Changing the Narrative: LGBT Young Adult Novels

By Sayantani DasGupta

It’s banned books week again, which is a time of year that always makes me appreciate the power of stories. Stories have such power, words such potential, that people actually fear them. Usually, this fear stems from a desire to limit the narratives that young people can access, and in so doing, attempt to limit the ways that they can think, feel, and live.

But they’re just stories, you say, just stories. These book banners are getting to het up over nothing – everybody knows that stories don’t matter.

I disagree. What those book banners know is that stories have enormous power, to change hearts and minds, to change the way that we think and act, to change the ways that we live. And stories aren’t inherently good or bad.  In fact, as a faculty member in the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia, I teach a graduate seminar in Narrative, Health and Social Justice, and run a faculty level seminar of that same name. In those seminars, we often discuss how stories can be used toward ends of injustice. Unjust or oppressive narratives are part of the reason that a set of human beings can cease to see their neighbors as equals, as fellow humans, and that narrative change is part of the way that genocides – from the Holocaust to the Rwandan genocide — happen.

So that’s why, equally, I teach how stories must be operationalized in ways to counteract such oppressions, how stories must be used toward the goals of justice. Stories DO make a difference. This lesson, that SILENCE = DEATH, that THE PERSONAL IS POLITICAL, that giving voice to our private experiences can galvanize social movements and create social change is a vital one, handed down to us by the civil rights, feminist, AIDS activist, and other movements.

So, do stories matter? Can stories destroy lives? Can different stories save lives?

Yes. Yes. and YES.

Take the dark power of homophobic bullying, which sprung to mainstream national attention in 2010, with the bullying-related suicides of Billy Lucas, Tyler Clemente, Seth Walsh, and Asher Brown. Although each story was slightly different, each shared a similar premise. These young people committed suicide after homophobic teasing and bullying, which ranged from anti-gay slurs to the now infamous invasion of Rutgers college student Tyler Clemente’s privacy with a webcam. The narrative there? An old one, an awful one. Some lives are worth living, others aren’t.

Yet, how can stories themselves change this oppressive narrative?

As a response to Billy’s death, Seattle activist and advice columnist Dan Savage started a new online video channel called the “It Gets Better Project.” The goal of the project was very literally to change the narrative for LGBT middle and high-schoolers by putting forth stories of gay adults who achieved joyous, productive, loving home lives – after living through the torturous years of high school. The first video (below) is a charming eight-minute discussion between Mr. Savage and his partner of 16 years, Terry. The two (handsome, white, wealthy, very happy appearing) men discuss the horrors of their high school years, but in contrast, the joys and adventures of their adult years, from meeting in a bar (and using really cheesy pick-up lines on each other) to adopting their now almost 13-year-old son, to going on black diamond snowboard runs as a family, to watching the sunrise in Paris.

Ultimately, the video series inspired a national foundation, and many similar videos, including ones from the likes of President Obama, the employees of Google, Adam Lambert, and other lesbian, gay, bisexual, and straight leaders, celebrities, and ordinary folks. Yet, they all shared one similar quality – they each were intended to change the narrative for LGBT youth in this country. This group of heterogenous stories had one unified message: “live through high school, because life can be great, life gets better.” The project essentially made concrete a future tense for teens whose present tense feels unbearable. Life is worth living. All lives, all sexualities.

Now, the It Gets Better Project has been at the receiving end of a good deal of rightfully placed criticism. Although the platform created room for a certain multiplicity of voices, it was critiqued for shutting out other voices, such as voices of color, those who were economically under hardship, etc.; as well, it was criticized for also ignoring the real rifts and prejudices that exist within the LGBT community. It was challenged for providing a false band-aid of hope in lieu of urging for real structural change in the lives of LGBT teens and adults. It was pointed to as a narrative which encouraged LGBT teens to put their happiness off until later instead of supporting them to find better lives NOW.

But I think that both the It Gets Better Project and its subsequent critiques are a prime example of how stories work to change oppressive narratives toward goals of social justice. It’s a multiplicity of voices, a plethora of stories, critiques, and alternate narratives that matter.

Stories work best toward the goal of justice when they are not monoliths, but libraries.

YA literature, I feel, has a similar responsibility to create a platform for a multiplicity of narratives. And when it comes to the narratives of LGBT teens, the publishing industry has a responsibility to publish texts that change the prevailing narratives of LGBT teens as tortured, depressed, oppressed, and overall, a pretty sad and serious bunch. To allow for a multiplicity of narratives: happy narratives, sad narratives, kick-butt superhero narratives, mysteries, love stories, fantasy adventures, and on and on.

David Levithan, the co-author of the brilliant Will Grayson, Will Grayson, has said of his whimsical 2003 debut novel Boy Meets Boy,

“So much of gay teen fiction at that point was about misery and death and being the outsider… There was no room for happy gay kids. This book became what it was because of that.”

His co-written novel Will Grayson, Will Grayson makes room for a different gay teen narrative – full of usual teenage angst, but also full of romance, and whimsy, and three-dimensional characters with rich, complicated, funny, and touching lives. Similarly, Malinda Lo re-imagines Cinderella as queer in her novel Ash, thereby creating a space in an otherwise heteronormative and traditional tale. She, like Levithan, changes the (cultural) narrative. (For more fantastic LGBT young adult reads, see this recent list that Lo wrote up for the Huffington Post.)

So, the banned books folks have one thing right – stories are powerful.

Yet, silencing stories is obviously not the answer. It is the root of much danger. It is more stories, more voices, and more visions of the world we need, not less.

Stories matter. Many stories, many voices.

Yes. Yes. And yes.

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One thought on “Changing the Narrative: LGBT Young Adult Novels

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful post. You’re completely right. Narratives shape thinking, for better or for worse. It’s interesting to think about the potential applications of the gay narrative to other oppressed groups like fat women and people of color. Many of the books I’ve read about “plus size” women are narrow in that they are all about self-deprecating, self-hating and slightly pitiful women that somehow “come of age” and learn to accept themselves. Drop Dead Diva has been the only positive portrayal of a confident woman of size I’ve seen since.

    Additionally, with communities of color, it seems that a majority of novels published focus on the narrow (and predictable) immigrant narrative of the children of foreign-born parents. Books like these are also extremely heavy and depressing, as students try to acculturate, balance their two worlds and put up with a fair share of racism and xenophobia.

    What I’m trying to say is that many communities of color desperately need alternative narratives that portray thriving and happy main characters. I know at least for me as a woman of color, I’ve had a much less traumatic life than the narratives of Asian American women that I read in books. How can we shift paradigms of the “higher-ups” in publishing once more to not only be inclusive of oppressed-group narratives, but to be willing to publish a diverse range of novels, rather than feeding into monolithic archetypes?

    QUIEN SABE? I wish I knew.

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