Young Adult Books Move Beyond the Coming-Out Story, But Still Face Hurdles

Brent Hartinger‘s Geography Club (2003), The Order of the Poison Oak (2006), and Split Screen (2007)
continue to be the only YA books including a bisexual Asian-American girl as a
main character.

Let’s Not
Talk About Sex

Although young adult as a category of books must fall within
certain parameters to pass parental approval, YA books have tackled issues as
complex as sexual assault, teen pregnancy and even plain old-fashioned teen
lust. But queer YA fiction tends to gloss over actual sex — a subject that
teens coming to terms with their sexual orientation might be considerably
interested in.

Some YA authors and experts believe that books about gay
boys are given more leeway than those about lesbian/bi girls when it comes to
the details of sex.

"One of the interesting things that I’ve noticed, aside
from the fact that there’s more stuff about boys than about girls," said
librarian Nancy Silverrod, "is that [with] stuff about boys — there seems
to be much more freedom about … showing actual sexuality in the story."

Peters concurred: "In my opinion, gay guy writers have
much more freedom to detail sexual situations than gay gal writers, at least in
mainstream YA fiction. I do think my book Grl2Grl: Short
pushed the envelope farther toward the edge of ‘sexuality’
in homosexuality, but the one story I’d included where the girls went ‘all the
way’ was, sadly, cut in the end. The good news is that the story will be coming
out in a mainstream anthology of queer lit this coming October."

When Silverrod was asked why she thought books about gay
boys were sometimes more explicit than those about girls, she answered:
"I’m guessing it has to do sort of with this really old-fashioned idea
that women are less sexual and two women together are going to be less sexual.
There are definitely romantic stories about girls, and you know that they’re
girlfriends and they’re doing something, but who knows what?"

Dole told that she was asked to "tone
down the juicy Latina love/sex scenes" in Down
to the Bone
, but she attributed that to being cautious because the book
was targeted toward young adult readers.

"I think that LGBT sex in YA fiction should be handled responsibly,"
Dole wrote. "Normally, when a young adult manuscript has explicit sex, it
automatically crosses over to an adult label. Sex in YA books is a touchy
subject for mainstream publishers. Nominated and award-winning
teen YA books end up in important reading lists for high schools. Teachers and
librarians purchase these books for schools and libraries, and I’m
sure most won’t recommend YA books with explicit sex."

David Levithan, who has written books about
gay teens (Boy Meets Boy)
and is executive editorial director at Scholastic, feels that sexuality in
queer YA books is "about equal." "I think the books about gay
boys have the same range as the books about lesbian teens," he told

When asked whether he, as an editor, felt that same-sex
sexuality should be handled in any particular way, Levithan responded: "I
feel the same way about same-sex sexuality as I do about heterosexual sexuality
in YA fiction — namely that it has to be realistic in showing not just the
emotions involved but also the context. It can’t just be thrown in there
to titillate or scandalize; instead, it needs to be grounded in both the story
and the characters. Again, this is true no matter what the characters’ genders

Challenges and Self-Censorship

Unfortunately, even if a queer-themed YA book has no actual
sex in it, the fact that it is about homosexuality can still make it a target
for book challenges. In 2007, Maureen Johnson’s Bermudez
was challenged and ultimately moved to a "reserve"
section of the library in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, requiring parental permission
for access.

"I read the original complaint, the one which stated
that the book was a ‘sexual free-for-all,’" Johnson told the Bartlesville
Community Examiner-Enterprise
. "Since the book has no sex in it
at all, it would seem that the whole issue started off on very shaky ground.
The only reason this book has been restricted is because it discusses
homosexuality in a positive light."

Author Maureen Johnson

Author pohoto credit: Heather Weston

A recent report in the School Library
revealed that even before a book is formally challenged,
some librarians and booksellers will self-censor by not acquiring it if the
book seems likely to be challenged in the future.

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