Gay Teens in YA Science Fiction and Fantasy

This week’s Entertainment Weekly has a special report on Gay Teens on TV.  EW traces the timeline of GLBT teens on network television—from the sparsely out early 90’s (eg, Ricky on My So-Called Life) to the recent proliferation of gay teens on shows like Glee and Skins. [And bless the Canadians. Degrassi has had no less than eight GLBT characters, including a transgendered one.]  GLBT teens have become more and more represented on TV in the last two years TV---partly because of the popularity of Glee’s Kurt. More importantly (imho), though, they’re not just portrayed as kids with a problem but as fully realized characters that just happen to be gay.  I’m not saying gay teens don’t still have acceptance problems. Quite the contrary. But TV has begun to catch on that gay teens not only exist but have the same wants and desires as most teens.

However, as I look at the EW timeline of gay teen characters, I’m struck by one thing. Willow and Tara (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) are the only gay young adults on a speculative fiction show. There aren’t that many gay adult characters on science fiction or fantasy TV shows either.  Captain Jack Harkness and Ianto Jones on Torchwood.  Sam Adama on Caprica. Camille Ray on Stargate Universe.  A handful.  The Star Trek universe was seemingly inhabited solely by straight people, a fact that Brannon Braga, the producer of many of the Star Trek franchises, recently admitted that he regretted.

This all got me thinking about gay teens in young adult (or middle grade) science fiction and fantasy.  Gay and lesbian kids do seem to be represented in contemporary YA fiction (at least to some extent).  For example, one of the Will Graysons in WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON is gay. The book was nominated for a Stonewall Award, which the American Library Association gives to young adult books of merit to GLBT teens. 

However, I’m having trouble finding many YA / MG speculative fiction titles with gay characters. (Adult science fiction, yes.) VINTAGE: A GHOST STORY by Steve Berman was a 2007 Andre Norton Award nominee. (Deathly Hallows won that year.)  ASH by Malinda Lo was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award last year.  So, these books exist. Kind of like Ricky on My So-Called Life existed in 1994. Alone in a sea of straightness.

Why does this matter? We, as writers, have the opportunity to build futures and/or societies in which gay teens (really all teens of any background) are represented—and not just as “issues” (that is, unless that issue is central to your book) but as integral parts of the world. That does at least two things.

First, it builds tolerance.  GLAAD president, Jarrett Barrios, put it well. He told EW, “This increasing number of storylines makes it impossible to assume there are no gay people around you. It makes it uncool to be a bully.” 

Second, it builds hope. During a round table discussion about Battlestar Galactica, Edward James Olmos (Admiral Adama) related a story about the importance of representing Latinos on the show.  A friend called him about a year after the show hit the air. Her 12-year-old nephew was so excited about the show. The kid told her, “We’re in the future. We’re in the future.”  (You can see that video here.)

Imagine NOT be able to see yourself (or someone like you) in the future. We have the power to change that.

Can you guys think of any other YA/MG titles with gay characters in recent years? I'm hoping I've just missed quite a few.

(btw, when I use "gay" above I'm including lesbians. Most of the time.)


Unknown said...

One of my favorites was the "Luck in the Shadows" series by Lynn Flewelling. It's not that recent (I think I read it as a teenager), but I was so excited when I realized that the gay undertones were real, and when the two lead characters fell in love. It was exceptionally well done, and I read the books several times. Those are high fantasy.

I don't read a lot of sci-fi, and other than the Flewelling book I mentioned above, I'm having a hard time coming up with any paranormal YA that deals with homosexuality. I'll be interested to see what books others come up with.

I think that now that shows like Glee have really forged ahead and proved that it's okay (and successful!!) to have an openly gay character, others will do the same. It's quicker on television, but I'm sure we're going to see it in coming years in literature as well.

Great post! I'm so glad I saw the link.

Sean Wills said...

There have been some minor gay characters in a few YA paranormal romances, but they're...not represented very well, let's say. The only one I can remember off the top of my head is the main character's best friend from Evermore, who is the worst kind of stereotype imaginable.

Authors seem to be hesitant to put gay characters in genre YA. That might be because so many people still see a 'gay' story as one that is wholly or almost wholly about being gay. If you're writing, say, a dystopian adventure, then the assumption is that the main characters will be unproblematically straight as the default.

Tina Toler-Keel said...

"Keeping Her a Secret" by Julie Ann Peters was an excellent book. It did go into details about a mother's difficulty with a homosexual daughter. My daughters and I read it and it was a real eye opener. I personally didn't have any issues with my son being gay, and didn't honestly realize many parents did.

Kate Evangelista said...

I was actually thinking about writing a gender-bender type of story. I've got the outline and the concept ready to put on paper. Now is the right time for works that showcase openly gay characters. From girls liking Yaoi, which is anime with gay male characters, usually a romance, to TV shows like Glee and Skins bringing to the forefront what people should be free to show, we are living in the world that can no longer ignore someone's choice. It's never wrong to be who we are, why should it be?

Dawn Embers said...

They are hard to find. Most of the ones I've heard of in YA are contemporary but I think there is one that Tamora Pierce did who might qualify but I don't know the details or when it was published.

On the other hand, this is what I write. The novel that is closest to being ready for submission is a young adult novel sci-fi/fantasy novel where the characters have genetic mutation. While book 1 doesn't deal with sexual orientation, book 2 will. And the YA dystopian I'm going to start in March is a boy/boy one.

Magan said...

Don't get me wrong, LOVED the Willow/Tara storyline, but then it became sort of a "phase" for Willow and she kind of became a yestergay (IMO) and by the end of the show's run was with Spike.

I never really thought about GLBT in science fiction or dystopian, but it probably is about time time to put some in aliens here I come!

Zoë Marriott said...

Okay, well (deep breath) my upcoming Cinderella retelling, which is set in faerytale historical Japan, has a transgender (MTF) character. That's coming out in the UK in July this year. July 2012 my fantasy FrostFire, which features a pair of girl warriors in love as the main characters and a pair of male lovers as secondaries, is due out in the UK. And the book I'm working on now, the main character's best friend is a gay female who falls in love during the course of the story. Oh, and these are all multicultural fantasies. So...I'm giving it my all over here. But some help would be much appreciated.

Riv Re said...

You probably heard of this one, but coming out soon (I think) is They Call Me J about a trans. (YA)

I don't think I've ever seen a character that was outright gay in a middle grade novel. Sure, you'll see male best friends with no interest in girls, for example, but there isn't anything that a 7-10 year old would realize is off.
I guess it's because parents don't want their little kids exposed to so-called "unnatural things" like that. And that in and of itself is a problem.

So that means that not the whole problem is what we write: it's what MG parents allow their kids to read. So:
Is it normal to want to protect your little child from these strange things, so they won't learn from them?
Is it wrong not to bring your child up fully tolerant?

On another note, I'm a full-out Gleek and Rachel Berry's dads are gay, too.

Unknown said...

I find it funny the way people keep saying we as writers need to do something. Sure, we do. But our hands are tied! Publishers, agents, book buyers are who need to do something. I know people who write fantastic Sci-fi with Gay leads but they cant get an agent. Why? Said Agent says there is no market for the book and publishers wont buy. And really I dont think the publishers are lying. People out there can be very close minded. Its the same story with seeing more black leads or people of color as leads in general in Sci-fi.
I think its going to be a very long time before we see a gay MC in middle grade fiction. As great as the American public is some of them are just not that comfortable with their kids being exposed to a different preference in sexuality at such a young age. It's their belief and they have a right to it whether I support it or not. Its also good to note that most writers want to make a living out of their craft. The people who rush out and buy the drivel YA flooding the market arent exactly going to jump up and down for books with gay or transgender MC.
Again, as with all things in life, there are exceptions. My main frustration is the book buying public. The power to change things fall in their hands. We writers only play a small part.

Matthew MacNish said...

Thank goodness. It's still not enough, but it's much better nowadays than when I was a kid.

Stephanie said...

I just finished reading Nightshade by Andrea Cremer. It features at least 3 gay characters (that I can remember).

Angie Smibert said...

All - Thanks for the book titles. Haven't read Nightshade yet, but will put it on my tbr list.

Zoe- Ditto. I'll put your books on my to read list, too. I meant to link to your post on diversity but flaked on it. So here it is:

oyinkro - You raise some good points. Yes, we don't have any control what agents, publishers, and the reading public do, but we can take responsibility for what we as writers do. If you don't write it, they can't buy it.

Incidently, one of my main characters is gay, and the book just got selected for the Junior Library Guild selection--not in the YA category but in the advanced younger readers one. Also, a couple schools are using Memento Nora in the classroom this spring. One of them is a middle school.

Unknown said...

The only ones I could think of have already been mentioned. But I think we concentrate so much on the pros that we seem to overlook the cons of having gay characters all over TV, books, movies, or whatever. It's great for all of these things to exist so that our gay teens don't feel so ostracized, however unfortunate, that it is causing such confusion among our heterosexual teens. And it is. As a mother of two teenagers, and surrogate mother to so many of their friends. I cannot tell you the times I've held one of them while they cried just because they were no longer cool at school because they weren't gay or at least Bi. There is a line somewhere between acceptance and glamorization. There has to be. I want everyone to be who they are and be accepted for it, but now it looks as though the tables have turned and it's the straight teens who are feeling the blows also. I wonder what we can do about that. It doesn't have to be all or nothing. There has to be middle ground somewhere.

arsenio ball said...

I'll be the first one to say there's not a ton of LGBT characters in YA genre fiction, and that I'd love to see more - but you're missing a _ton_ from this list.

Off the top of my head, Cornelius from Holly Black's Modern Faerie Tale series (Tithe and Ironside), Jamie from Sarah Rees Brennan's The Demon's Lexicon & The Demon's Covenant - two characters in Cassie Clare's book whose names I can't remember right now.

There has been an explosion in the last three-to-four years. And like I said, it's still nowhere near enough, and we still have a long ways to go but - the genre has been performing, and opening up, and diversifying.

So let's not sell it short.

Lindsay, TheBookVlogger said...

The Harry Potter Series: Dumbledore was gay, although it isn't obvious in the books.

The Mortal Instruments Series by Cassandra Clare: Two gay characters.

A Modern Faerie Tale Series by Holly Black: Has at least two gay characters that I know of at this point.

Something I'd like to point out is that in all of these books the homosexual character is always a man. I don't think I've ever read a book that had a lesbian character, even as a side character.

Angie Smibert said...

Thanks Rick and Lindsay. Like I said, I hoped I just missed a bunch of them. And it looks like I did! Yay!

Elana Johnson said...

Nice post and discussion! I'm looking forward to Scott Tracey's WITCH EYES, out with Flux this September. It's speculative (not sci fi) and is a gay Romeo and Juliet. :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for mentioning VINTAGE. I am flattered.

It is true that there are very few spec fic books aimed at teens with GLBT protagonists. Too often
young adults have to hope for secondary characters (as many mentioned above) or reach for fantasy novels that were originally published for adults (such as the Nightrunner series or the wonderful SWORDSPOINT by Ellen Kushner).

Tracey's WITCH EYES was just mentioned. I want to also recommend Kristopher Reisz's TRIPPING TO SOMEWHERE, which is a dark fantasy featuring the intense relationship between two girls. Brilliant work.

I'll have a collection of GLBT-themed fantasy stories (some old and pubished in Datlow/Windling anthologies and some new) coming out later this year. And I hope to sell another gay YA book.

Tere Kirkland said...

Great post! I have Ash right now and need to find time to read it, but I love the idea.

I have a YA paranormal with 4 main characters, one of whom is a lesbian, so writing her was definitely challenging, but I heard her voice so clearly, and there was never a question in my mind that she was gay.

It's good to see so many gay characters on television, but I agree, YA spec fic needs more Ricky! ;)

Jessica said...

I was also going to mention Holly Black's Valiant and the Mortal Instrument series.

Another character I haven't seen mentioned that I really enjoyed is Jenna from Hex Hall.

Anonymous said...

Hmm...In Tamora Pierce's Circle of Magic quartet Lark and Rosethorn are two women who are together and quite happy. Deja from that series was gay too but no one knew until The Will of the Empress. Oh, Magnus Bane and Alec Lightwood from Cassie Clare's mortal instruments are gay too. Unless manga counts, can't really think of any others offhand though.

Shooting Stars Mag said...

I haven't read any of her books yet but I'm about to start one soon...anyway, author Hayden Thorne has some fantasy and even historical gay fiction.

It's definitely more prevalent in contemporary fiction though.

I'm actually working on a manuscript right now that I'd love to be the one that gets me published. It deals with two boys and their has some struggles and upsets, but their sexuality isn't really part of that. They just like who they like for the most part.

Oh, and I run a blog called Let's Get Beyond Tolerance that is LGBT entertainment for the YA set.

Nice post.


Angie Smibert said...

Thanks for all the great suggestions. I seriously didn't think there were that many glbt sf / fantasy options for young adults.

Malinda Lo said...

Thanks so much for mentioning my first novel, ASH! I hope you don't mind my noting that my last name is Lo, not Yao. :) My next book, HUNTRESS (April 2011), a YA fantasy, will also include lesbian main characters.

Here's another rec: Just this month, Brent Hartinger's newest novel, SHADOW WALKERS, is being released by Flux, and it is a paranormal featuring gay boy characters. I'm really looking forward to reading it, as well as Scott Tracy's WITCH EYES. I think it's wonderful that there are more YA SFF titles that include LGBT characters!

Malinda Lo

Angie Smibert said...

My bad, Malinda. *egg on face* I'm sorry about that. I'll fix it in the post. And thanks for the rec's!

Unknown said...

Great to see that there are quite a few good gay related books out there. One problem I see is finding them. If you type on amazon "gay" you will only get serious new gay books (which is good, but I hop you see the point).

I'm pretty sure Xena was gay, too. But here and with Dumbledore, there is another problem of hiding the gay themes. I hope the last few years have proven that the society can deal with open gayness now.

To TC McKee, I think this might be slightly exaggerated. I don't think being gay is glamourized. And in the end, it's not really a choice either. Being straight might be normal, but it doesn't mean people will stop being it or wanting to be it. The extravagance with being gay is similar to being a witch or a vampire, but these are normal teen problems relating to self-definition and belonging. There are just other components teens think of nowadays.

Thanks for the post, Nahno

Duane said...

My novel Degranon: A Science Fiction Adventure includes gay teens, though they use the term "same-gendered." Also, all the characters are people of color. I enjoyed your post and the responses. I'm linking to it in my blog, because I think my readers will also like it.

Shauna Gallo said...

I think everyone has mentioned all of the novels that I have read with LGBT characters!

I just have one comment! I think I read a few times about Cassie Clare having two gay characters, Magnus & Alec, but Aline (from City of Glass) is also gay! :)

Other than the three of them, I loveloveLOVE Jamie from Sarah Rees Brennan's Demon's Lexicon trilogy .. and I love Jenna from Rachel Hawkin's Hex Hall trilogy as well!

Mary Borsellino said...

My YA vampire series, The Wolf House, has a number of gay and queer teen characters.

Martin said...

I loved Buffy. Every single thing about it. And I loved it even more because of its great depiction of gay characters.

When I wrote my first novel, The Destiny of Ethan King, I decided early on that Ethan was going to be gay and that his sexuality would be incidental to the story line. I wanted to show that we can move beyond feeling that we should feature gay characters in order to make a clumsily righteous point that being gay is okay. Of course it is, so much so that a gay character and/or relationship can just exist without countless references to it being different.