some great suggestions for readers, to both encourage more diversity in young adult literature, and resources to find what already exists. I encourage you to take a look; I have already read, and enjoy, many of the books on the list provided.

I think that, in the end, it boils down to this: we are all human beings, in all our diversity, and we tell stories about ourselves and about others. If the stories that are published and exposed to the world are selected to reflect only a portion of that diversity, those differences that make us unique and fascinating individuals, then a major outlet to encourage those differences is lost, instead promoting homogeneity. While true for every medium, it’s particularly true in young adult books: questioning teens who only see heterosexual couples in the books they read may come to the conclusion that there’s something wrong with them. And that’s not OK. Whether the bias is conscious or not, we need to be aware of it, because only then can we do something about it.

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Ali Marie

Ali Marie

Ali Marie is a recent Master's of Education graduate, and is now venturing back into the world of non-traditional education, as an outreach program leader at a children's museum. Her interests vary widely, but include board games, music, dinosaurs, and science as a whole.

You can find Ali on Twitter, @ascientifica.

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