Lenora Crichlow and Olivia Hallinan starred in Channel 4′s adaptation of Julie Burchill’s young adult novel, Sugar Rush.
Recently, writers Sherwood Smith and Rachel Manija Brown spoke out about their experience with an agency that, while apparently interested in representing their young adult novel Stranger, informed them that they would have to make a gay character straight, or else cut him out of the novel entirely. It’s very difficult to see the opposing side in this story. Censorship of novels is certainly nothing new, whether due to issues with sexuality, ethnicity, politics or profanity. But in an apparently progressive society, what can possibly justify erasing the viewpoint of a gay character, whose sexuality is no more offensive than the fact that he is attracted to boys rather than girls?
In the YA Saves online campaign that hit the internet after an inflammatory article by the Wall Street Journal book reviewer Meghan Cox Gurdon, writers and readers of young adult fiction – often known simply as YA – hit back against allegations that it was dark, dangerous, and generally unsuitable. The main argument proposed by YA’s defenders was of the hope, the strength, and the power of literature aimed entirely at teenagers and young adults to make them feel that they have a future and a voice. This, they argue, is incredibly important for young people, during what will probably be one of the most emotionally confusing and turbulent periods of their life.
I am a teenager, acutely aware of the difficulties of growing up in modern society, and still a part of the hive of tears and tantrums, boyfriends, girlfriends, parties and media stereotypes. I know that establishing an individual identity, a sense of self, can seem impossible. YA teaches adolescents that they are not alone; that other people have the same issues, and are going through similar. It may be emotionally charged and melodramatic, but that’s exactly what young people are. It is, after all, why Skins is so popular; it’s real, it’s powerful, and it’s about people and their relationships – the drama of growing up.[pullquote_right]It is utterly wrong to exclude young LGBT people from literature that might otherwise give them a sense of validation.[/pullquote_right]Literature is a form of escapism that can be inspirational, aspirational and reassuring. Imagine the young people that may need that reassurance the most; those who may be bullied, or feel marginalised, who fail to identify with their peers, who are struggling with their sexual identity. It is, surely, utterly wrong to exclude them from literature that might otherwise give them a sense of validation. LGBT individuals make up a massive, wonderfully vibrant section of society, but they are often sorely underrepresented in the media. How absurd that they might look for themselves in the books they read and find nothing. And why? Because publishers think gay characters might not appeal to a mass audience.
This complaint is not just about books that are centred on LGBT characters and relationships, either. Gay characters should be accepted into the mainstream where sexuality isn’t necessarily an issue or genre in itself. If art should imitate life, there must be a place in literature for characters whose sexuality is just part of who they are, completely unquestioned, rather than an overwhelmingly important or entirely difficult part of their lives. Unfortunately, we might not be there just yet.
When I was a 12-year-old bookworm, before I had any kind of solid idea of where I stood on the LGBT spectrum, I devoured YA novels – especially those with LGBT themes. To me, at that point, it wasn’t about being gay or straight, but about gaining a sense of identity, self-respect and self-belief. Three novels stand out in particular, which I remember to this day as having a huge impact on me, and which I still recommend to readers both my age and younger.
Sugar Rush, by Julie Burchill, is a bittersweet coming of age story about a girl in love with her erratic, unpredictable best friend. The voice and tone of the novel are both so completely teenage and Kim is so tragically true to life that it was difficult not to fall for Sugar. A Channel 4 adaptation of the novel, starring Lenora Crichlow and Olivia Hallinan, is similarly impressive; both the book and the series are popular with those of assorted sexualities.
Boy Meets Boy, by David Levithan, is a wonderfully refreshing gay take on the traditional American high school romance. This was particularly striking because the setting for the novel is a world which is, to a large extent, accepting. It isn’t a coming out novel – just a love story. The protagonist is an openly gay high school student, as is the object of his affections, and there’s a fantastic character in Infinite Darlene: both quarterback and homecoming queen. To me, this was a story of how gay relationships could and should be seen: just as romantic as any other.
Pretty Things, by Sarra Manning, is a story of self discovery, told through the experiences of four young people and their tangled relationships with each other. This book is so important to me that for a while I was in the habit of buying it for people who I thought might enjoy it just as much. The most important thing I took from it was a moment near the end where Daisy, a character who was introduced as a lesbian was asked to define her sexuality. Her refusal to take on that label confirmed to me that sexuality doesn’t always fit into neat categories; this was something that helped me enormously when, a couple of years later, I was being asked the same question. When asked about the novel, Manning commented: ‘[Pretty Things] has been criticised as being gay or not gay enough but I wanted to capture that time when you’re figuring out who you are and who you want to be. It was about identity, not just sexual identity. It was really important to me to show that sexual preference isn’t necessarily set in stone.’
The idea of cutting out characters because of their sexuality isn’t just ludicrous or offensive: it’s also dangerous. YA novels have a powerful impact on their readership, whether securing their acceptance of their own sexuality or ensuring their understanding of those different to their own. They might not always be recognised as works of classic literature, but the themes are incredibly important to those that relate to them, and that’s something that’s worth more than the profit they might generate. While young people struggle to accept that different sexual identities are not marks of shame, YA’s role in supporting their self-discovery could be saving lives. We should think very carefully before we accept the view that there’s no place for controversy in youth fiction.
Show your support for YA on Twitter with the tags #YesGayYA and #YASaves