I spoke at York University the other day on writing LGBTQ characters in YA lit. It was a fantastic class, and I Loved hearing from so many of the students afterwards about how I am their new role model, hero, and inspiration! (beaming) I focused on SCARS because that is the book of mine that they all read for their class. Here are the main points about writing LGBTQ characters in YA lit that I shared.
I’m queer. I felt so alone and in so much pain and shame growing up, about so many things—-being queer, the abuse and torture I was living through, and the way I coped with it (self harm). I think pain gets so much worse when we feel alone or like we’re the only one who’s been through something. So it’s really important to me to put queer characters in all my books, whether they’re the main character like Kendra in SCARS, or whether they’re a secondary character, like Rachel (Caitlyn’s best friend) in HUNTED, or a walk-on character, like Charlene, Sarah’s friend, who comes out in STAINED, or the older lesbian couple who help save Sarah when she first escapes. I think having LGBTQ characters in books as regular characters who just happen to be queer, who are not focused on coming out, helps reduce homophobia, normalize being gay, increase acceptance, and help people who are queer feel less alone when they see themselves reflected. We all need positive reflections of ourselves in books. It’s similar to me putting people of color in every book–it’s the world we live in. And it’s important to me to also include survivors of various abuse, trauma, and oppression, people with mental health issues or ways of coping with trauma, and strong-girl characters in my books, since I think those are all under-represented, and they’re things that have affected me and I care about them deeply. I think books are powerful ways to increase compassion, acceptance, understanding. It’s also just part of our real world that we live in. I hope more and more authors (and publishers) will continue to include LGBTQ characters, people of color, strong-girl characters, and survivors in their stories.
I made Kendra in SCARS so sure of her sexuality, of liking other girls, because I think many people who are queer often know that they are at a young age, just as many people who are heterosexual know at a young age that they are. Heterosexual people don’t usually (if ever) question why they’re heterosexual or when they became heterosexual. Heterosexuality is rewarded, encouraged, and expected in our society. I think the only reason that some queer people question their sexuality is the strong homophobia in our society–that if we are out we can get kicked out of our families, accosted on the street, bullied, abused, beaten up, raped, even murdered for who we love. I knew at a young age that I was queer, but I didn’t have the words for it (I was kept very isolated, and I never heard anyone talk about being queer). I remember saying repeatedly when I was maybe five or six and older that I would never marry. I meant that as I would never be with a man, because when I was a child lesbians and gay men didn’t have the right to marry, the way we do now in Canada. It wasn’t until I was a young teen–maybe thirteen or fourteen or so–that I found my first reflection of who I was in The Toronto Women’s Bookstore–a feminist bookstore that has sadly since closed–when I came across a record by Alix Dobkin called “Living With Lesbians.” I felt so ashamed buying the record, having to show the woman at the checkout what I was buying–but also so relieved and excited. Someone else had gone through what I was going through, and was okay. I wasn’t alone.I chose to make Kendra queer and have it just be normal for her because I wanted to help LGBTQ readers feel less alone, and I wanted to reduce homophobia for heterosexual readers and encourage greater acceptance. I especially didn’t want SCARS to be a coming out book; I wanted to make it easier for people who weren’t queer to see it as normal, as just part of our world, though I did have the mother have some problems with Kendra being queer because that is also realistic. Also, for a while almost every LGBTQ book or movie I picked up seemed to be a coming out story, as if that’s the only story there can be with a queer character, our difference. We deserve more than that; we deserve to have queer characters be the heroes of any story—-a fantasy, sci-fi, suspense or thriller, mystery, romance, or coming of age story–where they have strengths and weaknesses that aren’t about those characters being queer. As long as there is homophobia and hate in this world, we still need coming out stories. We need to know we’re not alone in our struggles and pain as we fight against hate. But coming out stories shouldn’t be the ONLY stories that we find about LGBTQ people.
I’ve mostly had acceptance or support from the publishing industry about my queer characters, BUT I did have some pushback recently, with a book I don’t yet have a contract for. The main character is queer, just like Kendra in SCARS, and I was asked by a publishing industry person if I would make my character straight–with no explanation about why. I’m assuming the rationale was that it will sell better if it’s a heterosexual main character. I have not changed the sexuality of my character; it’s important to me to have some queer main characters, and it is part of who my character is in the story. I can’t see a publishing industry person asking me to make my heterosexual main character queer. I think it’s just part of the homophobic society we live in.
Some readers ask me if I or Kendra are queer because of being sexually abused. My response to that is: No. If every girl or woman (or boy) who was sexually abused or raped became queer, then 1 in 3 women would be queer, and 1 in 6 boys. And we know that isn’t so. Also, personally, I had both male and female rapists, and having female rapists didn’t stop me from being attracted to women. Being raped or sexually abused doesn’t make you queer.
My books are my way to make a positive, healing difference in this world, and my being a writer who many people read also allows me to have a wider audience for things like my It Gets Better video. It’s so important to me to help support the LGBTQ community, survivors of abuse and rape, bullying, people who’ve used self-harm or attempted suicide, people who’ve been through oppression or trauma. Those are all things I know from the inside out; so painful. We all need support.
And, though I only saw this great video today by the Gay Women’s Channel and didn’t include it in my talk, I think it demonstrates what I’m talking about–the importance of normalizing being queer, of breaking through homophobia and seeing each other as people, not as “other.” For this video, the Gay Women’s Channel got some mildly homophobic volunteers to meet with gay people and have a safe, platonic hug and mini discussions. I love seeing change happen, and I think talking helps it happen–face-to-face, through books and videos and movies, and through the net. Each of us can make a difference. Let’s keep making positive change happen.