Let Me Be Your Star: The Evolution of LGBTQ Protagonists in Young Adult Literature
Once upon a time, I wished upon a star, a luminous heavenly body, so I could follow my own star, my destiny, and see people like me as stars, playing the lead roles in stories filled with excitement and wonder.
I can’t tell you how empowering it feels to have finally reached the top step of the slippery publication staircase, staring down on my long journey, breathless, clutching copies of my debut novel, The Culling, the first book in my Post-Apocalyptic The Torch Keeper series (which was recently chosen as a Top Ten Selection of the American Library Association’s Rainbow List), and the newly released sequel, The Sowing.
Life’s good now.
But it wasn’t always so.
Ever since I was a child, I had a passionate love of story in all its forms. Even before I could read on my own, I still remember the excitement of tearing open the shrink wrap of a storybook album, back in those ancient days when we had those vinyl Frisbees called records. I would sit enthralled for hours and listen through the tinny speakers of my portable plastic record player, as narrators spun wondrous tales of cursed Princesses, genies, fairies, giants, evil witches, mischievous gnomes, etc.
It was the heroic and handsome Princes, however, that always captivated most of my attention, though at the time, I wasn’t quite sure why. Part of me wanted to be like them, for sure, charging in on my white horse and saving the day from darkest peril. But another part of me which I never spoke of, wondered what it would be like to be the object of their quest, the one awoken from a long enchanted sleep by true love’s first kiss like Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, or whose foot fit the glass slipper like Cinderella’s.
No matter how many stories I devoured, however, I never came across one that ended with two Princes sharing an enchanted kiss, let alone riding off into the sunset together to a sparkling castle in the clouds. The child I was just accepted that these feelings I had must be wrong and I shoved them inside an ivory tower room in my mind, locked away year after year, growing mossy vines while awaiting rescue by a Prince that, it would seem, would never come.
Looking back on it now, I can see the absurdity of the homophobic rhetoric, that pontificates that somehow children will be “turned gay” if they are exposed to same-sex couples. If growing up with heterosexual parents and being bombarded with tale after tale of opposite-sex love in storybooks and animated movies wasn’t enough to turn a gay kid like me and millions of others heterosexual, then there obviously isn’t enough magic for the converse to be true.
It wasn’t until I hit puberty, though, that the The Mystery of Steven’s Fascination With Heroic Princes was solved at last.
I was one of them.
I still cringe at the memory of how the epithets that were hurled at me as an adolescent burned into the very fiber of my being. Ugly words like Sissy, Faggot, Maricon branded me with their hatefulness, more potent than any storybook witch’s vile curses. I was ostracized by many of my classmates and became extremely introverted, escaping into the refuge of literature. But now that I was older, I saw the glaring absence of people like me in stories as confirmation that somehow those slurs were true. People like me weren’t worthy enough to be heroes in books, and that plunged me deeper into depression.
I felt pretty much alone.
One of the things that helped me through this tumultuous time during my school years was my love of writing, everything from short stories, scripts, and even plays. Fast forward to 2002 when I wrote my very first novel, a middle grade fantasy story called Darius Devine & The Necromancer’s Curse, a throwback to my childhood love of fairy tales.
But Darius never had its happy ending. Despite numerous submissions, Darius Devine & The Necromancer’s Curse didn’t sell. In the meantime, I started noticing that Young Adult novels with gay protagonists were slowly beginning to emerge. Books such as Alex Sanchez’ Rainbow Boys (2003), Brent Hartinger’s Geography Club (2004) and David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy (2005) had helped pave the way for gay characters in mainstream literature. These books dealt with important issues for gay youth, including coming out and self-acceptance. Finally, gay teens were seeing themselves represented in literature, something I had always dreamed about.
As inspiring as this new wave of stories was, however, I wanted something different, to move beyond the “problem” aspect of being gay, and have gay characters be the stars of their own adventure, suspense, fantasy, and horror stories, just like their heterosexual brethren.
In 2007, I decided to take a shot at just that kind of Young Adult novel, and wrote a paranormal, espionage adventure tale entitled Dagger, after the main character. The manuscript featured a gay teen who goes to High School during the day, and belongs to a secret, supernatural spy group that takes him all over the globe at night to combat the forces of evil.
I did derive some hope that the world had evolved and was ready for a gay Young Adult hero. That same year, the late Perry Moore published his novel, Hero, featuring a gay superhero. Things were changing. The time for gay characters in teen literature had arrived.
Once Dagger was finished in 2008, I started querying agents— and started receiving passes. Of course, I received some rejections citing the publication of Moore’s book, basically saying that the quota for a “gay hero” Young Adult novel had been filled, as if there were only one novel featuring heterosexual heroes in the market place.
One agent said she loved it, but could never sell it. Cryptic.
Then another agent’s response shed some light on this reaction and really shattered me: