Since Orson Scott Card has rewritten Hamlet with bonus homophobia, Ben Peek is now suggesting rewriting Ender’s Game with bonus homosexuality.
In addition to making me smile, Ben Peek’s post also touches on the one thing that shocked me most when I first stumbled on Orson Scott Card’s homophobic rants, namely the fact that I always viewed Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead as books about diversity and acceptance of the other.
Diversity also continues to be an issue in YA fiction. We’ve had several incidents of cover whitewashing, i.e. characters of colour either have had their race obscured on the cover or are depicted as white, because publishers believe that covers with characters of colour don’t sell. It’s not just covers either. I can think of at least two urban fantasy novels where the fact that a character was not white was hinted at so obliquely that you could easily miss it. In fact, it took me three books in one particular series (which I enjoy very much) to grasp the fact that an important character was black.
But after YA whitewashing, we now have YA straightwashing. For at Genreville, Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith explain how an agent offered them representation for their jointly written dystopian YA novel – on the condition that all references to a gay character’s sexual orientation be removed. There are also discussions on the respective livejournals of Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith.
This is not the first time something like this has happened. Earlier this year, writer Jessica Verday withdrew her story from the YA anthology Wicked Pretty Things, because the editor had asked her to change the gender of one of her characters to turn a gay teen romance into a straight one.
I know that many Americans are very sensitive towards any hint of “objectionable” content in YA fiction, whether that content is sex, swearing, rape, abuse, prostitution, drugs and alcohol or the fact that gay people exist. Plenty of people prefer to imagine that their children are utterly innocent and unaware of the realities of life. But kids don’t live in a bubble and they generally know more than most parents want to believe. They’re also curious. And that’s why YA fiction should depict the whole variety of life. And that includes gay people, people of colour, disabled people, etc…
YA books with characters of diverse races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, abilities, etc… are doubly important. Firstly, because there are gay kids, there are disabled kids, there are trans kids, there are kids who are not straight white cisgendered Americans (or Brits or Germans or insert dominant group here). And these kids need stories which show characters like them being heroes, having adventures and just generally being awesome.
Secondly, racism, ablism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, etc… run rampant among young people. I frequently have to clamp down on racist remarks, discrimination of disabled students, transphobic jokes, nasty remarks about the poor and unemployed, etc… And one of the worst and most difficult to stamp out issues is homophobia. No matter how often you tell them that nasty remarks about gays are no acceptable and that some people are gay and that there’s nothing wrong with it, another slur, another joke, another remark soon crops up. And this rampant homophobia among teens is largely due to the fact that they have no experience with gay people. Sure, there are a handful of gay celebrities (and of course they are always stunned when you tell them that a celebrity they admire, e.g. Neil Patrick Harris, is gay) and Germany has an openly gay foreign secretary. But there are very few gay role models for teens or just plain cool people who happen to be gay.
That’s why the Captain Jack Harkness character from Doctor Who was so important, because here was a character who was incredibly cool and heroic and bisexual, played by an openly gay actor. I sometimes watch Doctor Who with my students and the expression on their faces when Jack kisses the Doctor (they usually don’t grasp what’s up beforehand) is always priceless. Because there’s this guy who’s utterly cool – and he kisses a man. That’s also why I am so furious at what Russell T. Davies, a man who should certainly know how important role models are for gay teens, has turned Jack into post season 1 of Torchwood.
So yes, we need more gay characters in YA. And lesbian characters. And characters of colour. And disabled characters. In short, we need more diversity.