Thursday, September 23, 2010

Story Rx: Why Postive LGBT YA Narratives Matter

Do stories matter? Can stories destroy lives? Can different stories save lives?

Yes. Yes. and YES.

Earlier this month, Greensburg, Indiana teen Billy Lucas took his own life after being harassed and bullied with anti-gay slurs. The narrative there? An old one, an awful one. Some lives are worth living, others aren't.

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 is 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. I just watched the first video - a charming 8 minute discussion between Mr. Savage and his partner of 16 years, Terry. The two (very cute, 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.

Can their story make a difference? Yes. More importantly, this isn't one isolated story (like say, the story of a wildly successful LGBT celebrity like Ellen or Adam Lambert) - but a platform for a (hopefully) heterogenous group of stories. Such a multiplicity of voices - all different but all saying one unified message - "live through HS, because life can be great, life gets better" - can have enormous power because it changes the narrative. Such a project essentially makes concrete a future tense for teens whose present tense feels unbearable.

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 and teens of color - the publishing industry has a responsibility to publish texts that change the prevailing narratives of LGBT or teens of color 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." Similarly 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 full, complicated, funny, and touching lives.

Such texts change the narrative for LGBT teens - allowing a teenager to see him or herself in literature, and more importantly, see various possibilities for what an LGBT teen looks/feels/acts and lives like. But equally importantly, such books change the narrative for all readers (teen, LGBT, and otherwise). And the struggles of YA authors of color (LGBT and not), I think, is not only similar - but tied integrally to the struggles of LGBT authors -- to get our multiplicity of stories out there - not just exotic, serious, tortured, or anachronistic stories (check out these crazy Japanese Barbie dolls I just saw today -- I mean, say what?) but crazy, silly, adventurous, romantic, and kick-butt superhero stories too.

Hats off to you, Dan and Terry. Hats off to you too, David Levithan.

And hats off to you, the publishers, who understand the power of changing the narrative for us all.


  1. Your point is beautifully made. Yes, yes, and YES! David Levithan shot to the top of my hero-writer list last week when I finally read Boy Meets Boy.

    Although Cassandra Clare writes a very different type of story -- fantasy -- I also appreciated her inclusion of gay characters as simply characters along with the straight, the angel, the human, etc. By that I mean their "gayness" didn't become a focal point of the plot or story. It just was. And I think there is something to be said for being part of the larger story -- one of the multiplicity of possible YA narratives out there.