Teh Gay In YA

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 16.884% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

As a general rule, wait two days after reading an inflammatory blog-post before commenting or retweeting. The Internet moves with rattlesnake speed, but without the accuracy.  Wrong things can be said, and take deep root.
For example, the Gay In YA discussion.
For those of you not in the know, there was an article on Publishers’ Weekly that said that two authors had been rejected by an agent because they refused to remove the gay characters from their YA novel.  Now, I’m not saying that couldn’t happen – but what struck me about the response from every YA author I knew who posted about it was “This has never happened to me ever, but if it did, then I’d take my book elsewhere.”  Which made me wonder.  I mean, these were the YA writers, and if they weren’t seeing this pressure, then shouldn’t we be seeing not just one, but crowds of YA authors rising up and saying, “Yes!  This happened to me!”
So I was wondering how prevalent it was.  In fact, my scheduled essay for tomorrow was going to be that very question… When the agents in question responded that it isn’t true, that the novel a) had too many viewpoints that weren’t carrying their weight (and five different viewpoints does seem like a lot for a YA novel), and so they wanted to cut two characters, one of whom was gay and apparently underwritten; and b) they wanted to make it a younger book, which would cut the romance entirely, hetero or homo.
(And I have to appreciate their stance, which is “Even though we didn’t do this, the whole ‘who publishes gay books?’ is an important question and needs to be asked.”)
Now, you can question whether an agent should request such large-scale changes – I think they should, they’re the women who know about selling books – but given that there was more “That’s dreadful! Thank God nobody’s ever asked me to do that!”s than “I too got my book de-gayed!”, I think the publishers are willing to publish YA with gay on the whole.   (Though it may be that gay YA books get rejected for subtler reasons, in much the same way that nobody’s ever not given a job because they’re black – it’s always the wrong qualifications, or just a poor interview.)
What I do point you to is Malinda Lo’s most excellent post on LGBT YA stats, which breaks gay characters down by publisher and by number.  The end result of some excellent number-crunching?  Less than 1% of YA books have LGBT characters.  Now, I’ve never bought that stat that one out of ten people are gay, which seems ridiculously inflated, but my experience runs truer to the stats that between 2 and 5% of all people are gay.  Which means that LGBT characters are riotously underrepresented.
So I exhort you, if you are a YA writer: write more LGBT characters.  Put them in your books.  They exist, and adolescents who are gay need to be reminded of that.  At a time when any difference feels as sharp as a knife cut, when a pimple can make you feel like such a freak that you can’t bear to go outside, having a book that tells you, “People like you exist, and you’re normal, and you can be happy” is a goddamned lifeline.
This isn’t just about honesty in literature, though it’s partially about that.  It’s about doing the right thing.  These teenagers need your help, and if you’re friendly and in a position to write where they can hear you, then I urge you to do so.
It’s all too easy for straight writers – of which I am one – to forget about these other sexualities and create rubber-stamped worlds where everyone has the same urges that they do.  But writing about other sexualities, other races, other disabilities makes you a better writer.  It stretches your imagination, forces you to do some research, makes you look at the world in new ways.  And when you’re done, you not only have a better story, but a better toolchest to work from in the future.
So if you can… Do.  Please.  It’s worth it.


  1. Lisa Nohealani Morton
    Sep 15, 2011

    The thing is, the agency’s rebuttal post fails to address some points in the Genreville post that contradict their version of events – namely, that the authors were told to either remove the POV of the gay character or make him straight, and that when they refused to do the latter, were told that they could “reveal” his gayness in a later book if it developed into a series.
    Now, it’s possible that there’s some other explanation or misunderstanding there, but I find it at least notable that the agency chose to leave those accusations unaddressed.
    At this point I don’t know exactly where the truth lies, but I’m not comfortable considering it an open-and-shut case in favor of the agency’s account without at least hearing their explanation for or denial of those exchanges.

    • TheFerrett
      Sep 15, 2011

      And I’m not quite writing it off, either. I find their version to be more compelling at this stage, but that doesn’t mean I’m not saying it didn’t happen entirely.
      That said, my larger point about more people rising up and saying, “Yes, this happened to me!” is something I currently find telling. We shall see.

  2. David
    Sep 15, 2011

    I’m reminded of God Emperor of Dune, which I’ve been reading again for the first time since high school. There is a scene where Duncan Idaho gets into a shouting match with Moneo in the Fish Speakers domain. His rage was triggered by two female Fish Speakers sharing a “passionate kiss.”
    Moneo at one point says, “Homosexuals have been some of our greatest warriors in history.” I recall reading that back in high school and the profound impact it had on me. Even if only a pretend universe set eons in the future, it gave me this image of homosexuality as a normal, possibly powerful thing.
    It was so minute in the context of the book, much less Frank Herbert’s entire Dune series. Yet it said something very deep and powerful that no one had really taken the time to say to me. “I see you, and I think you’re great.”

  3. Think for a minute
    Sep 15, 2011

    Ferrett, did you bother to read any of the comments on the Genreville post? Many authors came out to say just what you claim no one said above–that they’ve been asked to do exactly that in order to find representation or sell their novels. Go look at Neesha Meminger and Zetta Elliott for examples of “brown people don’t sell; we won’t take you on or buy your stuff, even though we think it’s very good.” And again, just because your particular friends haven’t had this experience doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Your experience/their experiences are not universal.
    In addition, please note that in the original post, the authors did not call anyone out–they even made a point of saying they wanted everyone to concentrate on the bigger issue of systemic bias and erasure. So why did the agency feel the need to come out of the woodwork and accuse them of exploiting the agency (not to mention lying)?

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