Listen closely, and you'll detect the approaching stampede of tweens, teens, and adults descending on Charleston for the city's beloved young adult book festival, YALLFest. Jonathan Sanchez of Blue Bicycle Books started the festival in 2011, and it has exploded in the years since. This year includes 70 young adult (YA) authors and thousands of eager fans. Last year, a sister festival (YALLWest) was launched in Santa Monica, Calif. to satisfy YA lovers on the West Coast. This beast can't be stopped.
YALLFest 2016 activities range from book signings to author panels, and this year's roster features the "Ask Me Anything LGBTQIA Style" panel with authors David Levithan, Adam Silvera, Becky Albertalli, Alex London, Alex Gino, Zac Brewer, and Marieke Nijkamp. While the rights and issues of this community have become more visible in recent years, representation of LGBTQIA people in popular media is just picking up. And that's not even considering whether that representation is thoughtful or accurate — just whether it exists at all. And in most cases, it doesn't.
We were able to catch up with several of the authors on YALLFest's LGBTQIA panel to discuss their perspectives on the state of LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, queer, intersex, and asexual) young adult literature.
It's surprisingly difficult to locate statistics regarding the number of LGBTQIA books in YA Lit. In fact, they're so hard to find that author Malinda Lo, who is herself known for writing books with diverse characters, created her own methodology for analyzing this section of literature in 2011.
Lo most recently updated her numbers on books with LGBT main characters (Lo did not explicitly include categories for queer, intersex, or asexual characters) published by mainstream publishers in 2014, and what she found is both promising and disheartening. The number of LGBT books went up by 59 percent from 2013 to 2014, but as high as that percentage sounds, it only means that 2014 saw a total of 47 LGBT books. About half of these were published by major commercial publishers Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Simon and Schuster, Disney Book Group, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Scholastic. Of these, the overwhelming majority of the characters were cisgender, meaning the character's gender identity is the same as their biological sex.
The authors we spoke to sense this upward trend in LGBTQIA books, but they feel the change has been too slow. "LGBTQIA books are both exploding and desperately needed," says Alex Gino, whose debut novel GEORGE tells the story of a young transgender girl. "There were two middle grade books with trans main characters published this year — that doubles the total. While two in one year may feel like a lot, four in all of ever sure doesn't."
And of those LGBTQIA books that do exist, few make it into the mainstream. Author Adam Silvera is still shocked by the success of his debut novel, More Happy Than Not, which features a narrator struggling to cope with his father's suicide and surprising feelings for a male friend. It ended up on the New York Times Best Sellers list. Silvera says he think's Alex London's Proxy and Becky Albertalli's Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda should be there, too. Both novels follow gay lead characters; Proxy's Syd lives in a dystopian world where he must receive punishment for his designated "patron's" crimes, and Simon in Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda risks having his secret exposed when an email to his crush falls into the wrong hands. "I don't think my book is any better than theirs but it's way harder for your book to hit the NYT list with a gay narrator," Silvera says.
When you consider intersectionality, the landscape is even more bleak. Intersectionality refers to the relationship between the different identities that make up an individual (gender identity, sexual orientation, race, class, disability, etc.). In 2014, Lo found just 15 YA books that featured characters with intersectional identities, including a gay person of color in panelist Alex London's Guardian. Clearly, this is the area with the slowest growth. "We're heading in that direction, but the boulder is heavy and the movement is painstaking," says Gino.
While most authors in this space agree that it's important for LGBTQIA authors to write LGBTQIA books, there are straight and/or cis authors writing diverse novels as well. For example, YALLFest panelist Becky Albertalli tells a love story about two gay teens in Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. "It's important for all authors to write diverse and inclusive fiction. If you're making all your characters straight, white, and cisgender, that's a decision you're making as an author," she says. But Albertalli thinks authors outside the LGBTQIA community, like her, shouldn't "hog the microphone" for too long. "I feel lucky to be allowed to participate in this conversation. It's a gift to be welcomed into this space," she says.
YA books can fill a knowledge gap for kids outside the LGBTQIA community and an emotional gap for those within it. Think about the kids who are struggling to understand their sexual orientation or gender identity, and all they've got are books about straight, cisgender boys and girls. "I've heard from queer kids and teens who've found courage or inspiration in what I've written, and seen that a future is possible for them," says London. "In many cases, I was the first 'out' adult they were aware of, which I knew might have some impact on their perception of gay people."
It is not yet common, especially in South Carolina, for students to learn about gender identity or sexual orientation in school. This October, the Charleston County School Board decided against including part of a middle school sexual education program that mentioned, among other things, bisexual and lesbian relationships. In South Carolina generally, instructors can't mention LGBTQ relationships ("alternate sexual lifestyles" in the official legislation) except in the context of sexually transmitted diseases. So if there's a gay seventh grader taking sex ed in our state, all he's "learning" about himself in school is that he's at risk for diseases. And bisexual, trans, asexual, and intersex kids are unlikely to hear anything about themselves at all.
Of course, this enters the realm of a more complicated discussion about politics, morality, and public education. But it's clear that the fear surrounding these issues runs deep in many schools, as evidenced by Zac Brewer's experience when he came out as transgender. "I've received just two school appearance invitations since June 2015, when I came out publicly. Before I came out, I was receiving 30-plus invites a year," Brewer says.
Gino has encountered many concerns about age appropriateness when discussing transgender issues with kids, but Gino says you're never too young to learn compassion. And the children these authors have encountered rarely have any problem understanding or accepting what it means to be gay or trans. "They think it's normal that people should be who they are and love who they love," says London.
Luckily, many authors have found support for their books among individual librarians and teachers who find their stories important and valuable. "I admire the brave and thoughtful educators who have championed the full diversity of our literature," says London. "They take risks every time they do."
Brewer, Gino, Albertalli, London, and Silvera are all excited to meet their fans at YALLFest and discuss LGBTQIA issues. "YALLFest oozes love," says Brewer, who refers to his dedicated followers as "minions."
And Gino, who is genderqueer, is always willing to chat with trans folks who need a listening ear: "Just come up to me and say 'popsicles' and we'll make something work."
You can see all the panelists at the "Ask Me Anything LGBTQIA Style" panel on Sat. Nov. 12 at 4 p.m. in the American Theater. Visit yallfest.org for more information.