Queer representation in YA lit used to be dismal. But in recent years, the tides have turned.
Following its publication in 1952, the novel Spring Fire — now considered to have launched the genre of lesbian pulp fiction — became an instant sensation, selling over 1.5 million copies. Its author, Marijane Meaker, later described her shock when she received countless letters about the book from queer women: “Spring Fire was not aimed at any lesbian market, because there wasn’t any that we knew about . . . That was the first time anyone was aware of the gay audience out there.” The book focuses on a college freshman who falls for her sorority sister, and ends the way most early portrayals of queer people did — in tragedy. When their love affair is discovered, one girl is sent to a mental institution and the other rejects her homosexual feelings.
Meaker always disliked the ending, but her publisher felt it necessary in order for the book to be sent through the mail: Had homosexuality been portrayed in a positive light, Spring Fire would have been deemed obscene, and post offices across the country would have confiscated it.
Though Spring Fire is not a work of young adult fiction, its circumstances — the tragic ending; the publisher’s underestimation of a queer readership — bear similarities to those of many early LGBTQ+ YA novels. But Spring Fire is also significant because its author, under the pseudonym M.E. Kerr, later penned Deliver Us From Evie (1990), a YA novel groundbreaking for its positive portrayal of a butch lesbian and for its ultimately happy ending. The contrast between Spring Fire and Deliver Us From Evie is stark, and echoes a larger cultural shift that was quickly reflected in — and even propelled by — queer fiction.
Once equated with obscenity, positive portrayals of same-gender love have become more and more mainstream.
In 1969, when the first queer YA book was published, the treatment of LGBTQ+ in the U.S. was about as bleak as when Spring Fire hit the shelves. Homosexuality was still considered a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. LGBTQ+ Americans were barred from government positions, as they were considered a security threat. And in every state but Illinois, homosexuality remained criminal. In fact, in 1967, CBS published a poll: “Two out of three Americans look upon homosexuals with ‘disgust, discomfort, or fear’” and one out of 10 with “hatred,” they found. Views toward transgender Americans, one imagines, were even more dismal.
Since then, we have seen a sharp uptick in the visibility of queer people, in local anti-discrimination laws, and in the number of states (now 50!) permitting same-sex marriage. In that same time period, the amount of YA books featuring queer characters has grown from roughly one per year in the 1970s, to seven per year in the 1990s, to upwards of 50 per year more recently.
Positive portrayals of same-gender love have become more and more mainstream.
YA literature is an important lens through which to examine cultural shifts as it is, in many ways, a microcosm for our society. Because YA books are geared toward up-and-coming generations, what is changing in YA reflects what is changing in our world — and the treatment of queer people is no exception.
The rise of YA literature has mirrored the rise of LGBTQ+ activism in fascinating ways. The same event that helped to define adolescence as a unique life stage — World War II — also created some of the first large-scale LGBT communities, as soldiers (especially women) were able to find others like them in the military.
The book now considered to be the first YA novel, Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly, was published in 1942. A few years later, in 1945, the New York Times created “A Teenage Bill of Rights,” one of the first works to popularize and define the term “teenager.” This bill of rights included, among other things, “the right to question ideas” and “the right to make mistakes.”
In 1967, the publication of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders ushered in a new wave of young adult fiction, one that replaced moralized stories with nuanced explorations into the issues that faced teens. At the same time, the beginnings of LGBT liberation were apparent. Trans people of color in particular played pioneering roles in the Dewey’s Sit-In (1965), the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot (1966), and, of course, the Stonewall Riots (1969) that sparked a new wave of activism.
John Donovan’s I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip, the first gay YA novel, made its debut mere weeks before the Stonewall Riots. In the book, 13-year-old Davy moves in with his alcoholic mother and develops a relationship with a classmate at his new school. After a kiss and a sexual encounter that Davy can only refer to as “it,” Davy’s beloved dog is killed in a hit-and-run, and Davy wonders whether his intimacy with his classmate was the cause — though he maintains that he isn’t ashamed of what he did. The book ends in ambiguity, and perhaps it needed to in order to find a home on the shelves: Homophobes and queer activists alike could read it as confirming their own, very contradictory views.
The apparent correlation between a character’s same-gender attraction and the death of a loved one became an early facet of queer YA books: In all of the first four novels of the genre — I’ll Get There; The Man Without a Face by Isabelle Holland; Trying Hard to Hear You by Sandra Scoppettone; What’s This About Pete? by Mary W. Sullivan — the queer character or their close friend dies. Many of these early novels also depicted queer attraction as equal parts temporary and shameful.
One of the first books to reverse this trend was Nancy Garden’s 1982 novel Annie on My Mind, about two girls in New York City who become close friends and, later, lovers. Not only do the characters survive to the end of the novel, but so does their love — at the time, a revolutionary idea in queer YA literature.
In retaliation, the book was frequently banned. In one high-profile case, in 1993, parents in Kansas objected to the book’s placement in local high schools, and copies were burned on the steps of the school district headquarters. Fearing controversy, the district removed all copies of the book, leading to a court case that supporters of Annie on My Mind ultimately won.
Many early novels depicted queer attraction as equal parts temporary and shameful.
Other books — especially those by Francesca Lia Block — began to feature queer characters whose sexualities are not issues; they fully accept who they are. Marion Dane Bauer’s anthology Am I Blue?: Coming Out from the Silence comprised essays by prominent YA authors who either have queer loved ones or are themselves queer. And books like M.E. Kerr’s Deliver Us from Evie elaborated on the example set by Annie on My Mind, giving a happy ending to its queer characters.
By 1992, about 60 queer YA novels in all had been published. Many of these books had only a LGB side character; if the definition of “queer YA” required a queer protagonist, that number would drop significantly.
Queer YA literature in 1992 was overwhelmingly white, with only three novels featuring queer characters of color to be found. One of those books — Ruby by Rosa Guy (1976) — stands out as a pioneer not only as the first YA novel about a queer girl, but also as the first YA book to center on a queer teen of color. The novel is about the titular girl, whose life is upended when her family immigrates to Harlem from the West Indies, and who experiences burgeoning interest in another girl.
The number of protagonists of color would increase slightly with the publication of books like The Necessary Hunger by Nina Revoyr (about two female basketball rivals — one black and one Japanese-American — who fall for each other) and The House You Pass on the Way by Jacqueline Woodson (about a biracial girl in a small town struggling with her sexuality) later in the 1990s, but still today the realm of LGBTQ+ YA lit remains disproportionately white.
Queer girls are also less likely to be single than queer boys, which Christine Jenkins, LGBTQ+ YA researcher and associate professor at University of Illinois, attributes to “the fact that a story featuring queer girls is more likely to be a romance, or at least have romance be a key element with a happy ending of the two girls together.” Violence, meanwhile, “is far more likely to happen to a male queer character than a female queer character,” though Jenkins adds that this isn’t a trend limited to LGBTQ+ YA — in fiction overall, “males suffer physical injury more than fictional females” in part because of gendered stereotypes about violence.
After 1992, the early 2000s saw an explosion of LGBTQ+ YA literature by some of the genre’s most prolific authors of today, including Alex Sanchez, Nina LaCour, David Levithan, and Malinda Lo. In this period, queer YA literature has also — very slowly — begun expanding toward other letters later in the LGBTQIAP acronym.
Trans YA was virtually nonexistent until Luna by Julie Anne Peters (2004), which is told through the eyes of Regan, whose sibling is coming to terms with the fact that she is a trans girl. Since Luna’s publication, this setup — putting a cisgender character at the center of a trans story — has become a common trope that many in the trans community have taken issue with. “Throughout the years, [trans people] have been told that the feelings of their oppressors are more valid and important than their own,” wrote Vee of the Gay YA last year.
Young Adult Fiction Writers Are (Finally) Ready To Talk About Sex
When, and why, did the YA genre finally embrace healthy teenage sexuality?
Luckily, in recent years, mainstream publishers have released YA novels in which trans authors tell their own stories — among them Lizard Radio by Pat Schmatz, If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo, and The Unintentional Time Traveler by Everett Maroon.
Asexual characters are also becoming more present: Books like Every Heart Has A Doorway by Seanan McGuire and Deadly Sweet Lies by Erica Cameron have teen characters who self-identity as asexual on the page. This trend holds true for explicitly bisexual characters as well — in 1997, M.E. Kerr’s “Hello,” I Lied featured one of the first instances of a YA protagonist self-identifying as bisexual. Since then, many others have followed suit.
What caused these novels to proliferate? Compounding momentum. Once publishers saw that there was an eager audience for books about LGBTQ+ teens — and once the visibility of LGBTQ+ teens in day-to-day life started increasing — they began to publish more and more.
Brent Hartinger, author of Geography Club, struggled for years to get his manuscript taken seriously. “Oh, God, it was horrible. I wrote the first draft in 1991, and spent the next 10 years having editors tell me, ‘I really like this, but there’s no market for a book about gay teenagers,’” he says. The book eventually sold to HarperCollins, where according to Hartinger it was loved but not expected to sell well (“no one there thought it was going to do anything at all”). But the book took off — within two weeks of publication, it was already in its third printing.
This is, in many ways, the story of how queer YA literature became such a force. Little by little, the books began surpassing sales expectations, and a movement started building. “I do think a lot of young writers read our books and thought, ‘Wow, I can write a LGBT YA book? That’s a possibility? I want to do that!,’” says Hartinger.
This brings us to today, when authors of LGBTQ+ YA have been able to take bigger risks — to explore the complexities of an identity that remains inherently political in our society.
In recent years, mainstream publishers have released YA novels in which trans authors tell their own stories.
Of course, queer YA books are still disproportionately white, and they too rarely represent identities past the L and G. But the push for more inclusive queer literature seems to be having successes. Just look at the books for fall 2016: When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore is a magical realism novel about the love between a trans boy who paints moons and a cis girl who grows roses on her wrist, both of whom are people of color. Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee features a queer Asian-American girl who scores an internship with a supervillain. And Beast by Brie Spangler is a contemporary “Beauty and the Beast” retelling where Belle is trans.
LGBTQ+ YA is becoming more various — and, after decades of book banning and fears about sales, it is finally beginning to reflect the world teens live in.