Being a teenager is not easy. Balancing school and work, along with the expectations and demands of parents, teachers, friends, and potential love interests, can so often create a stressful and messy situation. And sadly, it’s even harder for LGBTQ teenagers. LGBTQ teens are more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers, and the statistics become far worse when their families are not supportive of them. It’s reasons like this that make depictions of LGBTQ characters in YA literature so important.
As a teenager, I struggled with labeling my identity. On a theoretical level, I found myself attracted to boys. On an actual, real-life level, I was falling in love with my best girl friends. It got messy and complicated, as teen romances so often do, but it became a heck of a lot worse when my strict Catholic parents found out. I was sent to therapy, with my sexuality being listed as my primary issue. I sunk into a deep depression and began to self-harm. I was bullied at school. I had a string of absolutely terrible years. It eventually got better.
I don’t want to spend too much time talking about all the terrible things that happened during that time in my life, but I do want to let you know where I was and what I so desperately needed. I remember being in the library looking for some books for school when I noticed a stack of bookmarks that listed YA titles featuring LGBTQ themes and characters. I remember glancing around nervously to make sure that I wasn’t being watched, and then stuffing the paper into my jacket pocket. It was the late 90s, and I was searching for books, movies, and music that matched my own experiences. I wanted to see myself — my confusion, but also my joy — depicted in the media that I consumed.
It was tricky, and I had to be sneaky out of fear of being caught by my parents, but I worked through that book list. Books like Am I Blue?: Coming Out from the Silence, Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden, Dangerous Angels by Francesca Lia Block, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson among so many others, really helped me in dealing with my parents, coping with being bullied, and giving me hope for the future. My therapist had suggested attending youth groups, but I knew that my parents would never allow it. Instead, the characters in these books became my peers. I looked to them for advice. I cried over their pain. I relished in their love stories.
It is so exciting to see all of the new YA that is being published that deals with LGBTQ themes and characters in a completely normal and integrated way. I’m a lover of books and perhaps prone to gushing, but these books really do save lives. Thankfully, access to these titles is a lot easier for modern day teenagers, but I do believe that they turn to them for the same reason that I did: a great book is a zone without judgement and offers a place to belong.