I Am Not My Coming Out Story: Deeper Representation in YA Lit

There’s been a lot of discussion these days about YA–about girls in YA and about diversity in YA made by people who are far more eloquent and well-spoken and informed than I am, at least on those topics. But I wanted to throw my two cents in, because I’m tired of sitting back and watching these discussions and reblogging and never saying anything. So this is me trying to articulate the jumble of thoughts in my head in a hopefully relevant way.

I first started getting into YA when I was 13. Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak is the first YA book I can really remember reading, and the first book that made me go “Holy cow YA is amazing hey maybe I could write that.” So after a few failed novel attempts I sat down and wrote my first YA novel (which five years later I’m still working on, so there’s that, but I digress). This was also the age where I thought I was “better” than other girls because I read and I was smart and wore black and not pink and I didn’t read things like Twilight, but that’s for another time, too.

13 was also when I first began to realize I was gay, so being the bookworm I was, I wanted to turn to literature. At an age where I didn’t have a car, I had to rely on my mom to drive me to Barnes and Noble so I could buy books. My mom, being the wonderfully overprotective woman she was, liked to approve my book choices before I checked them out.

Well, one night I tried to sneak Julie Anne Peters’ Keeping You a Secret past her, and she read the back and asked “Is this a gay book?” and that lead to a really long, uncomfortable discussion about my supposed sexuality in which I was too young to know what I was talking about so I got shut down. And I hurriedly scrabbled back into the closet and tried to forget that I was gay, which worked until high school when I developed a massive crush on my best friend (who luckily was brave enough to admit she liked me back and now here we are three years later).

During my heavily closeted, “there is no way in hell I can be gay” time, I would sneak to the local library or get a parent to drop me off for homework and I would browse the YA section hoping for something, some sort of a sign that yes, this was okay, being gay was a thing that was okay.

Guys, it was hard for me to find. I could say it’s because I wasn’t looking hard enough, I could say it’s because I live in North Carolina and back in 2007 YA lit hadn’t boomed to the size it was and GOD FORBID we stock something with a gay character, and those were indeed factors in it, but the fact of the matter was I couldn’t find a lot of queer YA because there wasn’t any, save for Geography Club which I read in a hurried afternoon, and Keeping You a Secret which unfortunately I never got my hands on. My library’s pickings were slim. Anything I could find about gay teens was usually about attractive white gay boys or about the angst of coming out of the closet and the (usually horrible) repercussions. There simply wasn’t “happy” YA where I could read about two girls who were gay or who fell in love and everything went well for them. It got to the point where I was tired of reading YA literature, and anytime I saw an LGBT YA book I scoffed or refused to pick it up, because I was sick of books that revolved around a character’s “coming out” as the sole plot of the book.

Thankfully, the landscape of YA is slowly changing. Is it as good as it should be? Absolutely not, particularly with representation of characters of different races or different sexualities, but again as I linked to in the beginning of this post, far more eloquent people have written about that than I have. Are a lot of LGBT YA books still centered around coming out? Yes, but you know what? To a thirteen year old kid, to little thirteen-year-old Nita, those books are necessary.

However, they cannot be the only literature we see. We cannot settle for the bare minimum, the bare story, being reduced to one experience or to a stereotype or to a stock character in the background. As YA readers (and YA writers), everyone deserves to see an accurate, thoughtful representation of themself in literature that isn’t reduced to a singular narrative, a singular experience. I am not just my coming-out story, POC are not just your white MC’s “exotic” best friend/love interest. We are people with far, far more facets than just one aspect of ourselves, and we deserve to see that in YA literature. We’re inching towards that landscape, but not fast enough. I hope we get there soon, for our sake and for those teenagers who deserve to know that they are not a stock character, a background piece to fill a diversity quota, they are not their coming out story.

They’re so much more than that. And they deserve to see it in literature.