My first GSA meeting

GSA, for those of who you don’t know or who aren’t necessarily in a middle or high school context stands for Gay Straight Alliance. Last month, the director of the library and I were invited to attend a meeting of the Methuen High School GSA meeting. The topic that they were talking about at the meeting was Young Adult literature and GLBTQ books.

I was so excited to be able to go. Our invitation came from one of the pages at the library who is in the GSA. She prepared a well thought out presentation and talked about some of the challenges in finding GLBTQ YA books and then the content of them. What the teens kept saying throughout the discussion was that they wanted books to have GLBTQ characters but that books didn’t necessarily have to be all about GLBTQ issues or that they could have happy endings. They liked reading coming out stories, but they didn’t want that to be the only kind of GLBTQ books that they could find. One comment that stuck out to me very much was that someone wanted, “GLBTQ characters that are real characters who also happen to be gay.”

Like all people, gay people are not solely defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity. Sure, I’m a straight lady but I’m also a runner, a reader, a cat owner, librarian, short, strange, funny, a sister, a space nerd, all sorts of things. And those details could be seen in me, if someone awesome were to write a book about me. If all they ever wrote about was how much I lurved boys, who could connect with me? That would be tiresome. The teens were just asking for the same considerations with GLBTQ characters. I just think that’s amazing. It’s such a mature position that shows that they really care about the culture that they participate in and that teens want a quality culture in which to engage. It’s a reminder that we as a culture or as grownups don’t give teens the credit they deserve in many ways.

They also reminded me just how few GLBTQ YA books there are out there for them to read. I was going into the meeting thinking, “Oh, well, it is getting better for GLBTQ books in YA. I bet I could think of a couple of dozen if I really set my mind to it.”

Yup, I think a couple of dozen, in the grand scheme of books published for teens in the last, what, 40 years is a good number. Yeah, not so much.

The page who invited us passed around some statistics and graphs compiled by YA author Malinda Lo about just how many GLBTQ YA titles were published in the last few years. For example, around 25 out of the 4,000 books that were published for the Young Adult market last year. 25! I’m sure there were more than 25 vampire YA books published last year and vampires are not a underrepresented minority facing fear, prejudice, and mockery. Also, vampires are not real; gay kids are real.

Here’s Lo’s final takeaway from her investigations:

Less than 1% of YA novels have LGBT characters.

My takeaways from this number crunching are:

  1. I often hear people saying that publishers aren’t willing to publish LGBT YA, or that each publisher only publishes one LGBT YA per year. This, statistically, isn’t true. Every one of the big 6 publishers (and plenty of smaller ones) publish LGBT YA titles, and several of them do publish more than one per year.
  2. However, the proportion of LGBT YA to non-LGBT YA is so tiny as to be laughable.
  3. The good news is, the numbers have continued to increase over time, and other than the dip in 2010, the increase has sped up since 2000.
  4. The bad news is, the G in LGBT far outpaces L, B, or T.

Many girls at the group also talked about how they felt like there were less lesbian, bisexual, or transgender character than gay, male characters. The frustration in the voices of some of these girls was evident and heartbreaking. They also spoke about they felt lesbians were often unfairly and creepily sexualized by men for a male voyeuristic pleasure. They just wanted books, films, and culture with female characters that were real and believable and not there for questionable entertainment.

So, what can be done about this? YA authors needs to add a more diverse character and situation palatte to their works. And sure, not everyone is gay, but authors do research all the time. They can do some research about gay issues and ask their GLBTQ friends. They also need to be more committed to excellence and compassion.

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