Unfortunately, we often forget that the publishing industry is as much a gatekeeper as it is a place of rebellion. It can be both, but it is sad when it is the former.
Two authors wrote about their book being rejected because they would not change a gay character into a straight one. Mail and Guardian reported on it further, noting that it isn’t an isolated case and that the publishing industry doesn’t see YA with gay elements being publishable. While there are books being published with gay characters at the centre and doing well (Song of Achilles being a case in point), there are no YA books that approach this issue. With gay teens already so maligned by their schools and communities in a very straight, religious world, there should be books that have gay characters in them so that they have something to relate to.
I cannot pretend to understand the persecution so many gay teenagers must undergo at some point in their lives. Society is generally heteronormative and Christian, and sometimes that means that there is aggressive legislation against gay rights in some countries. (For further info, please read Adrienne Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality” to really get the meaning of that term.) In the States it is not new news that gay students are often denied the opportunity to form support groups. Now they don’t have the choice of literature starring gay heroes. Just as women still have to sit through movies where the heroine ends up being saved by a guy at the end anyway, gay readers don’t get to see a character that isn’t hetronormative, white and typical.
I am glad that there is some author backlash against these decisions. I just hope that the appearances of gay characters doesn’t become token. Look at JK Rowling and her post-publishing announcement that Dumbledore was gay. Never mentioned in the books because it might hurt sales, but its safe now that the books have been published. It reeks of tokenism because let’s be honest, all the heroes are white and straight. It’s a bit late to throw in a gay character once the money is banked. I know it started as a children’s series but it most certainly became too dark for that around the fourth book. So why not announce then that there was a gay headmaster who was powerful, intelligent and kind? The religious groups were upset anyway, so that wasn’t a factor. Is it just such anathema to have a gay character anywhere? In any case, I am glad that the announcement was at least made, and for as long as Harry Potter stays in the public domain, Dumbledore will be gay. (And in a sidenote to the above article, I am proud of the kids who were excited about it. Pity about the sanctimonious Christian mother, but she’s only one person and the fans are truly legion.)
The obvious answer is to write and publish more gay-themed YA books, but it should always be done tastefully. How to do that is a discussion for another day, but it is also the place of authors to be the vanguards in shifting perceptions and trends. We don’t have to, but we should when we can. After all, being able to write well is a gift, one that should never be used to further the status quo when it is already so unfair. Besides, it would be a great challenge to write a gay character that isn’t an awful stereotype.