Writing Yourself

June is Pride month, a time for the queer community to celebrate its history and commemorate the anniversary of the Stonewall riots—the 1969 uprisings in Greenwich Village that marked the turning point for LGBTQ+ rights in this country. For a number of reasons, this year’s Pride holds special significance for me, and one of the big ones is that it is my first year as the published author of an OwnVoices novel about a gay teenager.

When I was in high school, there was precious little YA literature to go around, and what existed was invariably sanitized and dumbed-down—cardboard protagonists reflecting values and behavior that contemporary adults felt was “appropriate” for young people. Heroes didn’t drink or swear or experience overt sexual desire, and they most certainly did not come out of the closet. Even in adult fiction, which I consumed voraciously back then, the inclusion of gay characters was cautious and subversive; and in mainstream thrillers, representation fell roughly into two categories:

 

  1. Tragic Victims and/or Exotic Deviants. Criminals or corpses (sometimes both!) that polluted the weird and unseemly world the detective had to prowl in order to bring justice to an undeserving city.
  2. Token Sidekicks. This version of the fictional queer (almost always gay men, almost always white) came in a few limited flavors—mainly: Sassy and Sexless, Depressed and Sexless, or Tragic and Sexless. These characters existed to show the (usually female) protagonist’s compassion and open mind.

 

It was in this kind of literary mindset that I first began writing, and the thought of centering a narrative around a character like myself seemed impossible and outlandish. Over the years, one after another, I crafted manuscripts about straight protagonists with gay friends or siblings, secondary and tertiary players who would wink and nudge their way onto the page, taking baby steps toward the spotlight—but always ceding ground to the heterosexual couple I thought the publishing industry required for a marketable novel.

And then, one day, I walked into my local bookstore and saw a copy of David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing on the shelf, and it was my own metaphorical Stonewall: a brick cast through the window of my perceived limitations as a writer.

For the first time, it really hit home with me that a gay teenager could shoulder the principal narrative of a novel—that there were readers out there just like me, readers hungry to see themselves on and between the covers of a book. For the first time, I began to realize that maybe I didn’t have to continually position queer characters as the lieutenants, the best friends, the background scenery in my stories anymore.

Even so, when I sat down at my laptop to begin drafting my debut novel, Last Seen Leaving, I believed the work would amount to little more than an educational exercise. A suspense junkie, I had trouble conjuring up a plot that did not, sooner or later, end in murder, stalking, or abduction; and if LGBTQ+ YA was few and far between, LGBTQ+ YA thrillers were nearly unheard of. But I loved mysteries, and was sick of the endless string of gay victims and villains that splashed luridly across the pages of adult works; I wanted to give gay teens the book I wished I’d had when I was fifteen years old and struggling to fit my self-understanding into the narrow slots society provided me. I wanted to give young readers a contemporary suspense title where a gay kid is the hero.

As it turned out, I was selling the Young Adult category unfairly short. YA has an incredibly expansive, adventurous, and socially conscious readership, and I was blown away at how quickly and enthusiastically my little “educational exercise” was embraced by my agent, my editor, my publisher, and then by readers. Notably, a number of excellent YA thrillers with queer MCs have hit the shelves just within recent years: Tess Sharpe’s Far From You (Disney-Hyperion, 2014), Lindsay Smith’s A Darkly Beating Heart (Roaring Book Press, 2016), and Robin Talley’s As I Descended (HarperTeen, 2016) are all personal favorites; and Brent Hartinger’s Three Truths and a Lie (Simon Pulse, 2016) was even nominated for an Edgar Award.

These are remarkable strides; and every year, more queer characters are appearing in books, and more OwnVoices writers are selling their work. The choice I made to craft a protagonist who truly represented me, a protagonist whose shoes I’d actually walked in, had been a personal one. It had felt like a gamble. And it means everything to me to know that I’ve contributed something—that somewhere, there’s a reader who has one more option, one more chance to see himself in a book.

And the best word I can think of to describe the feeling I get when I think of that reader connecting with my work is: Pride.

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