Thursday, 22 September 2011

DIVERSITY MATTERS: ‘We’re Here, We’re Queer’ by James Dawson

James Dawson is a full-time writer of YA fiction and lives in London.

It’s a good time to be a LGBT teenager. No, really. Although, and believe me, I KNOW, that there will be young people reading this who aren’t having a great time right now, there has never been so much open discussion of young people and sexuality. Visibility of this issue has never been higher.

As I’m writing this in late September 2011, Lady Gaga herself has just tweeted that she wants to meet President Obama to discuss the alarming suicide rate among young Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer Curious people. On the same forum, the hashtag #YesGayYA has united authors and readers alike in support of diversity in teen fiction. YouTube is awash with celebrities and mere mortals proclaiming ‘It Gets Better’.
And it does.

But the recent suicide of fourteen year-old Jamey Rodemeyer in the United States has again highlighted that much more needs to be done to end homophobic bullying. A key way in which, I believe, we can do this is to normalise sexual diversity. Everyone has a responsibility to make LGBTQC relationships so run-of-the-mill that no-one has ammunition against young people.

Until recently I was a primary school teacher in Brighton, one of the most sexually diverse cities in the UK. While working as a Personal Social Health and Citizenship Coordinator (PSHCE) I was lucky enough to be involved in what we called The Family Diversity Project, along with colleagues from the Brighton & Hove Healthy Schools Team. The goal of this project was to remove the ‘otherness’ from same-sex families.

‘Family’ is something that everyone can relate to, but for so long has been portrayed as one mum, one dad, two kids. In Brighton, we strongly felt that families come in an infinite variety of flavours – straight, gay, bi, single-parent, donor sperm, adoption, fostered and on and on…

With Year One pupils (aged five to six years), we celebrated each child’s family (whatever shape it took) and planned lessons around a series of superb picture books: And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell; The Family Book by Todd Parr and The Sissy Duckling by Harvey Fierstein.

The goal is obvious - to reach children before same-sex relationships become ‘other’. Very young children are fully able to grasp the idea of two men or two women falling in love without batting an eyelid. These simple, beautiful texts say it better than any number of popstars on YouTube. They’re not shocking or tokenistic, they’re just great stories.

The power of story-telling is key. Good schools immerse children in stories from a young age, and this is a good way of presenting the world in which they live. Through fairytales we can deliver morals and values, and as they get older we can introduce more complex emotions, dilemmas and conflicts. Good examples are Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses saga or David Almond’s Skellig or Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night – each of which seek to expand and challenge young adult readers’ perspective on the world.

But what of LGBTQC characters in YA books? It is clear to me that YA authors have an opportunity to present minorities to older readers to support diversity as a positive thing. Obviously this needs to be in conjunction with zero-tolerance policies on homophobia in schools; changes in legislation regarding exclusion; mandatory sex and relationships education in all schools including faith schools; equality in same-sex marriage…and so on.

However, authors can do their bit by presenting positive fictional role models. How are we doing? This is where I need readers to get involved! With all the writing I’ve been doing, I’ve been slack on my reading. I try to keep abreast of the big YA releases, but inevitably fall behind. From where I’m sitting however, young LGBT characters are massively under represented. Queer and Curious characters are seemingly non-existent.

There are a few exceptions.

Malorie Blackman wrote a black gay character in
Boys Don’t Cry

Huntress by Malinda Lo
The Wicked Lovely series by Melissa Marr

There are more complete lists on the web, but I confess I hadn’t heard of a lot of texts, which highlights the fact that all the biggies (Twilight, Fallen, Hunger Games etc) DON’T represent ANY LGBT characters at all. A shame – books should reflect the world we live in, and some people are gay!

This brings us to the big controversy. If books are selling really well without LGBT characters, where’s the incentive for publishers to include them? The YesGayYA debate flared up when a pair of unpublished authors, Rachel Manija-Brown and Sherwood Smith claimed an agent had asked them to turn their gay main character straight. Although this debacle was later revealed to be more or less a publicity stunt for the writers, they raised a much needed discussion. Do gay characters sell?

Hard to say. I think it would be fair to say that where LGBT characters have shown up in YA fiction they have been largely as supporting characters. I think the reason for this trend is clear – the main character needs to be the eyes and ears of the reader, and the need to identify with ‘her’ (as it usually is) is vital. The fact of the matter is, most people identify as straight, and publishers seek to reach a mass audience. That's the way it is. Publishing is a business at the end of the day. I don’t have a massive problem with this, as long as the supporting LGBT characters are fully-rounded. The style-conscious, sassy, one-note GBF - a la Kurt from Glee isn’t enough.

No-one at Orion, or my lovely agent, ever raised concerns about the three LGBTQC characters in my novel HOLLOW PIKE. I, however, was ready for opposition and had prepared my defence. At the editing stage, editors edit, but I would have died to protect the somewhat complex orientations of Kitty, Jack and Delilah (that’s an exclusive, readers). This was simply because when I was at school, I was lucky enough to have a diverse bunch of mates. Therefore, I assumed, so do a billion other high school kids!

When I was fifteen, I thought I was so alone. I read and read and read, but didn’t read about anyone else like me. No-one. It was only when I was much older, reading Poppy Z Brite that I came across same-sex relationships, but by then I’d figured it out all by myself. I really hope young readers, should they choose to buy Hollow Pike, can identify with Kitty, Jack and Delilah regardless of sexual orientation. I hope I’ve done everyone justice.

As Lady Gaga said, ‘This must end. Our generation has the power to change it.’ I firmly believe she’s right. We can do this by maximising the visibility of young LGBTQC everywhere. On the TV, films, the Internet and in books.

All right minded people need to work together to ensure that sexual orientation is so mundane, so boring, that people wouldn’t even think of making fun of a kid for being gay.


She thought she’d be safe in the country, but you can’t escape your own nightmares,
and Lis London dreams that someone is trying to kill her.
Lis thinks she’s being paranoid – after all, who would want to murder her? 
She doesn’t believe in the local legends of witchcraft. 
She doesn’t believe that anything bad will really happen to her. 
You never do, do you?
Not until you’re alone in the woods, after dark – and a twig snaps…
Welcome to Hollow Pike.

HOLLOW PIKE is released on 2/2/12 from Indigo.



Candy Gourlay said...

Hear, hear James. Thank you for this thoughtful piece.

kathryn evans said...

Couldn't agree more - enormous strides have been made but there's a long way to go.

Keris Stainton said...

Thank you for such a wonderful post. I'm ordering those picture books right now.

eleanorpatrick said...

Very useful and informative post. Thanks. I totally agree with what you say. Having had many LGBTQC friends (admittedly by accident more than choice) I never now expect to find the rampant homophobia I sometimes come across, so yes, the more that sexual orientation becomes just another fact of life, the less it will attract bullying. And most books originate in the US so we do definitely need more UK books. Because context is everything when counteracting prejudice.

robinquinn said...

I know that the MC's best friend is gay in "Will Grayson, Will Grayson" by American author John Green. And he's wonderful.

Write well,
Robin Quinn

Lucy Coats said...

Wonderful, James. Thank you. I wrote about this yesterday at An Awfully Big Blog Adventure from a slightly different angle. It's a very important debate to be having.

And you might enjoy Sarah Rees Brennan's Demon YA series, which has a strongly written gay teen character.

James Dawson said...

Thanks all - people have been so supportive of this sort of article. Again, I'm so glad LGBT issues and front and centre.

Rosalie Warren said...

Great post! Thanks James, and Tracy too.

I was a little bit put off writing gay characters (I'm straight) when my book 'Charity's Child', which is about a young lesbian girl who becomes pregnant, came out. One or two gay writers suggested that perhaps writing about gay protagonists should be left to authors who are themselves gay. I found this idea a bit odd, as I write about lots of characters who are unlike me in all sorts of ways. What do people think?

Tracy said...

Thanks for all the comments in response to James' fantastic post.

In reply to Rosalie's question - I write about all sorts of characters too, and I certainly wouldn't dismiss writing about a character because they were gay, or male, or a vampire or from outer space. If a writer restricted themselves too much surely there'd be no historical based fiction, no sci-fi, no fantasy.

But in regards to this post, when I first wanted to include an item on the depiction of LGBT characters (which was before this whole online debate started) I was keen to find a writer who could talk with insight and first-hand knowledge of the issue because I thought that was important.

And I think James sums it up so well when he says -
'When I was fifteen, I thought I was so alone. I read and read and read, but didn’t read about anyone else like me. No-one.'

I certainly couldn't have written that line because I never experienced that problem in my teenage years.

Rosalie Warren said...

I absolutely agree, Tracy, that James was the right person to write this post.

But that line of his reminded me exactly how I felt when I was fifteen. Not because I was gay, because I wasn't. But because I felt different from everyone else in a number of other ways. So I like to think I could have written that line of his - though probably not half so well!

James Dawson said...

Hey Rosalie, I agree that you don't need to be gay to write fantastic gay characters - much as you don't need to be male to write men or female to write women!

With character, you absolutely think of the choices and reactions YOU would make if you were in their situation. The point, of course, is that as humans, LGBT characters will have exactly the same range of emotions and responses as a straight character!

Rambling! I hope that makes sense!

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