Why young adult fiction needs more gay characters – and more diversity in general

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.

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11 Responses to Why young adult fiction needs more gay characters – and more diversity in general

  1. Naut says:

    The strangest thing to me in this case is how editors seem to be okay with humans having romances with vampires, aliens, elves and whatever as long as these others behave like proper western white people. SFF should deal with diversity by its very nature. However, often this is not the case. Other than most of “serious” literature SFF seems to be more conservative, homophobic and xenophobic than ever.

    • Cora says:

      It is rumoured that the writers’ organization Romance Writers of America only changed their official definition of the romance genre from “one man and one woman” to something like “two people” or “two sentient beings” to accommodate the growing paranormal romance market and not the equally growing market for gay and to a lesser degree lesbian romances.

      As for why relationships with vampires, werewolves, aliens, faeries, etc… are more acceptable than relationships with human beings of the same sex or a different race, I suspect that’s because there is no chance of someone’s teenaged daughter or son bringing home a vampire or werewolf boy/girlfriend, but there is a pretty good chance of said teenagers bringing hom a boy-/girlfriend of a different race or turning out to be gay. And as you pointed out, a lot of the supernatural love interests behave just like white western people down to absurdities such as J.R. Ward’s white hip-hop vampires who speak like teenagers from California. Though in many cases, urban fantasy is actually more open to minority characters than other subgenres. However, the urban fantasy novels with more diverse casts are often not the most popular ones (the exception is Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series whose heroine is Native American), whereas the more popular series feature mainly white or quasi-white characters.

  2. You know my views on diversity from having highlighted some of my articles. On one hand, kids have to be socialized to be human and fear of the Other is strong in us. On the other hand, speculative literature should feature diversity by definition.

    Ender’s Game is not really about acceptance of the other. When I read it, its obvious Gary Stu-ism and pornoviolence made me queasy — but John Kessel got to the core of the story’s very fundamental pathology in Creating an Innocent Killer.

    • Cora says:

      Thanks for the link.

      In my defence, I read Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead as a teenager, a few years after they came out and before I knew anything whatsoever about Orson Scott Card. And my teenaged self was very good at ignoring problematic political messages in books and films I enjoyed to the point that revisiting thing I used to enjoy is often a shock, because there is an obvious rightwing message I never noticed. I never really liked Heinlein, though.

      Plus, as a teenager rebellion, particularly against old people and their idea of society (if you were a teenager in Germany in the 1980s, old people were deeply suspect, because no one could tell what they had done during the Third Reich), was a crucial component of science fiction to the point that I would probably have included it in a genre definition, had anyone ever asked me for one. The discovery that a lot of SF writers were conservatives who supported Ronald Reagan and his SDI scheme was a shock. So was discovering obvious conservative messages in books I had once enjoyed.

  3. Jodie says:

    I have been wondering what is up with Russel T Davies more than usual lately (I’m continually sad about the naturalised, casual, overwhelming sexism that crop up in his dramas). Remember that whole ‘Sherlock and Watson are totally not gay in our series’ announcement? On the one hand, fine that’s how you the creators see them and Watson is clearly written straight in that series. On the other is there really any need to make a public statement of authorial control about the character’s sexualities?

    • Cora says:

      I’ve had it with Russell T. Davies from the moment I realized that I no longer even liked the Doctor as a person around season 3/4 of the Doctor Who, that he’d turned the wonderful Captain Jack character into an arsehole who doesn’t care one bit about his teammates (never mind that he made me hate most of the teammates, too) and that I hated what he’d done to Sarah Jane. Plus, he killed off my favourite character. Never mind that there are only two fates for women in RTD’s and Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who universe. You can either get married and have children (But don’t even dream of nabbing the Doctor and Captain Jack. The best you can get is Mickey or Rory or if you’re really unlucky Rhys.) or die. And then he made Torchwood series 3 and 4 and went completely off the rails.

      What irks me most is that the problems with Davies’ work, the casual sexism, the whole “He wants to sleep with everyone but me, so he loves me” unrequited love stuff, the fact that his version of the Doctor is not a likable character have been present from Queer as Folk and probably even before on. And just excused them away, because there was so much about Davies’ dramas that I liked. As for Moffat, I generally like his work in Coupling, Jekyll and Sherlock, but I have never liked his Doctor Who.

      Much as I enjoy Sherlock, I’m not sure why the “They’re totally not gay” announcement was needed either. It’s pretty obvious that Watson isn’t gay (and of course Arthur Conan Doyle’s Watson was married at one point), so why not let people make up their own mind? Never mind that it didn’t work, because my Mom told me after watching A Study in Pink, “Wow, I never knew that Sherlock Holmes was gay.”

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  6. Longshadow says:

    Of course, there is always the danger of going too far the other way and mandating to authors that they MUST include a character of (insert demographic here) in their work OR ELSE. Artistic freedom goes both ways.

    • Cora says:

      Oh definitely. I’m not a fan of token X characters either, because most token characters are just stereotypes and it shows. But the real world is bigger and more colourful than just a cast of straight white Anglo-Americans and I’m glad that we’re seeing more books and films which show that diversity.

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