How Gay YA Books Help Me Find Myself as an Adult

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In the past, I’ve written about how I’ve both outgrown YA books as well as my refusal to label them, or any books, as “guilty pleasures.” The fact of the matter is yes, I still believe I have outgrown the mindset usually required to read YA books, since I used to gravitate most towards titles that largely dealt with struggle. (I had my fair share of those in my later teen years.) However, even though I like to believe I’ve matured past the age where quite literally everything feels like the end of the world, I still find myself gravitating towards YA titles that feature LGBTQ+ characters and themes, because despite what current media and culture might like to think, genuine queer representation is still few and far between. (I’ll defer to what Billy Eichner had to say about reality television star Colton Underwood coming out as gay in an apparent PR stunt to both boost his career and distract from previous misogynistic abuse.)

Another fact of the matter is that the queer representation that exists today just didn’t exist when I was young. There was no Schitt’s Creek or Love, Victor, and syndicated reruns of Will & Grace were banished to the late evening hours. I was in the 7th and 8th grades when campaigns like “It Gets Better” and “Pink T-Shirt Day” were first introduced to discourage bullying and address rising youth suicide rates, and while they were indeed leaps and bounds ahead of what older generations had in school, it still didn’t make this baby queer feel any less uneasy in the halls of junior high. (I remember contemplating faking a cold the day our Gay Straight Alliance was being introduced at an assembly, but I had already faked sick too much that year to escape bullies.) Sure, there were David Levithan books like Two Boys Kissing or Boy Meets Boy that, again, were monumental in comparison to just a decade before. But would I ever have been caught dead with either of those when I was 14? Absolutely not.

I was 18 when Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda first appeared, and while I can appreciate and applaud the fact that it led to the first film by a major Hollywood studio to focus on a gay teen, it crushed my spirit that a story that, in my opinion, got so much wrong was suddenly the subject of so much attention — attention that also largely left out the century of pain, hardship, and battle that had led to the moment where a gay teen could finally get his own theatrical film adaptation. As Eichner said, there are probably many more queer 14-year-olds who feel safer to live openly now compared to a decade ago. And that is amazing! But it doesn’t erase the decades — the millennia — of queer people before them who never felt safe enough to live openly at that age, and the consequences of coming to terms with that later.

For example, in 2019, I read James Brandon’s Ziggy, Stardust and Me, following a bullied and anxious teenager in 1973 forced to undergo conversion therapy. To cope, he escapes into the safe haven of his imagination where his late mother and his hero, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, guide him through life. Reading that book felt like looking into a mirror and seeing the bullied, anxious teenager I once was, who dwelled intensely in his own imagination and blasted Madonna through his headphones walking home from school to drown out the voices of people who didn’t understand him. It was a book that would have completely transformed me if it had existed when I was 14, and while I remain eternally grateful that it exists now, it doesn’t excuse the trauma I did experience at that age that I would only learn to overcome years later.

Just this week, I finished reading Sophie Gonzales’s Only Mostly Devastated, a loose queer teen reimagining of the musical Grease. Since I still tend to keep my thumb on the pulse of new YA releases, and especially LGBTQ+ ones, I had requested it from my library last summer but, as a result of multiple quarantines, lockdowns, and a never-ending terrible news cycle, I could not bring myself to be in the headspace to read fiction — and any fiction titles that I had picked up since then could barely hold my attention. But with quarantines and lockdowns have also come painful reading slumps, so with the brief privilege of being able to enter the library again to browse, I found Only Mostly Devastated staring at me from the shelf and decided it was worth taking a chance. And jeez, was it ever worth that chance.

It wasn’t the first gay YA book to punch me in the heart or have me see my own reflection in the characters, and I’m sure it will be far from the last. But on top of a year where feeling positive emotions has also become a brief privilege, a queer YA romance that just got everything right at every turn was enough to break through the firm brick wall that has become my being and make all the feelings flood through. It also didn’t help that I had finished the first season of Love, Victor — the far superior television spin-off of Love, Simon — just a day before turning the final page of Only Mostly Devastated, and suddenly I was completely overwhelmed with a feeling that said, “I would have absolutely died if this had existed when I was in high school.”

It seems that heteronormative media and culture would like to ignore the centuries of social and political upheaval that have led to the opportunities for a plethora of new gay YA novels every year, a television series like Love, Victor, Schitt’s Creek, or the RuPaul’s Drag Race franchise to become a bankable pop culture behemoth. Yet again, the fact of the matter for most queer people, young or old, is that seeing themselves represented either on the page or the screen is still a rarity — and perhaps it’s because it’s so rare when everything is done right that it hits us right where it hurts. But just because we have the possibility of that representation now does not nullify the hurt and pain caused to LGBTQ+ people of previous generations, nor does it imply that the fight for gay rights and freedoms is anywhere near over. (Peruse how the fight for trans rights in the United States is currently going if you don’t believe me.) There is still a long way to go, but in the meantime, enjoying a good book that you would have needed when you were younger that gladly exists now is a good way to fill the void.

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