"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'.
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?