YA Author Cheryl Rainfield on Writing LGBTQ Characters In YA Fiction

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.

Photo by reader

Photo by Ashlee

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.


12 Responses to “YA Author Cheryl Rainfield on Writing LGBTQ Characters In YA Fiction”

  1. Melissa Says:

    Thanks for sharing this talk you did at York University, Cheryl. I especially appreciate the point you make about not being queer because of the sexual abuse you faced as a young person. I think that is a belief that a lot of heterosexual people have, and every time someone makes a compelling argument about why that isn’t so, is positive.

  2. Cheryl Rainfield Says:

    Thank you, Melissa! (hugging you) I’m glad you thought my point about not being queer because of sexual abuse was compelling! People would never ask a heterosexual person if they were heterosexual because of sexual abuse. (smiling)

  3. Kristine Says:

    Again Cheryl, thank you so much. You truly are an inspiration to all! Getting your book Stained from you and getting you to sign it was such a great early birthday present! I hope to see more of your books and I will most definitely read them all!!

  4. Cheryl Rainfield Says:

    Kristine, you’re very welcome (smiling at you). I hope you enjoy STAINED when you read it, and I’m glad you’ll read my other books when they come out. And thank you for your kind words. :)

  5. Stuart Land Says:

    Hi Cheryl,

    I think your post is most important, not only for GLBTQ, but for everyone. I’ve always support that stance in my writing and life. I believe that writers should be neutral when it comes to their writing, and by that I mean write through your characters, not personal bias. A truly well-rounded writer won’t have those biases anyway. Though I am not gay (funny that I have to point that out when talking about this subject), some characters in my books are because that’s who they are. I don’t write coming out stories because that’s not my perspective. I grew up in the dance and art world, and people of the various 10% were those who I knew the best. In my books I have gay characters who (to me) are regular people who happen to be gay. I won second place in the ONE IN TEN screenplay contest for having two main supporting gay characters, and another book was a temporary best seller with some gay characters. However, that was also my most controversial book (on many levels), and I received slanted remarks in some reviews, one which made me laugh out loud when the reviewer wrote that the only sane person was gay. He meant it as a slight.

    I’m still saddened that people of the 10% (whether LGBTQ or color) have to go through any discrimination at all, and can’t simply live their lives contending with all the other trials and tribulations thrown at us without spending so much energy demanding rights which should be freely given and natural in the first place.

    Here’s a little bit of insight as to why straight folks, and those of non-color (white lol), question and put into the spotlight things which would never be asked of them. It’s simply that they fall within the vast majority when they are banded together (as in most communities in the USA or Europe). Everything outside that norm is suspect. And, not surprisingly, the reverse is true in other cultures. I happen to live in Asia, where I’m the only Caucasian in my neighborhood. Almost everywhere I go people stare. They watch the way I move through them, how I eat, what I say. They forgive me my tresspasses because I’m not one of them, and never will be. BUT, they do accept me, as they accept the trees, cars, and smog. I’m a part of life. Oddly enough, as Asian cultures are variously strict in the cultural boxes, GLBTQ are accepted here as almost a national treasure.

    So maybe, people of the 10% can try another tactic (which is what I used to get a lot here) when dealing with the ignorant 90%: a smile and metaphoric pat on their virtual puppydog heads.

  6. Cheryl Rainfield Says:

    Stuart, I love that you write LGBTQ characters into your books and screenplays as just regular characters; that’s so good to hear! I’m always so glad when writers–heterosexual or queer–write queer characters into their books. And I agree–equality should be given freely and be part of our society naturally. And yes, the majority does usually notice and discriminate against people who they think are different. How lovely that in Asia, though they notice the difference, they accept you as Caucasian. And also that they accept LGBTQ people.

  7. M T McGuire Says:

    I would love to make the heroine of my next book gay because both my best friends from school are gay. And because one of them asked if I’d write a gay heroine. However, what holds me back is that I’m straight and I wonder if even attempting it isn’t somehow condescending or insensitive on my part. I think my gay friend would be delighted but I am wary of offending others. Especially as being gay would be something my heroine is, like being female, as in an important part but not the whole of her. I want her to be gay because she is rather than because it has any particular bearing on the story. I suppose in a perfect world sexuality is important and yet not. It is your whole being in some respects and yet to others it should be no more important to their perception of you than the colour of your hair.

    This lovely post makes me feel that maybe I could write a gay heroine and make it stick. Thanks.

    Cheers

    MTM

  8. Cheryl Rainfield Says:

    I’m glad, MTM! (smiling at you) I am always glad to see authors, heterosexual and queer, write queer characters. We need more books that reflect the real world. I know that fear of offending others, but I think there are always people who will take offense, especially when we’re doing something good. But there are also so many more people who will be affected positively by writing more of the real world. I hope you do write your next book the way you want to–with a queer heroine.

  9. Stuart Land Says:

    This is for MTM: Please don’t ever be afraid of writing what’s in you heart because of what others might think. The only problems you will have when writing a gay character are the same as writing any other character that is not you. As a writer, you need to become the character you are writing. Each character has to live and breath as if alive. They are not you, yet are parts of you and every single person you’ve ever met. As the writer, you will need to know and understand your characters from the inside out. You must know the worlds they inhabit. You cannot be judgemental. When writing gay characters, or any other, these aspects of who they are, are what motivates all their actions. So, in this present day world, being gay, or being handicapped or whatever, does have an impact on what people do and how they do it. My basic advice to you is to separate yourself from your characters and let them live and grow and become who they’re meant to be. Not only will you find the writing of characters much easier, but the plotting and storytelling will get easier as well.

  10. Cheryl Rainfield Says:

    That’s really lovely, Stuart, thank you so much for saying that to MTM!

  11. Angelica Says:

    Hi. I think it’s beautiful that you write about LGBTQ teens as regular people. I am not lesbian or gay but I have many friends and several family members who are. I am originally from Philadelphia and now I live in Lebanon, PA, only a two hour ride away but a world of difference. In Lebanon County people are far more homophobic than where I’m originally from and it makes me so angry that hurtful words like faggot and nigger, spic and chink are so commonplace. We are all human beings and every one of us is beautiful. Recently in Pennsylvania gay marriage has been legalized and I see that as a good first step on the road to acceptance and tolerance. I hope all the people in my generation can make it out of the land of hate whole and I think that books like yours will help people do this.

  12. Cheryl Rainfield Says:

    Aw, thank you so much, Angelica, for your kind words. (hugging you) I, too, hope for an end to hate–and for us all to heal from the hate we’ve already experienced. I think it’s hard and painful to live in an area where hate is strong–whether it be homophobia, racism, sexism, abelism, etc. I hope you keep finding more good people around you. And hurray for Pennsylvia legalizing gay marriage! It’s lovely to hear that you support LGBTQ marriage and equality. :)

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