I wasn’t out in high school. It was a suburb of Houston, reliably conservative, huge churches on every corner. Tom DeLay’s old congressional district. I wasn’t oblivious to the homophobia I saw and heard everywhere, the open disgust shown even by teachers, the earnest use of “gay” as a pejorative.
That is my story, from Houston, in the late 90s. It’s different down there today. My old school has a Gay-Straight Alliance now, and a hateful comment by a teacher could easily make the news. Progress in the fight for equality has been swift and breathtaking in its visibility.
For many of us. But that visibility makes it easy to forget that progress has not been complete, nor consistent across the country.
I see this effect a lot in discussions of gay teen literature, and it hits close to home for me. My first young adult novel, It Looks Like This, just published. It’s the story of a modern-day teen in a conservative town whose tentative, slow-burn relationship with another boy blows up spectacularly because of his community’s collective homophobia.
I wrote it exactly because of the imbalance of progress in different corners of the country. Yet many people now believe that gay teens — as if they were a monolithic group — don’t need books dealing with coming out angst and homophobic bullying anymore, that such stories are unrealistic or boring at this point. Worse, some claim that gay-themed tragedies send a dangerous message to teens: that their newly acknowledged identity is a promise of future violence, hatred, and death.
Blatant homophobia, they argue, feels dated in 2016.
They will say this the same day a gay man in Manhattan needs six stitches above his eye. The day two young girlfriends in Kentucky are barred from prom. The day an Arizona boy is kicked out of his home at fourteen.
Equality for gays has progressed at an incredible speed -- in certain areas, and for certain people. The assumption that that progress exists for everyone and at the same pace comes from a place of considerable privilege. It comes from the “victory blindness” Michelangelo Signorile talks about in his book, It’s Not Over.
Many of us are well past the coming out stage, but others aren’t. Those of us with a stable support system do a disservice to those without by forgetting that our everyday experiences are not theirs. How could they be? The LGBT community is one of particular diversity, spanning across cultures, races, socioeconomic levels, and geography.
If you were to graph gay rights progress over the last couple decades, it won’t show a smooth, ascendant slope. It wouldn’t be linear at all. It would be a scatter plot, full of simultaneous and widely varying personal experiences that, over time, has drifted upward. But look closer: there are still points on that graph near the bottom.
There’s a reason that up to 40 percent of homeless youth still identify as LGBT. Even separately examining trans youth, who are at highest risk and don’t enjoy nearly as much mainstream acceptance, it’s inescapable that lesbian and gay teens are, still today, overrepresented in the homeless population.
Forgetting this is truly dangerous. A girl on the brink of being kicked out of her house needs to know that, yes, it gets better. But in the moment, she may also need the empathy that comes with seeing accounts of others going through similar things.
That’s not to say her needs won’t change. Many LGBT teens seek out that kind of validation when they’re in the thick of it, but will eventually crave other stories. Books where identity is central to the plot without being a vehicle for tragedy. And these stories are out there, more than ever before — like David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy, which led this trend; C.B. Lee’s Not Your Sidekick, about a bi girl with superpowers; or Anna-Marie McLemore’s queer fairy tale, When the Moon Was Ours, just longlisted for the National Book Award. We need more of those stories, but they don’t need to displace tragedies.
We don’t do this kind of careful accounting with non-LGBT books. There’s a tendency to see resources as unlimited when it comes to straight and cisgender stories. But we get strangely protective of our queer lit membership because of an ingrained belief that we only get so many slots.
Ironically, this is outdated thinking. Why would we self-impose quotas on our own stories? Beyond being counterproductive, it reinforces the idea that these platforms belong to straight and cis people, allocated to us at their will.
LGBT literature is not a zero-sum game. When there is an imbalance in the types of stories available, we must call that out. But the solution is never to reduce one kind, it’s to increase others. There are not too many gay tragedies. There are too few upbeat gay stories.
We do need more romances, comedies, and satires. But we also still need more stories depicting the struggles you thought died out twenty years ago, exactly because they didn’t. My personal story came from the late 90s in a suburb of Houston, but it was also the story of a boy from Denver yesterday, and it’ll be the story of a girl from Maine tomorrow.
I struggled with whether to write this piece. I worried about appearing defensive or thin-skinned. Maybe some people will believe that anyway. But I don’t hold this position because I wrote a novel, I wrote my novel because I already believed it.
It’s for that reason you’ll never see me push for fewer of any kind of LGBT story, as long as there are those in our ranks who need them. We need more LGBT stories, period.
Note: This piece primarily refers to gay lit specifically, because lesbians, bisexuals, and especially trans people encounter greater hostility, on average, than gay men. Because of that, there’s less of a call at the moment to move away from LBT tragedies and coming out stories ― but to be clear, all LGBT people need a broader and deeper range of stories they can identify with.