Cautionary Tales: Being A Queer Girl in YA Lit

My mom figured out I was queer when I tried to sneak a Julie Anne Peters book past her at Barnes and Noble.

I’ve told this story before; it’s one I bring up when asked about my representation in YA lit. It’s relevant again today, since there’s been a fantastic discussion over on Twitter (that @dahlelama​ is Storifying if she hasn’t already) about how we treat queer girls in YA lit.

I read a lot of YA as a teenager. As I’ve written before, when I was trying to figure out my sexuality, I turned to media. I snuck Geography Club in the library, I stayed up til 3am trying to catch The L Word at my grandma’s because her house was the only one that had LOGO. I was desperate for representation, desperate to see myself.

I couldn’t find me. At best, I found Peters’ books which my mother wouldn’t let me read; I found Alex Sanchez’s books which were about beautiful queer boys so I couldn’t relate; I found David Levithan’s books, which were about queer boys so I couldn’t relate; I found Malinda Lo’s books, which were set in fantastic societies, so I couldn’t relate. I was/am a huge lover of contemporary YA, but as a teen there were few contemporary stories about queer girls.

There were plenty about queer boys.

So the message I began to receive from queer YA, over and over and over, was this: Queer boys are a tragic love story; a swoonworthy ship. You are a cautionary tale and gossip in a locker room. Your story is not important.

I began to distance myself from queer media and queer YA towards the end of high school, because it was all the same, swoonworthy boys and cautionary tales. It was Kurt and Blaine getting fanart and cute songs and an arc spanning… six seasons. It was Santana being outed by a straight boy who was praised as a hero, and not getting a multi-episode arc dedicated to her coming out or her relationship with Brittany. It was queer women, again, fighting for representation. It was being told, again, that queer girls don’t get to be difficult or complex, not in contemporary settings. We don’t get to be the best friend, even. We don’t get to be anything at all.

I turned to fandom when I stopped reading queer YA. I stayed up late and wrote fanfiction about queer women that were already canon–Maureen and Joanne from Rent, Elphaba and Glinda from the Wicked book (if you squinted and looked at it sideways, which I did). But even in fandom the message was the same–boys kissing boys is swoony and cute and omgperfect. Girls kissing is “wait I’ve read all the f/f fics in this category surely there have to be more.”

If girls couldn’t be given space to be queer in fanfiction, where you could bend the rules and write what you wanted, where women wrote most of the stories, then where could we be queer?

(There’s an excellent discussion @jhansenwrites​ tweeted about M/M in media and fanfic and how women fetishize gay men which you should also check out, as he says it better than I could).

Which brings me to today’s discussion, because I’m worried we’re still sending this message.

The first time I saw myself as a queer woman represented wholly, authentically, and respectfully on the page was in e. m. danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which I almost didn’t pick up because I was afraid it’d be like all the other contemporary queer girl YA I’d read. It’s also one of the only times I’ve seen myself, and I read that book three years ago.

We’re getting more stories about queer girls, but not all of them are in realistic settings, and they aren’t as pushed as heavily as stories about queer boys are. We are not National Book Award Finalists. We are not Starred Kirkus Reviews. We were a Morris Finalist three years ago. We are not best-of-2015 lists in mainstream publications. We’re not cautionary tales anymore, thank God, but we’re still not important enough to get recognized.

Others have discussed the reasons behind this. Internalized misogyny, how m/m books are “safe” for teen girls because there’s no pressure for them. These are valid and important discussions, and I think there’s truth in them.

But we owe it to queer girls to publish and write stories about them. We owe it to them to say “You are not a cautionary tale. You are complex and messy and confused and happy and your story is valid and you are important, your story is important. You get to be the protagonist or the best friend, you get the girl, you are deserving of space.”

We’re failing our girls if we don’t.

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