Defending the Rainbow
This is hardly an original thought, but it would be nice to live in a world where we didn’t have to create a special LGBTQ genre for literature. It would also be nice to live in a world without affirmative action, but only if no affirmative action was needed. And that’s not the world we live in now.
To get LGBTQ stories to the LGBTQ teens (and other readers) who need them requires direct action. Somebody has to monitor the health of the genre, and, more importantly, defend it. The “Don’t Say Gay” crowd certainly doesn’t want anyone to write about it, either, and I’m afraid it would be painfully easy to for them to get their way if we didn’t offer up a unified front.
It may seem like an odd comparison, but when my novel Pay It Forward was adapted for film, the African American main character turned white. He turned into Kevin Spacey. And I watched as a lot of people said that was okay, because casting should be “colorblind.” It’s a nice concept on paper, this colorblindness, but if it truly worked, then lots of white characters would turn African American as well. Unfortunately, colorblindness can just be a white-washed way of describing the process by which we turn a blind eye to prejudice.
I should also mention that I had two minor gay characters and one fairly major transgender character in that book. No, you didn’t blink and miss them in the movie. They disappeared. So it’s pretty clear that colorblindness can and will eliminate our rainbow if we let it.
In a perfect world, about 10%-20% of fictional characters should be LGBTQ, because that’s a roughly accurate representation of the world, so far as I know (my apologies if I’m misstating the statistic). But we are so not there yet. And until we get there, I think we need to continue to separate out LGBTQ fiction to honor it, to make it easy for teens to find it, and to monitor its ongoing health.
I never really set out to write exclusively, or even mainly, LGBTQ fiction, despite my own sexual orientation. In no other way do I tie my characters to my own experience. I write about all kinds of people who are different from me. Male characters, the mentally ill (some would say that’s open for debate), Viet Nam veterans, children…part of the joy of being a writer is finding the universality in all humans, and being able to imagine the experience of someone you’re not. If I told you that my overall life background falls somewhere between bisexual and gay (which is true, it does) you might think that factors into my ability and/or willingness to write straight characters. But it doesn’t seem to work that way. For years I had a pushback against writing a straight female character with a love interest, because I couldn’t find the enthusiasm to relate to her feelings for that man. So if I knew the character wanted to be straight, I’d write from a male point of view.
For reasons I can’t possibly fathom, that block evaporated. And now my character simply tells me who he or she is. And I would no sooner reject that simple truth than I would reject a new friend for being straight. I would hope that the idea here is unity rather than more separation.
All that said, when I got into Young Adult literature (where, frankly, it doesn’t seem I will stay), two out of five of my YA books, Becoming Chloe and Jumpstart the World, fit distinctly into the LGBT genre. And that’s no accident. I felt that a lot more such literature was needed for teens. (This was around the mid 2000s, but I’d still like to see the numbers come up.) So I contributed some. And of course it’s a subject close to my heart, because I know how it feels to grow up without the books you need. No kid should have to get The Well of Loneliness out of the library and try to make sense of that depressing, archaic, boring tome. I’m guessing only a few people who will read this are even old enough to understand the reference, but before Rubyfruit Jungle, there just wasn’t much, and what there was stank badly.
We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.
Yes, I’m in favor of a future in which books are not gay or straight, but simply books. And in reading a sampling of books in this imaginary new world, one will see straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersex, and a rainbow of gender-nonconforming characters represented in about the same numbers they appear in life. I’m optimistic, yet a realist—I’m not holding my breath on living to see this.
In the meantime, it’s essential that we not pretend we are any closer to that ideal than we really are. Until then, yes, we carefully create and defend a separate genre of our fiction, because it’s needed. Because it saves lives. With an epidemic of LGBT suicides in recent months and years, we’d be foolish, in my opinion, to treat LGBTQ fiction as anything less than a life-or-death issue. If we stand for life, we make a strong stand for our books.
Catherine Ryan Hyde is an award-winning author of both adult and young adult fiction. Her debut adult novel, Pay it Forward, was made into a film, and her most recent YA novel, Jumpstart the World, has received two Rainbow Awards and is up for two Lambda Literary awards. You can learn more about Catherine at her website.