Somewhere in the space-time continuum there’s a gay teenage Gordon looking desperately for hints of himself in books and film (I’m still convinced Bastian ends up dating Atreyu in The NeverEnding Story). Things would have been different for that wishful-thinking me if Laurent Linn and Jeffrey Self's respective debut novels, Draw the Line (May 17) and Drag Teen (Apr. 26), had been calling me from the card catalog. Their protagonists are assuredly gay, precluding any crossed fingers or guesswork for any readers needing a bildungsroman reflection. Thirty-something me was thrilled to chat with the two authors not only about drag acts and Lauren Bacall morning voice, but also the distinctively different choices their protagonists make about being out of the closet.
Linn's sci-fi comic-book geek Adrian is out to his two close friends but reluctant to be any more Lambda than that at his Dallas, Texas, public high school. At first, the violence inflicted by beer drinking bubbas on a gay classmate keeps Adrian wary, but eventually that same brutality convinces him to step out as his own breed of superhero.
“While Adrian’s happy himself with being gay, it’s a matter of staying under the radar at school,” says Linn. “His growth is that he realizes he has a place in the world that is bigger than his own head and that he really can make a difference. That [growth] was essential to the storyline and is what kids still deal with, so it was really important that he begins the story just trying to blend in and survive.”
Self's protagonist, JT, doesn’t fear brutality so much as being stuck in Clearwater, Florida, thanks to a tarnished GPA and zero prospects in the scholarship department. He reluctantly enters a drag contest at the behest of his boyfriend, and a fleet of insecurities comes to haunt him like last season’s bad fashions.
"I really liked the idea of exploring a character where being gay is something he actually can feel proud of from the get-go,” says Self. “When I was a gay teenager, the being gay part of my neuroses was the most manageable. Once being gay is accepted, there are a million other reasons to feel like an outcast. For JT, I wanted to explore those aspects. I also just liked the aspirational idea of showing teenagers a character who has overcome [being a gay teen in a small town] already and is moving on to other big life problems.”
Being the proponent of out and proud characters doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to oversimplify the coming-out process for LGBT readers who might not be there yet. It’s just optimistic confirmation that ground has been broken and we’re getting to a place in LGBT literature where different voices can be represented. There are characters who are out to a select and secret few, some who are waving the rainbow flag on the steps of city hall, and some who haven’t even come out to themselves. Adrian’s and JT’s voices are reflective of two niches within this spectrum.
“There’s been a lot of talk about whether we still need coming-out books or not, and we definitely do,” says Linn. “Mine’s not really a coming-out book as much, but the fact that Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda has resonated so widely, has gotten such acclaim, and teens are really connecting to it speaks to us still needing coming-out books. All we have to do is look at politics around us and the world to know that it’s not all sunshine and unicorns everywhere yet. What I’m trying to do with my character, by not being didactic, is really show a path that I didn’t have when I was a teen for how you can navigate those choppy waters to get to a place of happiness.”
Self’s approach leans more toward the perils of determining one’s cohesion within a community.
“I love the It Gets Better campaign, and I’ve done a lot of work with them, but there’s the reality that sometimes the ‘getting better’ part has nothing to do with being gay or being bullied or the hot topics of that movement,” says Self. Sometimes, the getting better, as JT discovers, is all about finding a place within the gay community that someone can feel excluded from due to a combination of stereotypes and his own lack of self-assuredness. “It was interesting for me to not necessarily oversimplify but to explore the idea that being gay is about already being a part of [the gay community]. But within that community, JT doesn’t feel like he fits in. That’s something that I think is starting to happen on a younger and younger level as being gay becomes more mainstream and as gay teenagers are seeing that they don’t fit into the cookie cutter [image] of what gay happens to be in the mainstream press.”
The writers of recently published LGBT teen fiction have made headway in reinforcing the notion that LGBT characters aren’t by default tragic. They’re people, first and foremost, who shouldn’t be sidelined and aren’t craving correction like a Bond girl just because they don’t adhere to heteronormative castes. Yes, they’re queer, but the bigger picture is that they want to date someone, they want to go to college, and they want to escape the confines of small-town life just like their heterosexual counterparts. Even though some momentum has been gained via characters for whom being gay is just one aspect of their personalities, there’s still plenty of work to be done.
“I think showing gay tragedy is still very important,” says Self, “but I think there’s got to be a new take on it. In gay YA but also in gay mainstream culture, the gay community is so vast and so varied, but it feels like we only see a very specific angle, and I think that [evolution] needs to speed up."
Linn sees this evolution progressing with the help of a queer wizard—sort of.
“There’s gay male poetry, female erotica, history, nonfiction, sci-fi/fantasy, and all these different categories of literary awards, but there’s one category to encompass all teen, middle-grade, and picture-book literature,” says Linn. “I think that we need to see more than one category for LGBT YA. We need queer poetry, we need queer nonfiction, we need the gay Harry Potter—meaning we need just a fabulous novel who has a main character who just happens to be gay. That is a mainstream success, and that isn’t about him or her being gay. We have a long way to go, but there are authors who are doing that.”
Gordon West is a writer and illustrator living in Brooklyn. He is at work on his own picture book and teen novel.
Photo of Laurent Linn (above left) credited to Christopher Spinelli; photo of Jeffery Self (above right) creidted to Dan Collopy.