Posted in Fiction, Writing

The Gay YA Movement, and Why It’s Important

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The 2013 release of David Levithan’s novel Two Boys Kissing marked a huge leap forward for American gay young adult fiction, and it showed how far this subgenre of books has come. In the late twentieth century, few American novels written for teenagers aged twelve to eighteen featured LGBT characters, and gay teens in the United States had few characters to identify with in YA literature. This landscape changed in 2001 and 2003, respectively, with the releases of two influential novels: Rainbow Boys, by Alex Sanchez, and Levithan’s debut Boy Meets Boy. In recent years, award-winning LGBT books like Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz; The Miseducation of Cameron Post, by Emily Danforth; and Two Boys Kissing have followed. These five novels mark important milestones in an important subgenre that continues to grow year after year. Boy Meets Boy offers readers a rare glimpse of a relationship between two young gay males that ends not in tragedy, but in acceptance and love; Rainbow Boys was so well-received it marked the first time a gay YA story inspired a lucrative trilogy; Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe gives a voice to the rarely acknowledged gay teenaged Latino community; The Miseducation of Cameron Post proves that gay YA adult novels about teen women are becoming as popular and acclaimed as novels about teen men; and Two Boys Kissing imaginatively blends the tragedies of what has come before with the potential beauty of what is still to come.

A Brief Gay YA History

Christopher Bram’s Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America is a non-fiction book that chronicles the rise of influential gay authors and novels from the 1940s to the 1990s. Released in 2012, the book discusses the work of such authors as Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Michael Cunningham, and Tony Kushner, and how novels about gay men evolved throughout the decades. Only once in the 310-page book does he point to an influential book about a gay teenager, when he discusses the very first gay young adult novel ever written — I’ll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip, by John Donovan. Published in 1969, and reissued in 2010 to a brand new generation, the book tells of a tender romance between two closeted teen boys, and opened the door to other authors who wanted to explore homosexuality in teen literature.

Gay young adult books have grown in number each decade, despite only a select few appearing in the United States between 1969 and 1992. The most influential of these novels include The Front Runner (1974), by Patricia Nell Warren, a love story that explores homosexuals in American sports; Dance On My Grave (1982), by Aidan Chambers, which tells of a romance between two boy dancers; and The Boys on the Rock (1984), by John Fox, which was the first novel to blend politics with a story of gay youth.

Gay young adult novels started appearing with more regularity at the turn of the millennium. The most famous of these novels is The Perks of Being a Wallflower, written by Steven Chbosky and released in 1999. Although the gay character in the novel — Patrick, a flamboyant high school senior — is a supporting one, and not the lead, he plays a major role in Chbosky’s book. Patrick opens up the straight main character Charlie’s mind to new friends and experiences, and shows him for the first time that gay people in his life should be something not to fear, but to embrace.

Rainbow Boys — 2001

Published in 2001 was Alex Sanchez’ Rainbow Boys, the first installment of a young adult trilogy that tells of the perilous, exciting, and sometimes heart-wrenching journeys of three gay male teenagers trying to survive high school in a small conservative town. Sanchez, a gay Mexican-American author who has won the Lambda Literary Award five times, has written eight novels for teens, all of which explore gay, bisexual, and questioning youth.

Rainbow Boys, Sanchez’s debut novel, is perhaps his greatest achievement of all, the kind of book that can change lives for LGBT teens while it entertains the masses at the same time. The novel follows three teenagers during the first semester of their senior year: Jason, a jock struggling to come to terms with his sexuality; Kyle, a shy senior who is finally starting to accept his homosexuality; and Nelson, the flamboyant gay who has been out of the closet since childhood. It would be easy to follow just one of these characters, but Sanchez ambitiously writes the book in the third-person limited point of view from all three perspectives. In one chapter, we follow Jason and his difficulties; the next chapter, Kyle takes over and we see him try to flirt with Jason; the next chapter, Nelson is chatting up a guy over the Internet and going to bed with him that very same day. Sanchez makes the three characters very different so that the reader gets three unique perspectives on the gay experience.

Rainbow Boys is not the most unpredictable book in the world. There are a few steps in the plot that even the youngest of readers could see coming, and the arc of Jason’s character is something expected, if necessary. The book is more about the journey, with three people who feel immediately relatable, even if the reader is straight. We have all met these kids, at one time or another, and Sanchez fully brings them to life on the page. He has a smooth, easy-to-read writing style that engages the reader, and enables him to picture each scene vividly. The book is charming and romantic, with a lot of heart, especially toward the end. Much of the early part of the book has characters questioning their feelings, not knowing how they’ll manage. However, as they become more comfortable in their own skin, and more willing to confront the ones they love, some truly tender and intimate scenes take over. He gives the reader the occasional sexually charged scene, but nothing overly explicit. Each scene serves a purpose in giving the characters the motivation and support they need to grow into the young men they were meant to become.

Sanchez wrote two sequels to Rainbow Boys, marking a turning point in the gay YA movement; not only were these books becoming more recognized, but they were also profitable enough for a publisher to ask for sequels. Writing the first LGBT young adult trilogy, Sanchez took concepts he introduced in Rainbow Boys and fleshed them out over the course of two more books. Rainbow High tells of the boys’ second semester of senior year, and feels very much like a continuation of the first book, as Jason and Kyle fall deeper in love, and Nelson tries to understand the ramifications of going to bed with a boy who is HIV-positive. Rainbow Road jumps forward in time four months, and is a special treat to the fans of the trilogy, in that it is the only one to put all three main characters together for the majority of the novel. In the final installment, the characters question themselves and pull away from each other from time to time, but in the end, all three of the boys discover love, acceptance, and a chance at a glorious future.

Boy Meets Boy — 2003

The author of eleven novels, and co-author of seven more, David Levithan started his literary career as an intern at age nineteen for Scholastic Books, where he rose up in the ranks as an editor on the Babysitters Club series. He is still an editor at Scholastic today, but he is currently most heralded for his focus on gay male protagonists in his young adult novels.

Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy, released in September 2003, was a game-changer in the gay young adult genre, primarily because of how strikingly controversial it ultimately wasn’t. Winner of the 2003 Lambda Literary Award for young adult fiction, it tells of a blossoming romance between two male teenagers in a high school setting where equality is the norm, not bigotry and intolerance. Paul is the narrator, a high school sophomore who is openly gay. He has friends and family who are all accepting of his sexual orientation. Paul falls in love with Noah, a newcomer to the small New Jersey town, who is also openly gay and has an immediate attraction to Paul. Supporting characters in the book include Kyle, Paul’s ex-boyfriend, as well as Infinite Darlene, a girl who used to be a boy named Daryl. The narrative plays out like any standard boy-meets-girl young adult book, with various circumstances and conflicts getting in the way of the two main characters ever getting together — until the very end, when the two boys finally fall in love.

Some of the supporting characters in Boy Meets Boy, like Paul’s friend Tony, have homophobic parents. For the most part, though, the characters do not treat homosexuality as a sin, or as a reason for bullies to confront the vulnerable protagonist in a dark corner. All differences, which also include bisexuality, questioning, and transgenderism, are accepted and embraced in this small town. There are no big coming-out scenes, no scenes of suicide attempts, no depressing “why-can’t-I-just-be-normal” contemplation scenes. In the world of Boy Meets Boy, it is normal for a fifteen-year-old boy to be infatuated with another boy, it is normal for a cross-dresser to be both quarterback and homecoming queen, it is normal to be gay and have parents who actually love and respect you for who you are. Boy Meets Boy is the kind of book that could change people’s minds about homosexuality and should be required reading for both teens and adults. Any confused teen who comes across this book will find an ideal world on the page.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe — 2012

In the years since the releases of Rainbow Boys and Boy Meets Boy, new books in the gay young adult genre have added further dimensions and breakthroughs in the YA industry. In 2012, two influential novels were released to great acclaim — Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz; and The Miseducation of Cameron Post, by Emily Danforth. Both books tell coming-of-age stories of teenagers trying to find themselves, coming out to their parents, and facing uncertain futures.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe presents a positive and uplifting portrayal of two gay male teenagers in love, like in Boy Meets Boy, but what makes this one even more of a breakthrough is that the main characters are Mexican-American. Up until this book, most of the gay YA books featured all-white casts, with the occasional black gay character thrown in as a supporting character. This novel features two main gay teenagers of nationalities we hardly see in books like this, and even better, author Saenz offers a glimpse into how different cultures and upbringings affect the attitudes toward the boys’ blossoming love. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a subtle gay YA novel, one that tells of a special friendship between two Latino boys, Aristotle and Dante, who over the course of two years find their relationship evolving from a close friendship to a romance. It is written in sparse, short chapters that read easy, but still offer a deep and engaging reading experience.

The story is told in the point of view of Aristotle (who likes to go by Ari). Life has been difficult for Ari, with an older brother rotting away in prison, and parents who don’t even acknowledge his brother’s existence. He is a loner and doesn’t have many friends, until he meets Dante at the local swimming pool. The two hit it off immediately and begin spending a lot of time together. Through Dante, Ari sees a family that is more loving, more engaged with each other. Not until Ari gets to know Dante over the course of many months does he realize that he has developed a new kind of feeling for a boy his age — love.

Again, this novel is subtle. It doesn’t pound you over the head with any big, significant themes. It’s just a really sweet story, about two characters absurdly underrepresented in young adult fiction — teenaged gay Latinos. These two main characters pop off the page with their hopes, fears, eccentricities. Saenz is gifted with a great voice for his characters; the author is nearly sixty years old, but he writes teenagers like he never stopped being one. His writing style might be a turn off for some, but I find it liberating. He packs his book with chapters short enough to please James Patterson, sometimes with only a few snappy sentences, and sections of dialogue that have no attributions. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a great read, the kind that can have a major impact on potential gay readers, particularly teens of a diverse ethnicity who might not have seen themselves represented in the gay YA genre.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post — 2012

If Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe had been the only major breakthrough in gay YA fiction in 2012, it might have been enough, but another masterpiece of the genre hit bookstore shelves not just the same year, but the same month. The Miseducation of Cameron Post, the first novel by Emily Danforth, was also released in February 2012, to rave reviews and great success. Unlike all the other books discussed above, however, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a romance not between two men, but two women. If gay young adult books were rare ten years ago, gay young adult books about lesbians were practically non-existent. In the last few years, however, more and more are being written and published, with this one the most acclaimed of the bunch.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post may be the first epic gay young adult novel ever written. This is a beautiful novel, written with great care and honesty and passion. It reads like a big, sweeping John Steinbeck novel — except instead of writing about an Oklahoma family traveling to California, he is writing about a teenaged lesbian in rural Montana. At nearly 500 pages, with pages printed in smaller font than usual, this is not a cute little love story you read one day and forget the next. This is the kind of book you get lost in, for long hours at a time.

The book is split into three parts. The first and shortest part introduces us to Cameron when she is in middle school, and when she first starts exploring her sexuality with a friend named Irene. The second part of the novel concerns Cameron’s escapades in high school, where she starts a secret relationship with a girl named Coley, who may or may not be gay. The third part, which really swings the whole novel in a different direction, brings Cameron to a de-gaying camp, after her religious Aunt Ruth discovers the truth about her. Cameron first is disgusted with the religious institution, but settles in when she makes a group of friends, all of whom want out for good. The book has the occasional mixed media blended in with the prose, one of the most memorable being the pamphlet that goes with the God’s Promise program. Here’s its motto: “The opposite of the sin of homosexuality is not heterosexuality: it is holiness.” These programs still exist today, but Danforth was smart in setting the novel in the early 1990s, when more across-the-board acceptance of gays and lesbian was still years away.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a terrific read. Danforth’s descriptions are specific and heartfelt, especially of Cameron’s romantic entanglements. She writes kissing so sexy and real that it can make the reader’s heart beat faster. The story is filled with unpredictable twists and turns, leading Cameron into the lives of various girls (and men!) one might not expect. Finally, the book is honest all the way through. This is one of the most adult young adult novels ever written, with frank sexuality, profanity, the works. I would certainly recommend it to mature teenagers, especially those who are questioning and need a coming-of-age story like this one.

Two Boys Kissing — 2013

Ten years since the breakthrough that was Boy Meets Boy, many gay young adult novels have come and gone, but what better to set the tone for the next decade of gay YA fiction than the newest book written by Levithan himself — the shockingly frank and winningly romantic Two Boys Kissing. Released in August 2013, the book is one of Levithan’s most deeply felt and ambitious project to date, creating a gay young adult novel that gives a glimpse of where we are going from here, as well as acknowledging our tragic and many times unthinkable past. The book also features the most eye-popping and beautifully simple covers of any gay YA novel in recent history: a close-up of two boys actually kissing. Ten years ago a cover like this one would have been laughed off at the development stage, but now a book cover featuring two kissing young men in love has landed on bookshelves all around the world, including the powerhouse Barnes & Noble, which is a major achievement in every sense of the word.

Two Boys Kissing tells the story of Craig and Harry, two friends who are no longer in a relationship, but who vow to break a kissing record in front of the whole school to protest a gay-bashing at school of their friend Tariq. The record to break is thirty-two hours, twelve minutes, and ten seconds, so the boys end up standing on that field with their lips pressed to each other long enough to not just change their own lives, but the lives of many in the town as well. As the hours go on, the media starts covering the event, and by the last hour on the second day, the whole world is watching. Craig and Harry’s story is the main through-line of the book, but Levithan weaves in other characters and storylines, including Avery and Ryan, two boys starting a new relationship; Peter and Neil, who are older and who have been in love for decades; and Cooper, a teenager who feels utterly alone and thinks suicide might be his only way out. Levithan deftly blends these storylines into a brief and magical novel that without its final additional element would still have made for a great read.

Levithan is known for telling uplifting, positive stories of the young male gay experience, and it is in this respect that he grows as a writer in Two Boys Kissing, because he has the novel narrated by fallen angels who died during the 1980s AIDS epidemic. Young men who passed away twenty to thirty years ago watch the goings-on of all the characters down on earth and comment on how lucky the alive gay teenagers are to express their love to each other, even in a country where intolerance by many is still a fact of life. More importantly, however, is that the narrators remind the reader to never forget the horrors and unimaginable ignorance that took place in generations’ pasts, particularly when the AIDS epidemic broke out like a plague and killed millions of gay men who all had shots at promising futures.

Craig and Harry are the central characters of Two Boys Kissing, but the narrators hang over the proceedings as reminders of how far we have come as a nation in the last two decades. Blending an important and depressing historical story with a fresh and exciting modern one might not have worked in the hands of a lesser author, but Levithan handles both well, never spending too much time on either, giving all the characters in his new book chances to speak their minds, detail their histories, and give predictions about what is to come in all their futures. Since the time of his debut, Levithan has been working ten years toward Two Boys Kissing, his most wholly original and emotionally affecting work to date.

Gay young adult novels are constantly gaining in popularity, and while they may have been practically nonexistent ten years ago, they are officially here to stay. Gay teenagers no longer have to go to their local library and read romance stories only about straight boys and girls, with the only LGBT character relegated to a stereotypical supporting character. These five gay YA novels are critically acclaimed, readily available, and essential reading for all boys and girls out there who need their voices, and their important stories, to be heard.

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