So I was having dinner with Sarah McCarry this summer (sorry, that was an annoying namedrop) and we were talking about publishing, as one does, and specifically the state of gay YA. Which is, if you haven’t noticed, exploding right now, something that has both of us really excited. I was specifically talking about all the hot queer action in All Our Pretty Songs, along with the drugs and rock & roll, and she mentioned that the third planned book in the series has EVEN MORE GAY, to which I responded ‘YIPPEE!’ and then ‘but what did your editor say?’
Her editor, apparently, was just as excited as I was, which just goes to show you that there are indeed gay-friendly people working in publishing. Naturally, they’re self-selecting; anyone who picked up All Our Pretty Songs to begin with was clearly ready for some serious queerness, given the nature of the text. But Sarah obviously didn’t feel bound to straightify the book or to try to make it more palatable: she wrote the story she needed to write, for the people who needed to read it, and the result was not just a stellar book but also yet another entry in the gay YA canon.
It’s starting to get awfully queer in here, y’all, and I am giddy with excitement about it, because I say the queerer, the better. Every time a new queer YA book comes out, it makes it that much easy for more books like it to come out, and it expands the conversation about what it means to be queer, and how many different ways queerness can present. Whether it’s the amazing poly relationship in Inheritance, which challenges the attitude that the only acceptable relationship involves two people, or the shifting identities of Every Day, YA authors are pushing at the boundaries of sexuality, gender, and identity.
In ways that are completely delicious and amazing. Gay characters are starting to expand out of the tragedy box they were once confined to, where the only people you saw were those like in Shine (which is still a totally excellent book), presented as objects of sad stories for readers to feel bad about. Now they’re just as likely to be fully-inhabited characters who just happen to be gay, or characters who dare to suggest that being gay can be fun; see Will Grayson, Will Grayson for Tiny and his boisterous, celebratory, gleeful gayness.
One of the greatest marks of social acceptance is a pop cultural shift, and that’s happening in a major way with YA right now. Queerness is still more unusual than it should be, but it’s getting more common, and more important than that, it’s not just something to gawk at. It is a simple reality in a lot of YA, with its own human complexities and nuances, but still something that some people just are, without a big fuss needing to be made of it. For every Miseducation of Cameron Post, there’s a casually gay character as in When We Wake, where the revelation slips by so easily and neatly that you’d miss it unless you were paying attention.
I’ve always strongly felt that YA is one of the areas where social norms are really being confronted and challenged, and where readers are in many senses engaging on a really high level with social issues through the texts they read, discuss, and share with each other. YA is a smart, engaged, active demographic, and it’s a young demographic. It’s filled with people growing up in a world where things have changed really radically, who accept the growing queering of their texts as part and parcel of the environment they live in; of course gay people are just around. It would be odd for them not to be.
Which isn’t to say that heterosexuals in YA are in danger of being overwhelmed by a queer tide. I sometimes go through a spate of reading where I’m desperate for even a hint of queerness (intentional overreading of queer subtext to satisfy my queer-hungry brain FTW!), illustrating that the vast majority of YA is indeed still occupied by heterosexuality and conservative notions of love and relationships. But there is a shift happening here, and it’s an important one for readers and writers.
Clearly, authors writing queer texts are still encountering pushback on them explicitly because of the queer content and for no other reason. Some editors and houses are not friendly to queered texts, and such texts can be offered less in terms of marketing campaigns, promotion, and other PR measures to help them succeed. But the opposite is also true: some houses are very queer friendly and some editors specifically ask for queered texts, which can come on board with the full support of the house, which is no doubt eager to have them. such books are no longer the red-headed stepchildren.
Smart houses are recognising that we’re here, we’re queer, and we buy books. So we’re worth catering to, both in the sense of selling books we will want to buy, and in the sense of getting known generally as queer friendly; I am more likely to give books from queer-friendly houses a try even if they aren’t necessarily about queer topics or don’t have queer characters at their focus, because I want to support the publisher through my wallet. Never underestimate the power of our disposable income, loud mouths, and superb organising skills: when it comes to fighting for more gay YA, we’ll be there with bells on if we need to be.