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Where Are the Teen-Lit Protagonists Who Just Happen to Be Gay?

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Recently, the headline in a New York Times Style blog asked a question: why so few gay characters in teen fiction? The post points out that there may be plenty of gay heroes in young adult literature, but where are the heroes who just happen to be gay? Not wrestling with it, or suicidal about it, but just, well, it?

That question, arriving on the tail-end of National Coming Out Day, hit home for me; I'm a just-over-30 children's fiction writer and former Broadway dancer for whom being gay has always felt like only one of my key attributes, ranking somewhere below "born in San Francisco!" and above "but... raised in Pittsburgh."

Ellen DeGeneres came out when I was 17. That event was momentous but, weirdly, almost made it harder for me to break the news to my parents. Suddenly, being gay meant getting a Time magazine cover, which felt anything but normal. I was tormented at school for being different (though even I didn't like wearing tights in ballet class) but lucky enough to have a supportive family who understood something I wish more of us talked about: being gay can be as important an adjective (or verb) as you want it to be, but it doesn't have to be the only one that defines you.

Yes, young adult fiction does need good stories with good characters (who just happen to be gay), because it's a reflection of the world we live in. With the vast majority of Millennials supporting full equal rights for all, there are bound to be more and more kids for whom coming out may be a big day but maybe not the biggest. Perhaps someday it can even be just another day: National Great, You're Gay, That's Fantastic and We Love You, Now Pass the Remote Day.

I'm not suggesting that everyone's "growing up gay" story is as relatively pain-free as mine. Thank God (and Ellen) I wasn't kicked out of the house when I came out, ending up as one of the 20 to 40 percent of homeless youth who are gay. And I can't imagine being back on the schoolyard, in one of the 32 states with laws that don't protect kids from bullying. We have brilliant voices for helping us tell difficult stories: author Sherman Alexie "writes in blood" to give "weapons" to kids living in a difficult, confusing world; Lauren Myracle's book Shine was just nominated for a National Book Award (or not?) for a story that centers around a gay teen's beating. The horrors and just-plain-queasiness of being "different" need to be catalogued, and they are.

But when I set out to write my first book for teenagers, I wanted to show another side of growing up gay, where you're less tortured about the world than you are just generally curious about it. Am I ever going to make it through Algebra? Will my parents stay together? Does anyone else notice how adorable the substitute teacher looks in those chinos? These are also the trials and tribulations of gay teens. All teens, for that matter.

The Times is asking if there's room for all sorts of heroes in kidlit, and I (and my agent and editor, and many other authors) -- say yes. It's important to have the tougher tales on the shelves, because their stories will touch and even save lives. But there's also room for joyful adventures with dynamic characters who just happen to be a lot of things -- gay, goth, ghost -- because, maybe minus the ghosts, that's the world we live in, too. I wouldn't write it any other way.

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