Writing Hope to Young LGBTQIA Audiences by Benjamin Klas
Those stories led me to believe that isolation and guilt were simply the fate of all queer folk. Fun, right?
Here’s the thing: we don’t have to ignore the dark parts of the experience, but let’s also provide our readers with some of the brilliantly sparkling facets of LGBTQIA life.
Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Sorry. You’re probably wondering who the heck is talking to you. My name is Benjamin Klas (he/him), the middle grade author of Second Dad Summer, and its sequel, Everything Together: a Second Dad Wedding. They are stories of finding family of choice and experiencing the joy of authenticity within the LGBTQIA community. Why did I write these books? Because I wanted to present hope to young readers of all types, but specifically kids who are gender or sexual minorities.
For those of you who can’t remember the pantheon of words in the acronym, here’s a quick refresher on what LGBTQIA typically stands for:
Obviously these letters can’t cover the full spectrum of identity, but it gives a feel for the scope of this community without listing off half the alphabet. If you’re not familiar with any of these terms or want to know more, I would highly recommend using that little magic box: Google. In this article, for the sake of simplicity, I will be using the blanket term ‘queer’ to refer to people in the gender and sexual minority.
Okay, here we go. Get ready for some abbreviated thoughts on diversity, trying to look beyond the coming-out narrative, writing robust identities, celebrating physical touch, and finding community. As much as I’d love to write about these things forever, I’ll keep it down to the length of a blog post. For a more comprehensive perspective, please await the 14,987 page version I’ve been meaning to get around to writing.
Let’s talk about diversity. If I have to slog my way through another book where the queer love interest has to be a gorgeous sports player (inevitably white, male and cisgendered), I’m going to have an aneurysm. I don’t know whether you’ve ever noticed that literature as a whole tends to focus on the experiences of white, able-bodied, neurotypical individuals, but the real world is a vibrantly varied, multi-textured, kaleidoscopic place. And yes, that’s even true in the queer community. We embrace a veritable garden of pronouns. We are fat and thin and ripped and scrawny. We are all colors that people come in. You can find us on every continent, including Antarctica (I mean, come on, even penguins can be queer). We use wheelchairs. We are on the autism spectrum. So don’t burden your readers by telling them that to be queer, you have to be thin, conventionally “beautiful,” and white.
When you include some of those deliciously diverse queer characters in your book, they have to come out of the closet, right? Believe it or not, people are queer before coming out of the closet, while coming out, and we’re still queer forever after coming out. Telling coming out narratives is important, but it’s just as important to tell the stories before and after this process. Your queer character doesn’t have to come out in the novel. Maybe they don’t feel safe doing that right now. That’s okay! And it doesn’t mean they have to live sad little existences fraught with self-loathing. Maybe they’ve been out and proud for seven years before your novel even takes place. That’s great, too! What’s not okay is reducing the value of their queerness to whether or not they’ve taken the step of coming out. Let your readers know that wherever they are in the process of identity formation, it’s okay. We’re all on a journey.
As you write queer characters moving along whatever journey is before them, take a long think about their identity beyond just being the token queer character. Although this may come as a shock, we queer people aren’t only defined by our sexual or gender identities. At some points, our sexual or gender identities might be front page 1000 point font headlines in our lives, but nobody is totally defined by any one characteristic. We queers have hobbies besides just “being queer,” acting as LGBTQIA encyclopedias for all the straight characters, or checking off another box on the diversity quota. Gifting a character with a queer identity doesn’t mean you need to sacrifice their role as the Dungeon Master of their D&D group, abandon their interest in herpetology, take away their obsession with monster trucks, or surrender their spot on the cheer squad. Give them hobbies and interests. And, oh gawd, those hobbies DON’T have to be fashion and Broadway. Straight characters aren’t reduced to their straightness. Neither should queer characters be reduced to queerness!
Now that your characters are getting nuance in their personas, let’s talk about their physiological selves. Many of us in the queer community have been told explicity and implicity that what we feel in our bodies is either perverted or simply imagined. Society has labeled our bodies and our touch as somehow tainted. Many of the books I’ve read either hypersexualize everything queer people do, or completely desexualize them to make them feel more comfortable for conservative readers. Let’s see some characters who grow to know and understand their bodies as awesome physical extensions of themselves – who are able to inhabit their sexuality, gender experience, and need for physical touch. As strange as this is going to sound, let your queer characters touch each other! And no, not just in that way. Let them hug, pick earwax out of each other’s ears, snuggle, walk with their arms around each other. And no, this does NOT have to be relegated to just romantic interests. Friends, family, and yes, lovers, all deserve to share physical touch. Let’s show people who aren’t physically toxic, whose touch is not twisted or a threat to other queer or straight characters.
Speaking of letting characters experience physical contact, let’s talk more about who that can be with. Too often, characters come out of the closet and meet one other queer character – the love interest. And that’s it. Queer adult characters in same sex relationships are often only surrounded by other straight adults. Again, isolation is the theme. But the story doesn’t have to end there. One of the greatest parts about being queer is the sense of community you can find, especially with the connective powers of social media. Finding other people with shared experiences. Starting to build your family of choice. Forming clubs in school. Finding “your people” as young people or adults. We queers have always found a way to locate each other to support and challenge and fall in love and be authentic with one another. Show young readers that side of the queer experience, too.
So there you go. Hopefully that gives you a few ideas for writing awesomer queer stories for young people. Let them see reflections of their experiences and windows into the experiences of others. Show them that who they are and where they are on their journey is powerful and bright and wonderful. Give them characters whose identities aren’t stripped down to only their sexual or gender orientations. Bring out physical touch. Let them know that they are not alone. Fabulous things await them.
Get to that keyboard.