‘We read to know we are not alone,’ – the character of C.S. Lewis says this line in William Nicholson’s play, Shadowlands. To know that someone else shares our embarrassments, fears, doubts, longings…or if not shares them, has at least had the thought flitter across their mind – that is everything. But what if you don’t ever find that connection? Such is the case for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, and intersex (LGBTQI) youth, seeking portrayals of themselves in young adult (YA) and children’s literature – particularly in Australia.
Our previous Prime Minister didn’t want to ‘rock the boat’ on marriage reform, and current PM Tony Abbott won’t even allow a conscience vote to sponsor a same-sex marriage bill. In the last few months we’ve seen same-sex marriage laws overturned by the High Court of Australia. Last year Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi made headlines for linking same-sex marriage to bestiality and polygamy. This year AFL pundit Sam Newman made homophobic comments during The Footy Show, about the American National Football League’s first openly gay player Michael Sam. (Is it any wonder AFL still has no openly gay players?)
In a 2010 Senate Committee report, LGBTQI people were found to be a specific high-risk group for suicide in Australia. The report found that, ‘same-sex attracted youth attempt suicide at between 3.5 and 14 times the rate of their heterosexual peers, while the prevalence of attempted suicides among transgender people ranges between 16 and 47 per cent higher’. International studies reiterate such statistics, and all point out that adolescents are at particularly high risk.
When our society offers such narrow definitions of love and sexuality, interspersed with brutality and antipathy, it is important that we see diversity and inclusivity portrayed in our literature, especially the literature aimed at young adults. But that’s simply not the case in Australia, where each year only a handful of YA books featuring LGBTQI characters are published.
I think they would like the songs better if I left out the names, or changed the pronouns.
― How They Met, and Other Stories by David Levithan
Honest representations of diversity – in all its forms – are seldom tackled in the literary world, particularly in the impressionable children’s and YA markets. However, there are some steps being made to highlight works of literary diversity – just not locally. In America, for example, there’s the Stonewall Book Award – an annual literary award that recognises ‘exceptional merit relating to the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender experience’. There’s also the Lambda Literary Award that, ‘celebrates, and preserves LGBT literature’.
Of course, the very fact that the Stonewall and Lambda Awards exist means that there are enough LGBTQI books published in America each year to warrant their continuation. Wonderful as it would be, the truth is that a diversity award would be of little use for Australian literature right now, when we simply don’t publish enough LGBTQI books every year to fill a short- let alone longlist, particularly for youth literature.
Dr Winnifred Louis from the School of Psychology at The University of Queensland agrees that young people can be seriously impacted by the stories they read. When it comes to sexuality and portraying positive and varied forms of LGBTQI life, ‘Young people who are becoming aware of their LGBTQI identities are sometimes quite ignorant about what that might mean for them, and in the search and exploration they and their families can be exposed to bizarre, misinformed stereotypes which create uncertainty and confusion,’ she says. ‘Without positive, informed depictions of LGBTQI people and lifestyles, they can be at a higher risk from mental illness, suicidality, and other stress-related outcomes. Reading about positive role models and positive relationships can dispel anxiety for both teens and their parents, so they can know that they are not alone.’
But books featuring gay characters are not just of interest (or importance) to young readers questioning or identifying their sexuality. ‘Books which explore themes of LGBTQI protagonists create “vicarious contact” or “indirect contact” which has been shown to reduce prejudice, by increasing perspective-taking,’ Louis says. ‘By following a lesbian character on her journey of coming out, for example, a straight teen reader is made aware of issues and experiences that she might not otherwise learn about.’
‘What do you mean? I’ve always known. Just like you’ve always known you’re straight, I guess. I fall in love with girls. It’s what I do. When I get crushes, they’re on girls. When I fantasise about being with someone, it’s with some beautiful girl. Same as you.’
― The Flywheel by Erin Gough
Dr Damien W. Riggs and Dr Scott Hanson Easey explored the impact of sexual diversity in children’s and YA literature in their January 2014 paper, ‘The Invisibility of Lesbian Mother Families in the South Australian Premier’s Reading Challenge’. The specificity of the paper was a statement in itself since, ‘at the time the data were collected, South Australia was the only remaining Australian state or territory that did not provide full protection to such families’. The focus on lesbian mother families was also indicative of the 2011 Census, which found that 89% of children with same-sex parents were living in female same-sex couple families. Riggs and Easey’s paper nonetheless speaks to a wider issue within Australian children’s literature, when they found that of the 500 books included in the South Australian Premier’s Reading Challenge list, ‘not one included representation of lesbian mother-families’. They go on to note that while they did, ‘identify a small number of books that included representation of other “diverse families” (for example, Family Forest by Kim Kane and Lucia Masciullo), these were overwhelmed by the presence of heterosexual nuclear families represented…and by the predominance of highly normative images of mothers and fathers’.
For those children not living in a heterosexual nuclear family, Riggs and Easey were concerned that ‘the lack of representation of their families may only compound their experience of social exclusion’.
The diversity issue uncovered in the SA Premier’s Reading Challenge (PRC) is not unique, but certainly speaks to bigger concerns in Australian youth literature where the mother–father ‘nucleus’ is still the predominant story archetype. But as Riggs and Easey state in their conclusion: ‘…part of [our] concern is not necessarily that the lack of inclusion represents homophobia at work, but we would certainly suggest that it represents an equally insidious form of exclusion, namely that of neo-liberal assimilation. That it hasn’t occurred to anyone that at least some books featuring a more diverse range of families should be included in the PRC as part of the families and relationships section is indeed notable.’
In order to offer our young readers more diversity we need to uncover why there aren’t enough of these stories being written right now.
Why does it matter whether I am a boy or a girl?
But it does. It really, really matters. People want to know which one you are. They want to be able to decide what you are, even when they are just walking past on the street and will never see you again. It’s crazy. Most people don’t see it as a grey area. They are physically affected when there is confusion. They are repulsed.
― Alex As Well by Alyssa Brugman
Erin Gough’s, forthcoming YA novel, The Flywheel, is about seventeen-year-old Delilah who drops out of school after her romance with a female classmate goes sour.
Gough is conscious of the impact representations in literature can have on LGBTQI youth, and agrees that teenagers can be seriously impacted by reading stories they relate to when it comes to sexuality and portraying positive and varied forms of love; ‘When you look at what society values, it can be extremely disheartening. We’re taught to value marriage as a central tradition, yet we’re excluded from it. Even worse, many young people who identify as queer suffer harassment and violence as a result,’ Gough says. ‘When this is your daily experience, it can be hard to imagine a positive future for yourself. When you then look to fiction being written for your age group and find yourself excluded from that as well, the message seems clear.’
The Australian literary community needs to start questioning the lack of LGBTQI representation in youth literature – the most impressionable and oftentimes, fragile of readerships. It’s not good enough to shrug-shoulders over the lack of LGBTQI representation, or to simply assume that it’s due to authors not wanting to write these characters and their stories.
‘Every reader of novels knows the joy and the power of that moment when you recognise yourself in one of the characters,’ says Gough. ‘Suddenly your experiences feel validated. It’s harder for queer people to enjoy this validation and it shouldn’t be.’ It is a problem that Gough encountered during her own teen years, ‘I honestly can’t remember reading a single book with a gay person in it during my school years. The first book I read that was vaguely lesbonic was Mrs Dalloway, and that wasn’t until I was at uni. Towards the start of the book, the main character Clarissa remembers being kissed by her friend Sally Seton years before and how wonderful it felt. That’s pretty much as far as the book goes with that storyline, but for an eighteen year-old starved of lesbian content it was a revelation. My copy of Mrs Dalloway still falls open at the page.’
I think if we kept a calendar of who gets called gay in high school, there would be a new person on every single day of the 180-day school year. Gay, dyke, fag, lesbo, homo, whatever. Every single one of us has heard it somewhere along the ride. It’s more common than the flu. More contagious, too. Nobody gossips about whether you have the flu or not.
― Ask the Passengers by A.S. King
Eli Glasman’s The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew is about Yossi, the most religious do-gooder in his high school class, who is also a closeted homosexual and struggling to consolidate his religious beliefs with his sexual orientation.
‘One of the hardest parts of being any age is that we can feel alone,’ says Glasman. ‘Being able to read how someone you’ve never met has had the exact same thought and emotion you have, highlights the similarities between us and allows us not to feel as isolated. I hope that, like anyone, LGBTQI teens benefit from finding relatable characters in fiction. And, like anyone, to search for yourself in fiction and not find it, can reaffirm false insecurities about being the only one who thinks and feels something.’
Glasman is heterosexual, but has written a very tender portrayal of an Orthodox Jewish boy battling the realisation of his homosexuality: ‘I wrote the story because someone very close to me has been through this experience.’
One must wonder if one reason there are so few LGBTQI characters in Australian YA literature is due to the old idiom ‘write what you know’. Are straight authors too afraid to encroach on this community and their experiences? Certainly this shouldn’t be an obstacle for good storytellers. Glasman says, ‘I chose to write about Yossi because I found him fascinating and inspiring. I thought, like I do with all my fiction, that if I treated him and the work with respect I would do justice to his story.’
Glasman’s writing process was one of empathy and understanding for his character, and that shines through in the text. ‘I simply thought of what Yossi was feeling and I could say to myself: “Here is a human being who is sexually attracted to another human being.” And then I’m able to think: “Oh, well I’m a human being who is sexually attracted to other human beings. How do I feel when I’m attracted to someone? Am I scared, excited, nervous? Do I think about them all the time? Do I want them to like me? Do I have expectations?” and so on.’
‘Bloody hell,’ Josh whispered heatedly. ‘You can’t let a book tell you how you’re allowed to have sex.’
― The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew by Eli Glasman
Even for young people who identify as heterosexual, we need to offer a truer reflection of society on the page, for the sake of empathy and normality. Especially because we have a Prime Minister who will not amend Australian law to recognise gay marriage because he believes that, ‘marriage by definition, is between a man and a woman’.
Erin Gough admits, ‘It’s harder to publish books with queer main characters, which makes it harder to write them in the first place.’ So we need to start seeking solutions – would a youth literature award similar to the Stonewall and Lambda make a significant difference to sexual diversity in Australian youth literature? Erin Gough thinks so: ‘Prizes attract publicity and encourage readership, and prize money affords authors time to write books. The existence of such a prize would mean more books exploring the lives of queer characters. This doesn’t just benefit the literary community. It means more understanding and acceptance overall. Everybody wins.’
Straight people have it so much easier. They don’t understand. They can’t. There’s no such thing as openly straight.
― Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg
We read to know we are not alone. But Australian LGBTQI youth will rarely find themselves in the pages of YA books – where most families have mothers and fathers, love stories are usually boy-meets-girl and gender is black or white with no in-between. The Australian literary community needs to start questioning and scrutinising the stories we’re telling young people – what’s being published and how can we encourage more diversity, are reading lists a true representation of our society and would we benefit from a literary award that encouraged such diversity?
The truth is, many young people are probably reading and feeling more alone than ever, but it doesn’t have to be that way.