(Originally posted on powellsbooks.com blog)
As a gay teen growing up in South Carolina, I’d never heard of gay pride. As far as I knew, I was the only queer kid in the entire state, and I planned to stay safely tucked in the closet where I could pray all that gay away.
Newsflash: That doesn’t work, so stop it!
Back in those days, finding queer representation in books in the school library was challenging, to say the least. I was so excited to get a glimpse of myself in books like A Separate Peace, Brideshead Revisited, and Of Mice and Men. (George Milton sure notices a lot of details about other men’s physiques, right?) So, naturally, I’m thrilled that LGBTQ teens today have a lot to choose from in young adult literature.
But what I find interesting is that many LGBTQ characters in YA, when not relegated to the background of the story or met with some tragic end, are of the straight-acting, chaste, cute, sweet variety. In queer YA lit, kissing, cuddling, and maybe oral sex is okay, but anything else gets you into questionable territory — especially when the author is a gay man... but that’s a whole other tricky subject for another time.
Newsflash #2: Queer teens are exploring their sexuality and are just as wonderfully messy as non-queer teens.
So why shy away from portraying them that way? Are we trying to present the most socially acceptable version of a queer teen to the world in the name of political correctness? Where are all the fabulously effeminate, outlandishly queeny gay boys in YA lit? Oh, that’s a stereotype, some say.
Newsflash #3: Maybe, but those kids exist too, and they have just as much right to be represented.
When I first started querying Social Intercourse to agents and editors, most of them said they loved the voice and the writing, but they felt it was too much for YA. Too raunchy, too racy, and too edgy. These responses puzzled me because Social Intercourse is far less racy than many YA romances on the market. Like, a lot less. So, is there a double standard for LGBTQ YA?
Was it maybe because the main character, Beck, is a gay boy cruising a city park looking to lose his virginity in the first chapter? Is that too real? Too honest? Not the kind of queer teen we want representing the LGBTQ youth population of queer YA lit?
Newsflash #2: Queer teens are...just as wonderfully messy as non-queer teens.
Well, I can tell you that as a gay kid growing up in the deep South — and yes, even today — living out, proud, and loud is still a challenging proposition. With Beck, I wanted to show a somewhat underrepresented gay teen character, one who is unapologetically queer, who knows who he is and isn't afraid of letting his freak flag fly. Beck is a self-proclaimed "femmy choir boy" who wears guyliner and is obsessed with The Golden Girls.
Newsflash #4: Beck is a total Dorothy on the outside and a closet Blanche on the inside.
The point is, that kid exists too, so doesn’t he deserve to be represented? The edginess, raciness, and balls to the walls attitude of Social Intercourse might be what made some of those agents and editors uncomfortable. And it might make a lot of readers uncomfortable, too. But hats off to my agent and Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, who never asked me to tone it down or take out any of the naughty bits. I told my agent when I first signed with her that it was important to me not to water the book down to make it more palatable to the masses. I wanted to stay true to the characters, and frankly, true to myself and my experience as a gay teen coming of age in the armpit of the American South. And what I found through talking to queer teens is that it’s still hard for them — better than it was for me, maybe, but still hard. Especially if they don’t blend in.
Look, I’m a sucker for a sweet romance, even one about a straight-acting gay boy coming to terms with his sexuality and ending the story with a chaste kiss with another straight-acting gay boy. (I hate the term straight-acting, but you get my point). And yes, that story probably does have more mass appeal than mine. But my hope is that the amazing success of beautiful books like Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda (and the wonderful movie adaptation, Love, Simon) have helped blow the doors down so that characters like Beck can sashay their way right into mainstream hearts as well. I’d venture to bet that readers who give Beck a chance will end up loving him just as much as they love Simon — even if Beck’s flame burns the house down in the process. #SluttySimon!
(Disclaimer: I have Becky Albertalli’s wholehearted blessing to use that hashtag when describing my book!)
In Social Intercourse, Beck isn’t ashamed of who he is, so why should we be? Just like his real-life counterparts, Beck is out, proud, and living loud. I wish I had understood that kind of pride when I was a teen hiding deep in that closet, watching the world pass me by. I would have told myself: Hey you! Get out there! Throw on some guyliner and let your freak flag fly! And let Blanche out for some air. It’s going to be just fine.