Saturday, 24 September 2011

Entering The Gay YA Debate - Lucy Coats

"YA Authors Asked to 'Straighten' Gay YA Characters" said the headline in the Guardian on 14th September. I already knew that this story existed from the Twitter #YesToGayYA hashtag, but reading that a (then unnamed) major literary agency in the US would only represent two well-respected authors "on the condition that [they] make the gay character straight, or else remove his viewpoint and all references to his sexual orientation" really shocked and horrified me.  Malorie Blackman, in the same Guardian article, is quoted as asking the question, "Are we still not over this nonsense?"  Well, aren't we?  And if not, then why not?  We damned well should be. 

Since the original article by Sherwood Smith and Rachel Manija Brown in the USA, there has been much debate on the subject in the blogosphere and on the social networks, with all the differing viewpoints and arguments brilliantly summed up HERE. You may ask why I'm adding my two-penn'orth, when so much has been written already.  I am not gay (although I have many friends of both sexes who are), and I have not (so far) written a gay character in any of my books. What qualifies me to comment then?  Well, I am a writer.  By definition that means I can and do write about things well outside my own experience.  The novel I have just finished is YA fantasy, set in present-day London, but in my time I have written about pirates, dragons, fairies, mermaids, bears and a long list of mythical beasts and gods.  I also write male teenage characters. I have no actual empirical experience of being any of these things, (although I live with a teenage son, which perhaps allows me to claim a little observational expertise in that area at least!).  If, in my next YA book, one or more of my characters tells me they are gay, I will write their story too--and I'd like to be able to do it without a little nagging voice of censorship in the back of my head telling me that I shouldn't, because 'the market won't buy it'.

The truth is that many teens are gay in varying ways--LGBTQ is the umbrella acronym. Many are confused by this and ashamed, hiding their true natures from their peers, their parents (and even themselves).  Only this week there was a report on the teenage suicide of Jamey Rodemeyer in the US--bullied for being gay, who was told (and this is only one of many dreadful comments) that one of his peers "wouldn't care if [he] died. So just do it. It would make everyone WAY more happier."  Jamey himself wrote just before he killed himself that "I always say how bullied I am, but no one listens.  What do I have to do so people will listen to me?" Amongst a large number of teens, 'gay' is a perjorative word, and being gay is something to be mocked--despite the many PSHE lessons and talks on tolerance and diversity they will have had.  However much we don't like hearing this or don't want it to be so, (and however much some of those teens' opinions or attitudes may change, broaden, become more tolerant as they get older), this casually brutal attitude to gayness is an unpleasant fact of teen life.  Another unpalatable fact is that gay teens are four times as likely to attempt to commit suicide as straight ones.

So what can we, as writers for young people, do about it, other than instilling tolerance in our own families? I'm not saying that a YA book, or even several books portraying strong main characters who happened to be gay, would have saved Jamey (although there is much evidence that positive role models and open discussion of things like rape and self-harm in YA help many kids to cope with their own situations).  But what if there was a bestselling gay YA book as big as, say, Twilight? Would that change teenage opinions radically?  Well--it might make a start on doing so--or at least open up the discussion, (though the 'banned books' brigade would no doubt be out in force to prevent that happening). This is going to be a long and hard-fought battle, and it will not be won easily.  So where could we begin to change attitudes in our readers?  Well, for a start, we can and should lose the fear of writing a male character with a boyfriend, a female character who falls in love with another girl--or even a character who is attracted to both sexes.  I am not in any way advocating writing about LGBTQ teens just for the sake of it, (and there will be some writers who don't want to approach this subject for many and varied reasons)--but I am saying, for those who might: think about it, don't discount it. If it comes naturally,  if you can write your characters sensitively and appropriately, and if it adds something real and positive to your story, then go for it. Personally, I'd like my grandchildren to be born into a world where tolerance and acceptance of gays within YA literature (and in the wider world) is a given--as natural as being right- or left-handed.  To quote Martin Luther King, "I have a dream...", but I am only one person.  To make that dream happen, we all--writers, agents, publishers--first of all have to create, produce and sell amazing, gripping, unputdownable stories for our readers which will break down the barriers of prejudice and intolerance.  It is gradually and slowly (too gradually and too slowly--but that's another story) happening with race in YA.  It can happen with LGBTQ too, but only if we are all convinced of  the importance of standing up and fighting to make it do so.  I am.  Are you?
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68 comments:

Anne Cassidy said...

Bravo, Lucy. Well said. The problem arises of how we incorporate 'gay' characters into our books. If we put them in then we may be accused of 'tokenism' especially if there is no gay theme to the story. I considered including a 'gay' theme to a recent story but backed off because 1. I hadn't personal experience and 2.I was afraid i would get it wrong and be accused of box ticking.
In the end I think these barriers will be broken by gay writers.

catdownunder said...

I have a cousin who is "married" (in a legal civil partnership) with his same-sex partner. I also happen to like his partner very much. We actually discussed this issue and his view was, "I would not want to read about it. I can see some people might. It might even help some people but I just don't think people should make an issue of sexual orientation."
I found that interesting.

Keren David said...

It's not tokenism to have gay characters with no major gay theme - it's reflecting life as it is. Children's books should reflect our divere world, not create a false all-white, all- straight, all-Christian version. Being gay is not an issue, it's a fact of life.

Lucy Coats said...

That is very interesting, Cat. But in this case, an issue has been made of it by exercising a sort of censorship on those writers including it at all--and more have come out and said it happened to them too. As Ann says above, 'tokenism' is not a road any of us should be going down--I agree with that. But I do not agree that writing about gay teens should only be left to gay writers, which is why I made the point about all of us writers at times writing about things of which we have no empirical experience. Writing a gay character in a story because you think you *should* is very different from wanting to do so (because that's how the character has come to you) and feeling you somehow can't because of the fear that you will never sell the book for the sole reason that that character is included. And Keren is quite right--gayness is a fact of teen life (as I said in the piece). Why shouldn't we reflect that?

Susan Price said...

Totally with you, Lucy - and Keren states the case, I think, very clearly.
susanpricesblog.blogspot.com

Keren David said...

Not just teen life - when my kids were at primary school we had gay neighbours, they had friends with gay parents, we went every year to the gay pride parade. I see no reason at all why that shouldn't be reflected in books for younger children.

Caroline Green said...

Oddly, one of the most 'macho' books out there features a gay character - the Cherub books by Robery Muchamore. I wish my 12-year-old would come across more LGBT characters in fiction. Something has to counter balance the horrible homophobia in schools. My son knows that if I ever heard him using 'gay' pejoratively, he'd be roasted on a spit and is respectful generally, but he tells me it is rife. It really saddens me, especially when you hear the appalling statistics on gay teenagers and suicide...

Lucy Coats said...

That's a very good point too, Keren, and there's a link here to a list of books which have already been written for younger readers. Not massive, considering the amount that is published every year....
http://www.windowsill.net/gaybooks.html

Lucy Coats said...

Caroline - if your son likes fantasy fiction, you might do worse than have a look at Sarah Rees Brennan's Demon series. Maybe a bit old for him now, but one of the characters is gay, and, I think, very well written. In fact, he's one of the people I like best in the books. I am ashamed to say I haven't read the Cherub books--macho not being my read of choice. But I'll have a look now. Thanks for alerting me.

catdownunder said...

I was just passing on what he told me.
My personal view? I think (part of) the answer has to be that it needs to be handled like other "issues" - race, religion, disability, violence, abuse, war etc. It has to be sensitively and sensibly handled. It has to be part of the story. It has to be there for a reason. It cannot be there just because someone says,"oh I had better put an "X" type character in the book". If you choose to make it the main theme then there has to be a good reason for that and it has to be more than the sole issue. If you choose to make one the minor characters one with an "issue" then there has to be a reason for that too. Does that make sense?

JO said...

Well said, Lucy.

Novels explore what it means to be human - and that includes sexuality. And yes, - surely we should be over this by now?

Gillian Philip said...

With the caveat that the agents concerned deny strongly that they ever demanded the 'straightening' of a gay character - and that I have an uneasy feeling the writers jumped on an issue and used it for publicity - I agree wholeheartedly, Lucy.

We'll have got there when the fact of a character's gayness is of as little import as their gender or height. One of my characters has told me he's gay - no names no pack drill - but it wasn't a conscious decision by me. He just *is*, and I didn't know it till he woke up next to a bloke. (As he said to me, rolling his eyes, 'You are *so* unobservant'.) But I don't want him to be defined by his sexual orientation. He's many, many things besides gay.

I find it depressing that there were still complaints about gay sex scenes in the latest Torchwood. 'I don't care if John Barrowman's gay, but why does he have to shove it down our throats all the time?' (ahem) summed up the ones I read in 'viewer comment' sections. No complaints about graphic straight sex, obviously. *headdesk*

You're always going to offend someone's sensibilities (which doesn't mean you shouldn't), but I'm waiting for the day there are shrieks of 'Disgusting!' without mention of the sexual orientation of the 'disgustingness' ;-)

jenalexanderbooks said...

This isn't a YA issue, as far as I can see. We need board books and early readers and tween novels which include gay parents/friends/neighbours if we want to reflect social change. Not books about being gay, because that makes it an issue, but books in which characters being gay isn't a big issue at all. So that gay people and their family and friends don't feel, as black children once did, there's nobody in this book like me.

Lucy Coats said...

Cat, that makes absolute sense -and yes, it *does* have to be handled like those other 'issues' you mention, which are part and parcel of the human condition.

Jo, thank you.

Gillian - that caveat was why I put in the link--so that people could see both sides of the story and all the debate around it for themselves without my taking up too much space here! That being said, enough authors have come out and said publicly that this kind of 'censorship by default' has been part of their own experience, that I personally believe there is a problem--which, of course, no one in the industry will admit to overtly. There are, of course, a number of books with gay protagonists which *have* been published--and I celebrate that fact. Your point that ' We'll have got there when the fact of a character's gayness is of as little import as their gender or height' is exactly my own feeling--I just wish we were there now. As for your character (hmmn, wonder who it could be!!) - that's how it should happen. Writing is such a strange process, and very often we *do* find out things about our characters in the process of travelling with them over the course of one book (or many). I know I do - it happened to me just recently, and I had a moment of revelation about one of my main characters which made me (literally) rock back in my chair.

Lucy Coats said...

Jen-- you're right, it isn't. But I wrote this piece because of the current gay YA debate, and so focused on that here.

Gillian Philip said...

Oh yes, Lucy, I'd guessed that was covered in the link you posted - sorry! - i just wanted to flag it. But yes - the notion that you could somehow be untrue to a character in that way is just gobsmacking. And I agree with you completely that gay characters should not be left to gay writers. That's ghettoising. Is there something other-than-human about a gay character (or a black one, or a short one) that means other humans should delicately avoid writing about them? No, no, a thousand times no. *wild rhetorical flourish*

Lucy Coats said...

I like where you're coming from with that wild rhetorical flourish, Gillian!

Rebecca Brown said...

I really found this, and all the comments, very interesting.

I completely agree that while someone's sexual orientation should in some respects be as irrelevant as their height or colour or shoe size (and in that respect Keren & jenalexander were spot on about making sure it is approached across the board), in others it is the responsibility of specifically YA authors to "handle" it properly. I say this because (IMHO!) sex is an emotional and often confusing subject in which teens can be both particularly vulnerable and yet more reluctant than any other time of life to discuss with others. So good literature for this age group that show sexual feelings & experiences as normal whether they are gay, straight, experimenting, awkward & fumbling is really important to help teens feel more comfortable about themselves. And absolutely, Gillian - a big NO to ghettoising, good point.
Er, I've rambled on a bit there, hope it's ok! Just my tuppence'orth...

Catherine Butler said...

I'm so glad you brought this up here, Lucy - and thanks so much for the link to cleolinda's post, which is admirably comprehensive. I'm going to add to the flood of words, though, by posting an edited version of something I posted elsewhere on this issue.

First of all, though, to take up Gillian's caveat. Cards on table: I’ve known Sherwood for quite a while, and the suggestion that she would use an agent "as a springboard ... to gain attention" for her work (as the Swivet piece accuses her of doing) is about as plausible as President Obama making his next State of the Union speech dressed as Darth Vader. Rachel Manija Brown I don’t know except by reputation, but I’m told much the same of her by those who do and whose judgement I trust.

That doesn’t get us far, of course – and no doubt there are people who will vouch for the agent’s good character as well. For those with no knowledge of any of the parties, this is a case of one stranger’s word against another’s. So I’ll park the personality debate there, and attempt to do what Sherwood and Rachel have done throughout by keeping to the issue and not the individuals.

What struck me most about the reaction to the controversy was the alacrity with which some greeted the agent’s version of what happened as definitive, rather than simply as another account to be considered alongside the authors’. Cleolinda quotes Scott Westerfeld's tweet, which sums it up well: "’I feel foolish for getting only one side of the story. But I'll make up for it by uncritically accepting the other side!’ -the Internets."

Why did that happen? Not because the agent is known to be truthful and honest whereas the authors are known to be untrustworthy. Nor because the agent had no motive to lie whereas the authors did. Neither of these is the case. Why, then? Is it simply inherently unlikely that an agent would ask for a gay character to be made straight? But witness the Jessica Verday case from less than six months ago (http://jessicaverday.blogspot.com/2011/03/being-gay-is-okay.html), to say nothing of the other authors who’ve since come forward reporting similar experiences to those of Sherwood and Rachel. (tbc)

Catherine Butler said...

Some light on this was shed when a friend pointed me to this discussion of the issue by another agent (http://www.dystel.com/2011/09/de-gaying-ya/). This agent (himself gay, as he points out) concludes his discussion thus:

Publishing has to be one of the least homophobic businesses around. The percentage of gay agents, editors, and other publishing professionals is much, much higher than the population in general (no matter which statistic you’re looking at), and people are fairly liberal. I can almost guarantee that there’s no one censoring gay content.

A few lines earlier, however, he states:

[W]e also have to be honest about the realities of the marketplace. There are fewer gay readers than straight readers. “Gay books,” on average, sell less than “straight books.” Readers *seem* to be more interested in reading about straight people–at least that’s what sales indicate. So publishers
thinking about what to publish have to take this into consideration. Despite appearances to the contrary, publishing is a business, and sales matter.


I quote this agent because what he's saying has been pretty much the party line from the agent/publisher side of this debate, and I find it telling. What interests me is the way in which these two statements illustrate a kind of double-think. No one is censoring gay content, but publishers have to “take into consideration” that “gay books” don’t sell as well when they choose what to publish. In other words, I’m not censoring you – it’s the market that’s censoring you, and I am but the market’s helpless cat’s paw.

And this “taking into consideration” – what does it look like in practice? What real decisions and actions are represented by that phrase? I can think of a few ways it might happen, but they all boil down to variations on these two themes: a) you decide that that you will pass on a book that you would otherwise have taken, because the protagonist is gay and “’gay books’, on average, sell less well than ‘straight books’”; or b) you advise the author to make the character straight – not because you’re homophobic, mind (you might even be gay yourself!) but simply as a marketing decision, because “sales indicate” that readers “are more interested in reading about straight people”, and “publishing is a business, and sales matter”.

In other words, what this agent states that agents and publishers are obliged to do, is exactly what Sherwood and Rachel say happened to them – yet it’s also what the same agent claims a few lines later never happens!

How can he have missed such an obvious contradiction?

Catherine Butler said...

This kind of denial is not uncommon when people find themselves acting as agents of oppression. They know what homophobes and censors look like, with their pointy beards and horns, and that’s certainly not them! They know they’re nice people, and that they have gay/black/trans/disabled friends, so obviously anyone who accuses them of acting badly must be deluded or a liar, right? The responsibility for what they have actually done is passed up the line, to the market, or the tastes of the reading public (“Poor benighted souls – of course, we’re much more enlightened personally, but what can you do?”). And if anyone calls them on it – even, as in this case, without naming names – well, you’ve seen the storm that follows. And these nice people have friends who are also nice people and would never associate with anyone who wasn’t a nice person – and so this reassuring version of events is eagerly accepted, as has happened widely in this case.

It’s very hard not to be complicit with censorship. That applies not only to agents and publishers, but to everyone involved in the system in which censorship is embedded, not excluding educators and certainly not excluding writers themselves, who are also well aware what “sales indicate” when
creating their characters and plots. It’s easy to blame the system – in this case, the market – and forget that the system is made up of individual people and their decisions. That uncomfortable fact becomes visible only when someone decides to take a stand and point it out.

Such people are never popular.

[Sorry to piggyback on your post like that, Lucy - but this is one I feel strongly about!]

Gillian Philip said...

Admirable and detailed comment Catherine, and there's little you say that I disagree with (am typing now in a rush in a car - not driving!) - but I must point out that I was not getting involved in personalities. I was referring to two sides of a debate in which I am not taking one person 's side over another. And be assured it is an issue I too feel extremely strongly about.

Catherine Butler said...

Point taken, Gillian!

Keren David said...

I'm going to speak up for the 'minor character who just happens to be gay'...or indeed disabled, black, whatever. If we make a big 'issue' out of these aspects of characterisation and say we cannot have a gay character without a thorough 'handling' of their sexuality, we project a world in which everyone is straight. This is not tokenism. It is actually not hard to imagine these characters. We imagine ourselves into the heads of people different from us all the time, why should we have to be gay to write gay characters? Are we saying that gay writers can't write straight characters? Surely not.
The question here is really about commercial factors creating censorship - including self censorship. Anyone suffered from it? Anyone censoring themselves?

Anne Cassidy said...

Keren, the problem here is that if you have a minor character who is gay and their 'gayness' is not pertinent to the plot or theme, in other words they are just there, someone's friend or a relation, how do you let the reader know that they are gay. In the first instance of course, you introduce them as a character in the normal way, someone talks about them, through dialogue whatever and that is where you can describe their sexuality. So I didn't know your friend, John, was gay? Oh really? He's been with his partner for months, I thought you knew.... And so on. What do you do the next time John comes into scene??? In other words how do you maintain his 'gayness' through the novel if it's not relevant to the plot/themes. Then he is just another character?

Lucy Coats said...

Catherine - Wow! You are in no way 'piggybacking', but adding immeasurable value and insight to this debate. Thank you so very much, and I, personally, agree with all you say here. It's a mini blog in itself, and I'm grateful to you for spending so much time writing it.

Keren - I said much the same thing in my first comment here, I think, and you're right about overt 'handling'. But as writers of YA I do think we have to self-censor in certain areas (ie in a younger YA novel, it would be inappropriate to have full-on sex described in detail between characters, of whichever gender). Or take swearing. I get quite cross when I have to think, forinstance, about that, when I know perfectly well that very young kids are effing and blinding all over the place. However, I am prepared to find ways round that. The gay in YA 'issue' is something entirely separate, and, as I said (and Gillian too), I would not self-censor if a character presented him or herself to me as gay. I would treat their sexuality as part of them, not as something separate, and portray them as themselves, however that happens to be. What Catherine says about commercial factors is really the heart of this matter. But if we bow to this argument and self censor purely because of that, we will never have a situation which reflects teenage life as it really is.

John Dougherty said...

Fantastic debate! I've had to skim-read, and may well have missed something, but a couple of thoughts from me:

Firstly, Cat, I have to respectfully disagree when you say 'I think (part of) the answer has to be that it needs to be handled like other "issues"'.

Being gay may raise issues, but it shouldn't be an issue in and of itself - neither should race, or gender. No-one says "You shouldn't include a female character unless there's a specific reason for her to be female". Same goes for black, Asian, gay, or Irish characters.

Anne, I think my answer to your question "if you have a minor character who is gay and their 'gayness' is not pertinent to the plot... how do you let the reader know that they are gay?" would be: you let the reader know they are gay at the point at which it does become relevant. Perhaps you suddenly need to introduce their partner, or someone fancies them and has to be let down, or some other point arrives at which it makes sense to release that information. If it doesn't become relevant, you don't mention it.

I suppose you might end up writing ten books with gay characters before you end up with one whose sexuality is explicit, but so what? I like the idea that the sexuality of probably the most famous gay character in children's fiction was never mentioned in the novels, presumably because there was never a need for it to be mentioned. But he's still gay.

Keren David said...

Yes, what John says. Mention if it's relevant. Or make it apparent. You don't have to labour it, or mention it every time. I have quite a few characters who you only know are black because of a passing comment - it's never otherwise mentioned. Just enough to show that the world of your book is diverse.

Linda Newbery said...

Excellent post, Lucy. All I can say is that the first of my books to make any kind of impact, THE SHELL HOUSE, had gay characters in both the present-day story and the First World war sections, and it never met with any kind of reluctance from agent, publisher or anyone else. In fact it was welcomed. But it was banned in Florida.

James Dawson said...

Fantastic piece, Lucy...as I said in my YesGayYA piece, LGBT people are all around us, it is important this is reflected in the YA world too. When I was a confused 14 year old, I would have loved to have seen something of myself in the books I was reading.

Gillian Philip said...

What John and Keren said, exactly. If one of my characters was 5 foot 11 I wouldn't feel the need to mention it unless he needed to get something off a high shelf. There should be no more need to belabour a character's sexuality any more than there should be a need to avoid it. That's in an ideal world, of course, but I like to write as if we're already there.

Lucy Coats said...

Thank you, James. Everyone should read your piece too - at Tall Tales and Short Stories. http://talltalesandshortstories.blogspot.com/2011/09/diversity-matters-were-here-were-queer.html

Liz Kessler said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
candlewycke said...

Just a very brief thought but this issue is much bigger than gay vs straight and right vs wrong or oppressed vs the oppressor. There is often a fine line between writing in acceptance of social change and writing as an agent of social change. Children are susceptible to influence and so many parents see ya writing that exists ad an agent of social change to be little more than propaganda, in this case propaganda to push what is for a majority of people an alternative lifestyle. Right or wrong. If we look at at examples of children's lit that was exclusively propaganda like what came out of Nazi Germany or soviet Russia we see how seductive literature, especially for children can be. With this in mind I believe authors need to keep in mind not only how the meat of their book will be taken but also the intent be it intentional or unintentional. What I find troubling is how quickly and easily a lot of people seem so eager to paint others as bigoted or hateful or oppressive because a parent may not accept the gay lifestyle or gay life. The truth is much more nuanced and deserves to be treated with more respect than simply discounting a good and loving parent as being a bigot because they do not accept or understand a life that is different than than their own and often at odds with very deeply held social and religious beliefs. What this does is demonize them, lump them in with very bad people like slave owners, kkk, fascists, etc. No one who is so demonized will wish to come to terms with the people doing the demonizig. That goes both ways too. But more important it creates a closed dialog that suggests there is no room for growth and coming to an understanding but only the sad choice of accept or be written off.

Catherine Butler said...

Candlewycke, I don't see anyone here demonizing anyone else - unless perhaps in your own linking of literature that portrays gay teenagers with Nazi and Soviet progaganda, which doesn't sit well in a post presented as a call for nuance. Can you cite some examples of this demonization?

Susie Day said...

Glad to see this being discussed here, Lucy!

I could ramble all day on this subject - and did, on my own blog. But I just wanted to throw one extra point into the pot, for the self-censorers feeling anxious about writing a gay character without stereotyping, or 'doing it wrong': being a gay writer myself doesn't mean I'll always 'get it right'. It doesn't give me some magical insight into every possible LGBTQ experience. The only reason we place pressure on LGBTQ characters to be perfectly representative is because there aren't enough of them. That sounds like a pretty solid reason to write more, not fewer.

candlewycke said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
candlewycke said...

As for demonizing people. And please correct me if I am wrong but you said “when people find themselves acting as agents of oppression” and then “They know what homophobes and censors look like, with their pointy beards and horns, and that’s certainly not them!” The words you chose to use suggest that people who do not accept or endorse the gay lifestyle are oppressors; homophobes or worse and publishers justify their actions because they have gay friends, as if suggesting they use them only as tokens to hide their own homophobic tendencies. The selection of words is somewhat telling? What this tells people as I see it is that the publishers live in denial because they know what real homophobes are? The issue is far more nuanced than this. People who do not endorse a lifestyle are not automatically homophobes or oppressors. For example, someone who actively works to thwart a black community is racist, but a person who had a bad experience living in a black neighborhood and subsequently do not wish to live next door to a black family is simply a reaction to a real world event. The opposite is also true, a black family not wanting to live in a white neighborhood because they would feel different is bigoted but a black family not wanting the same thing because of some past harassment is again a reaction to real world events. You could change the word black to gay or female or muslim and the same would be true. What I am talking about is how this issue has fallen around simple right and wrong on both sides and the other side whichever that is must by default be wrong and by being wrong are the oppressors, homophobes and worse. If you were take that argument to someone who was against homosexuality do you believe an honest and open dialogue would ever come about? Or conversely what if someone was straight entered into a dialogue by asserting that homosexuals were pointy bearded and horned demons? The two sides would simply entrench into their convictions.
Now in regards to authors there is a line and that line is arguably hazy. But someone suggested that there should be board books depicting gay characters. I just don’t agree. At the age board books are targeted social issues in any form don’t need to be addressed. A character can simply exist without any further definition. Burt and Ernie don’t have to be defined as gay characters and children don’t really care either way. But by specifying gender, sex or religion at such an early age the result is not a greater awareness of diversity. Children are already refreshingly accepting of diversity. What it does is begin that process of dividing things in relation to how far opposed they are from what the reader is. For a child reading board books sexuality in any form should not be present. You should not depict a girls private parts or a boys private parts in a manner that draws attention to them, you should not depict one religion as good and another as bad, you should not depict one race being subservient to another and you should not depict sexuality and there is no way that I know of to depict a gay character in away that a child would understand without using sexuality because without sexuality a gay character is really no different from any other character. By saying that Harry has two fathers you say as much as Harry fathers were Gay but without all the parts that create social issues that are too complex for children to understand.
As to books for young adults, this is where self-censorship should come into play. And self-censorship is not a bad thing. An author should consider who really is the target audience, what age, etc. And here is where the line gets haziest. Young Adult really doesn’t mean anything other than an arbitrary assignment by publishers. Most people who read Harry Potter are adults, and very few children actually read Alice in Wonderland (the book, not the Disney adaptation). I am not in any way speaking out against a lifestyle or in favor of one. I am speaking to pre-conceived notions.

Liz Kessler said...
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candlewycke said...

Anne Cassidy made an interesting point. I remember reading that some gay organizations I honestly dont recall which or where was angry because J.K. Rowling made Dumbledor gay but not gay enough. he argument went something along the lines of she should have made him really, actively gay. This is certainly a minority opinion even among a minority group but it goes to show you cant please everyone.

candlewycke said...
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Rosalie Warren said...

I'm late to this discussion, but great post, Lucy. I am straight but, as Lucy says, we are writers, and we often write about people different from ourselves. When my YA/adult crossover book 'Charity's Child' came out three years ago, I got a bit of protest from gay readers who thought I should not be writing about them. But I'm pleased to say this wasn't the general reaction, which was favourable.

I'm encouraged now about the publication of the e-version of 'Charity's Child', which is due out soon. It's about the impact of a gay relationship in a strict religious community - and all that follows.

Catherine Butler said...

Candlewycke, I'm happy to accept that you don't think books that feature gay people are the equivalent of Nazism: I do think however that it was an unfortunate choice of example to demonstrate what propaganda is.

I'm not going to address all your points here, as I suspect we wouldn't get very far - we disagree on too much. Your repeated references to the "gay lifestyle" suggest strongly to me - but correct me if I'm wrong - that you believe being gay to be a choice, and an immoral one, rather than just one part of the natural spectrum of humanity, as I believe. To take that on here would be to go too far off-topic.

But yes, I do think that people who are complicit in censorship of books featuring gay people are acting in an oppressive way. I don't demonize them, however: on the contrary, the point I was making (as the extract you quoted makes clear) is that they are not in general demonic at all, but ordinary people taking the path of least resistance, and understandably reluctant to acknowledge the extent to which that path is oppressive - a reluctance that shows itself in the kind of self-contradiction I highlighted. Perhaps some editors and agents are indeed actively and consciously homophobic, but it was not about them that I was writing.

Also:

someone who actively works to thwart a black community is racist, but a person who had a bad experience living in a black neighborhood and subsequently do not wish to live next door to a black family is simply a reaction to a real world event.

Yes - a racist reaction.

Lucy Coats said...
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candlewycke said...

Catherine - Thank you for at last taking a moment to clarify and have an open conversation. I really do take offence when I am accused in any way of being a bigot. I tried to implicit when I said propoganda that is explicite in its purpose, which is what Nazi propogand was as being diffrent from literature that can be used as such either by deliberate design or innocent intention.

“Your repeated references to the "gay lifestyle" suggest strongly to me - but correct me if I'm wrong - that you believe being gay to be a choice, and an immoral one, rather than just one part of the natural spectrum of humanity, as I believe.”

This is very important as it goes to the heart of this whole debate. Those who are gay are abnormal in this sense (and please let me make this clear that abnormal is not automatically a bad thing) because as evolved beings we exist to procreate. A being that evolves in a manner that makes it impossible to procreate is by definition abnormal. Having said that freckles are also by definition an abnormality, as is having bow-legs, being a highly talented artist (a trait that cant be biologically passed on). Being a great musical composer, Having Tourettes syndrome (which I have had since I was a child and that therefore makes me by definition somewhat abnormal so I do speak with a certain amount of knowledge on what it means to be different, After all when I was a child both gay kids and straight kids had no trouble making fun of my ticks and verbal utterances, they each could be just as ruthless to those who were different. I was born with it and it is part of my very existence but the fact remains it is abnormal. Now if something is abnormal can it be cured or does it need to be cured? Not always. Some abnormalities make us stronger and better, some just exist as part of who we are. Having said that I believe that homosexuality is both a born trait and a choice. I say it is a choice because you can either act on it or choose not to act on it, just as someone with artistic talent you can choose to paint or not to paint and waste his or her talent. This is the same as being heterosexual. It is both a born trait and a choice to engage in sexuality with someone of the opposite sex. Neither bad nor good in and of itself. I use the word abnormal knowing full well that it will offend many people but it is I believe an appropriate word when we can enter into a real dialogue without bringing bias into it.

But of course here is the difficult part. Many people believe that an abnormality is also evil. They find confirmation in the bible, the Quran and many other holy books but of course in most cases this confirmation is largely based on societal interpretation just as during Americas Civil War each side confirmed that God was on their side with the same bible. As a social issue we must deal with things much larger than just right or wrong. Unfortunately we are a gray world. People want to bring their own bias into arguments as if their bias were fact. This is why you see bookshelves filled with conflicting biographies about this or that person. Having said all this when dealing with the influence on children I think that less influence is always the best way to go. And I should specify that most of what I am talking about is directed against the argument that social issues exist in books for the very young. And while this topic is about YA writing we should be mindful that young adults are also still very often children.

“Yes - a racist reaction.”

I disagree. The first is a racist reaction because it is against someone because of his or her race. The second example I used was not against someone because of his or her race but because past experience of actual events that just happen to be regarding one race but that could have been anything else. A woman who is abused or raped might never trust a man again but that doesn’t mean she is gender biased against men. This is the nuance I was talking about.

candlewycke said...
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Liz Kessler said...
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candlewycke said...

Lucy - I chose my words very carefully. If they offend then so be it. When you say "Different from the majority" It really is the same thing. I believe your choice of words simply sneaks around the reality that people deal with. When a child is different for any reason they feel abnormal. By telling them they are not abnormal just different from everyone else, or different from what people define as normal it says the same thing. The word Abnormal means many things, all of them indicating something that strays from a normal baseline. That can mean something that is bad but it can extraordinary. We tell children to celebrate their differences only to try and diminish anything that makes us different. So when say abnormal I do so with absolute sincerity of someone who by virtue of a hiccup of or design or accident or blessing of his birth is himself abnormal. I use the word just as at one time carnival Freaks, the pinheads, the giants, the dwarfs, the disfigured called themselves Freaks with great pride. By taking control of the word you own the word.

Why did I use an extreme example? Because when people start to hide behind polite explanations, or when people are so afraid of causing offence that they would try to say things in the least hurtful way possible then what is extreme almost always becomes what is normal to a given society.

“if writers can in any way either help to bring this world about or reflect the world around them in a way that at least makes people think about these issues, then we are using the privilege of our status as writers wisely.”

This is once again why I used an extreme example… What of the writer who wrote a children’s book telling people all about the bad Jews? That writer was only bringing to lite the issues, he was only trying doing his duty and making people think about things? He was using his privilege as a writer to benefit his society. The end result was a society that ran amuck across Europe! I am certainly not suggesting that this is fault of all authors but anytime anyone takes up the mantle of social arbiter then they need to realize the full extent of what they are doing. An author has no better voice than a theologian, teacher, politician or parent as to what society is all about but they do have a greater responsibility because words are one of the few things that can actually transform a person and words once written down no longer belong to the one who wrote them, neither does the intent.

Lucy Coats said...

Candlewyke - thank you for clarifying that, and for sharing your own story. The thing is, when things are talked about in terms of black and white, it is hard not to raise the spectre of racism.

When I say 'all sorts of people', let me in turn clarify. I really should have said, 'all sorts of human beings, with all the subtly nuanced differences that implies'.

As for your comment about the fairness (or otherwise) of my saying that we live in different real worlds, well, we are definitely living in different places (literally, since I am in the UK and you in the US), and very surely we are coming at things from different perspectives too, born out of our own particular life experiences. and views That is wonderful, and something to celebrate, surely? The fact that all of us here are even having this conversation about gay YA literature (or mostly about that!), so far apart, is wonderful. A lively argument need not create divisions--and I have no wish to do so.

Liz Kessler said...
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Lucy Coats said...

Thank you, Liz--your comments are much appreciated.

On a more general note, I do think that this last part of the debate has now gone slightly off topic, and it serves no useful purpose to carry it on. I would therefore ask respectfully that we now close this particular thread. If anyone else would like to comment on the post itself, and about the gay YA debate in particular, please feel free to do so.

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Elen C said...
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Elen C said...

This thread has been closed for comments as it got rather too heated.

With sincere apologies to those who left more measured comments between Lucy's request for the thread to end and this notice, all intervening comments have been deleted. We have learned from this experience to give a clear warning when comments go too far and to close comments promptly should that warning not have the desired effect.