Here we go again. This summer, the Wall Street Journal published an inflammatory rant against Young Adult fiction – and writers fought back. In March, Jessica Verday got told to de-gay an anthology short story – and her fellow writers leapt to her defence. Back in 2009, Justine Larbalestier pointed out that white girl on the cover of her book about a black girl was, actually, not really at all ok, not even a little bit – and other writers jumped up and down till it changed.
Now it seems two YA fantasy authors have been told by an agent that they’ll only be taken on if they de-gay a character. And writers – on Twitter, on blogs, all over everywhere – are, surprise! kicking off.
Cos us writers, we love a scrap.
Only that’s not true. We don’t love a scrap: we love our job. I’ve got a book to get started, and instead I’m writing this and getting shouty on Twitter and having a small impotent cry because some moron three thousand miles away is a bigot, and they’re not the only one, and that’s not right. It’s distracting, having to have this conversation again. It’s demoralising to read that this happens, all the time, to writers I know and writers I don’t – and writers who are scared to say so, because they know how hard it is to get a book published.
It makes me feel hopeless: like it isn’t worth bothering.
But that’s not true either. It’s not hopeless. Sometimes you don’t even have to fight.
I suspect horror stories will come out of the woodwork today, so I think it’s worth stating: I’ve never been asked to remove an LGBTQ character or storyline, by agent or editors. I’ve not yet written an LGBTQ protagonist, and maybe that’s why. Maybe it’s about genre, too: you can read me talking about ‘pink’ books and inclusivity here. (Incidentally, that ‘gay Georgia Nicolson’ book I pitch at the end of that? I haven’t pitched it in real life. Sometimes we don’t need other morons to censor us: we do it all by ourselves.) Whatever the reasons, that’s my experience.
But in light of the #YesGayYA hashtag on Twitter, there’s one element of that experience that I wanted to flag. I write MG (age 8-12) as well as YA (teen) – and everything I believe about inclusivity doesn’t stop just because I’m writing for a younger audience. ‘Sexuality’ isn’t the same as sexy naughty sexytimes. ‘Gay’ doesn’t mean explicit or age-inappropriate. Genuine inclusion means your kids are allowed to know that Heather has two mommies, ok? So when I wrote the first of my forthcoming MG series – which is about three sisters, and their famous-author Mum, and is generally sweet and daft and fun – I wanted to hang onto that. I also quite madly wanted to write an homage to Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes, in which two lady doctors (Doctor Jakes and Doctor Smith) board with the Fossils, and teach them Maths and Shakespeare soliloquies. In the book, they’re a lovely pair of clever spinsters. Now I’m a grown-up gay lady, I think maybe they held hands between the pages. Does it matter to that story? No. But it’s not 1936 anymore, and in my book, the lovely lady doctors who live next door are allowed to be married and have kids, explicitly, and why wouldn’t we think that was a great good leap forward?
I wrote it expecting a ‘discussion’. Perhaps there was one. If so, I never heard a whisper. No pat on the head for fulfilling anyone’s diversity quota, either: they’re the family next door, just like anyone else’s.
Conclusion? Have high expectations, of yourself and everyone you work with.
YA fiction can speak powerfully and directly about personal experience to LGBTQ teens – and indirectly, through the kind of SF that the unnamed agent was so unnerved by – and that’s a glorious thing. But, heads up: we don’t have to wait until our kids are Young Adults. If we’re serious about eradicating homophobia, we can’t. Don’t have a convenient set of cute gay neighbours in real life to help your kid expand their definition of ‘parents’ or ‘marriage’ or ‘relationship’? Hey, maybe a book could help.
#YesGayYA, a thousand times over. But #YesGayMG, too; #YesGayPictureBooks, too. What are you waiting for?