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

Since December 2003, when last
reviewed the representation of lesbian/bisexual girls in YA fiction,
the number of books including lesbian/bi main characters has continued to

A survey of WorldCat, a worldwide catalog of library
content, shows that 20 books with lesbian/bi characters were published in the
last five years. Given that only 200 young adult novels with gay and lesbian
content were published between 1969 and 2004, the last five years have seen
quite a leap.

Julie Anne Peters, National Book
Award-nominated author of Luna
and Keeping You a Secret,
told via email: “There are so many queer characters in YA
lit now, including manga and graphic novels, that the topic doesn’t seem nearly
as controversial as it once did. At conferences and conventions where educators
and librarians gather, there are always sessions with LGBTQ topics.
Inclusiveness is all the rage.”

That’s not to say that there isn’t still room for
improvement. Books about gay male teens continue to outnumber those about
lesbian and bisexual girls, and books about bisexual girls and queer girls of
color number in the single digits.

Despite these current shortcomings, the rising number of
queer-themed YA novels has led to a very positive development: Queer teen
characters are no longer limited to coming-out stories. They are now able to
deal with ordinary teen issues like dating without the added angst of
struggling with their sexual orientation.

Coming Out
and Beyond

Author Ellen Wittlinger
Photo credit: Sonya Sones

Ellen Wittlinger‘s Love & Lies: Marisol’s Story, published in
2008 and recently nominated for a Lambda Book Award, is written from the point
of view of 18-year-old Marisol, who originally appeared in Wittlinger’s 1999
Printz Honor Book, Hard Love.

“When I wrote Hard
there were very few, if any, GLBT books that didn’t deal primarily
with the issue of coming out,” Wittlinger told us in an email interview.

“We’d gotten past the era when the gay character dies,
or at least his dog dies, but GLBT books were kind of stuck at coming-out
stories. That was the main reason I wanted to have a gay or lesbian character
in my book, so I could show her having gotten past that moment and just living
the kind of life any teenager lives. I wanted to write a character that was
comfortable in her skin.”

In Love
& Lies
, Marisol has been an out lesbian for two years. The book
chronicles the year she takes off between high school and college, during which
she falls for an older woman.

“Now there are many books in which … a character’s
sexual orientation is known, but it isn’t the central concern of the
book,” Wittlinger wrote.

Among those books are several by Canadian author Carrie Mac,
including the Triskelia fantasy trilogy and the lesbian coming-out tale, Crush. “My world is
populated with queers, so I do the same with my books,” Mac told

“I know for myself that I can’t leave queer characters
out of my writing, even if they’re gay and only I know it, or I don’t spell it
out,” she continued. “For example, if a secondary character of mine
is a dyke, and she’s busy slaughtering the bad guys with her machete, I’m not
going to work in a train-of-thought sequence mentioning her lover, or lack of one,
just to articulate that she is, in fact, a dyke.”

Author Carrie Mac

Photo credit: Jamie Griffiths

Mac’s first novel, The
(2006), included several queer characters without focusing
expressly on gay identity.

“The Beckoners … has a strong couple of gay boys in it,
and they are part of the story line,” Mac explained, “but there’s
also a girl, Lindsay, who is very secondary and doesn’t have a lot of face time
in the book, who I know is gay, but I’m not sure if even she knows yet.”