Our presentation examines LGBTQ Young Adult literature (YA) in the context of the political conversation about the “normalization” of LGBTQ people through marriage and broader educational conversations about youth agency and about the role of schooling in LGBTQ youth identity building. We draw on our theoretical grounding in sociology and queer theory, our professional experience in schools, and our consumers’ appreciation for LGBTQ YA in our discussion of the normalizing impulse and impact of this literature, our suggestions for educators, and our exploration of both the institutional barriers and the radical possibilities of teaching LGBTQ YA in schools.
Queer theorist Michael Warner (1999) argued, in The Trouble with Normal, that marriage is a narrow goal of a movement that is bent on a broader “dequeering agenda” (p. 139) and that is increasingly led by and representative of a privileged part of LGBTQ communities. “[I]n its newest manifestation,” Warner worried, “the lesbian and gay movement threatens to become an instrument for the normalization of queer life. Nowhere is that more visible than in the presentation of the gay marriage issue” (p. 80). Instead of a focus on marriage, Warner made a case to reassert queerness and queer identity, “a frank embrace of queer sex in all its apparent indignity, together with a frank challenge to the damaging hierarchies of respectability” (p. 74). He lamented the “embrace of normal” (p. 60) that he believed the marriage movement signals and hastens.
This “embrace of normal” does something else to the queer agenda: it ostensibly leaves youth out of the conversation. Although young people may grow up to be a part of the institution of marriage, it certainly is not in the present lived experiences of queer youth. Marriage equality does little for queer youth. In fact, it provides just another waiting game for acceptance of their lives.
Ironically, however, children have long been at the center of the public debate over the legality and the state-recognized legitimacy of LGBTQ people. In the early years of the backlash to the Gay Liberation movement, children were framed as helpless victims of predatory homosexuals. Anita Bryant was unabashed about this in her 1977 anti-gay “Save Our Children” campaign, as was the failed 1978 California Briggs initiative that would have barred gay teachers from classrooms. Children have been central to pro-LGBTQ politics, as well. As law professor Kenji Yoshino pointed out (2012), when President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden finally came out for marriage equality in 2012, they put their support for legal protection in the context of the wellbeing of children and their same-sex parents. Beyond marriage, as well, children are at the center of anti-bullying campaigns and their focus on the troubling, tragic consequences of anti-gay and anti-trans youth harassment. This continues today with narratives of distraught, hopeless, and suicidal bullied youth
While images of helpless and tragic victims abound, children are rarely framed as agents and actors in LGBTQ politics. But, YA is a growing space where young people are depicted as far more than passive victims of abuse and are at the center of the narrative, given importance outside of their relationship to queer adults. They are given the space to be whole humans, complete with individual personalities, dreams, challenges, and successes. They have their own stories that unfold within and outside of their queerness and are agents in the composition of their own lives. In the pages of these books, queer youth tend not to worry whether they will be married one day. Instead they worry if the boy they have a crush on will like them back or whether they can wear a dress in the daylight at the mall. They wonder if they will get to play Charlotte in the school production of “Charlotte’s Web” or if they can remain on the football team once they come out.
For queer youth, who may not see regular representations of themselves in their real lives or in pop culture, reading LGBTQ YA can be one of the greatest tools for understanding their identity, just as literature can show all young people how to engage in and make sense of other possible worlds (Luke & Carpenter, 2003). School is a space where such exposure can occur, yet it so rarely does (GLSEN, 2014). The lack of inclusion of LGBTQ-themed literature in schools is a direct result of at least two incorrect views: the belief that the discussion of sexuality with students is important only in addressing public health concerns like teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases and the conviction that addressing the subject of sexuality in schools is undeniably “controversial” and would not be accepted by most parents (Ashcraft, 2009). These views ignore the fact that whether addressed in schooling or not, most adolescents are developing sexual identities, and supporting healthy adolescent development means supporting their sexual identity as well. Further, many parents actually approve of discussions of sexuality with their adolescents, favoring comprehensive sex education over abstinence-only models (Ashcraft, 2009).
Our presentation will focus on a capacious space of representation and creativity – LGBTQ YA – where youth stand on their own, not as discursively/symbolically mobilized for policy change, and where a wide range of young people exhibit agency and identity beyond what is state-given and –sanctioned. We start with theoretical framing, then introduce examples of LGBTQ YA that represent the field right now: queer visibility in a variety of places ranging from a gay Latino teenager living in the projects of New York City (Adam Silvera’s More Happy Than Not) to a suburban nine-year old who identifies as transgender (Alex Gino’s George). We then move to a discussion of how educators have used and can use these books with young people and families, focusing on literacy as a tool for identity development and social justice. Finally, we consider the barriers that educators have encountered in this work and discuss how teachers can work to overcome such barriers, ensuring that young people are not denied access to such powerful texts.
Ashcraft, C. (2009). Literacy and sexuality: What’s the connection? Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 52(7), 636-638.
Kosciw, J.G., Greytak, E.A., Palmer, N.A., & Boesen, M.J. (2014). The 2013 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in our nation’s schools. New York: GLSEN.
Luke, C & Carpenter, M. (2003). Literacy education for a new ethics of global
community. Language Arts, (81)1, 20-22.
Warner, M. (1999). The trouble with normal: Sex, politics, and the ethics of queer life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Yoshino, K. (2012, May 13). For Obama, it’s about the children. New York Times, p. 11.