Gay Characters in YA

Yesterday I read an article in PW about agents asking authors to make gay characters straight.  And it got me thinking. There's maybe another side to this story.

I have to say my favorite books with gay characters are books that are Great Books first and books that just happen to have characters who are gay.

Take Gone, Gone, Gone by Hannah Moskowitz. It's brilliant. And yes, Hannah is my client, but I have a confession--this might be my favorite Hannah Moskowitz book. But it's a fabulous story set during the DC sniper shootings of 2002, with two teenage boys trying to make sense of their lives and falling in love in the process.

One of my favorite series to read as a YA fangirl is The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare. Without any spoilers for those who haven't read it, there's a fantastic character who's a little in love with his best friend. And the longing, the tension, the heartache that those feelings aren't's all so real and amazing. (And who doesn't know what it's like to have a crush on a friend, who really doesn't feel that way back?")

I'm frustrated with the hit you over the head books that sound preachy or books with gay characters that feel like that's their only characterization, like they exist in the story just for the sake of hitting a hot topic. I want more books that are just great stories, stories with complex characters I identify with because I know what it feels like to have to let go of an ex in order to fall in love with someone new, stories that present characters as real fully rounded people who just happen to also be gay, rather than cliched, one dimensional, or "token."

What are some other books with Great Stories and Great Characters (that happen to be gay)?

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Lori M. Lee said...

Definitely Jamie from The Demon's Lexicon. I love that kid <3

Anonymous said...

I wonder sometimes if the reason we get more hit-you-over-the-head issue books vs stories that just happen to have a gay character is for the same sort of reason these two had potential agents repeatedly ask to cut the one gay character. An issue book will generate controversy and be very clear about where it stands and what it is and therefore may generate more sales. A book that just happens to have gay characters won't generate that same sort of controversy, but may offend some delicate sensibilities and lead to a loss in sales. Not that this is the way things actually are, but I wonder if those agents who do reject happen-to-be-gay books are thinking that way.

Tangentially, a happens-to-be-gay book is not always realistic, unless it's specifically set in a world where no one cares if you're gay. In our here and now world, it's still a big deal, unfortunately, and glossing over that is disingenuous to every LGBTQ person's struggle. Granted, there is a happy medium to be found here between a happens-to-be-gay book and an issues book, and I imagine most of those books are also Great Stories with Great Characters to begin with.

Anyway. I thought Will Grayson Will Grayson did a pretty decent job of hitting that middle ground.

TirzahLaughs said...

Suzie--way back when when you were in my writer's group---I loved how you handled it in your YA book, Suzie. I still think about that book and wish you'd finish it. The taste of it all.

:) So there---one die hard fan.

It's hard to find a good book with good gay characters.

If you get away from YA, you might try Far From Happy---it's about a male street hustler in the 80's who is trying to come to terms with being gay, coming home for the first time in 20 years and teh death of his baby sister. Although it does have graphic sex scenes (he is a hustler after all) that isn't the driving force of the book, I'd say it was more lit fic than erotic.

The same author wrote "The Peacock Mirror" which is a historical book on sexual boundaries with both homosexual and heterosexual characters. But it's accurate, well-research and no one is a token in that book. Although fiction, you'll get a good idea of sex in that time.

But I suppose those books do talk about sex alot---it's just the author is fascinated with sexual mores and she writes so beautifully.


Zan Marie said...

Diana Gabaldon's Lord John Grey. He's such a well-rounded character, that being gay just is part of him.

Charlie N. Holmberg said...

Great take on the issue. Thanks.

Matthew MacNish said...

The first book that comes to mind is Stick, by Andrew Smith. But it doesn't come out until next month.

Oh, and Witch Eyes, by Scott Tracy. I haven't actually read that one yet, but I hear great things.

Sra said...

Allison Goodman has a two book series, Eon and Eona. Which I really enjoyed. Partly because it's fantasy set in a chinese based world instead of a western medieval world (though I like medieval too.)

In it, the main character is a girl masquerading as a boy because the girls are very second class. So the sun energy (men) and moon energy (girls) is a thing anyway.

But it just so happens that sometimes in this world there are twin souls born. They have the moon soul of a girl, but the physical body of a man. Lady Dela is such a character.

I think she does a really good job with setting up that whole thing realistically, and having just the right amount of hate/condescension against lady Dela, and the right amount of her accepting who she/he is without making it preachy or creepy.

Unknown said...

DUMBLEDORE! (Okay, now that that's out of the way)

Vanyel, from Mercedes Lackey's Magic's Promist/Pawn/Price trilogy.

Lir, from Son of a Witch

Phedre (bisexual), from Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel series.

Lilit, from Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan series.

There are probably more I could name. To be honest, I agree with your take on things: being gay or bisexual can definitely be a defining feature of a character, but just like I would NEVER want to define a real person solely by his or her sexuality, I wouldn't want to define a character solely by that either.

I have plenty of characters who are gay, and the evidence of that sometimes makes it into the text and sometimes doesn't--it very much depends on the story and the characters. In the case of one character in particular, it's not so much the gender of the person he loves that matters, as the fact that the person he loves is dead. The absence of love is more important to characterization and effect on the story than whether or not the object of that love is male or female.

Whether the story directly deals with homosexuality or not, I agree that the characters have to be defined by more.

lanna-lovely said...

"I have to say my favorite books with gay characters are books that are Great Books first and books that just happen to have characters who are gay."

If I could high five you via the internet for that comment, I so would.

It extends to more than just books - I have seen a ridiculous amount of girls say, "I wish I had a gay best friend." and it makes me so mad. Because they view them as more - accessories. I have two best friends, one of them is a guy and he happens to be gay but he's not my "gay best friend" he's just my best friend.

And to answer your question, I love Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan and Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn. I like The Perks of Being a Wallflower too, but the character in that has a smaller role. :)

I'm not a fan of stories where the main plot point is a character coming to terms with his or her sexuality, the "coming out of the closet and accepting who you are" best friend doesn't like reading those either and he actually *is* gay so it's not just a me-thing - I prefer more, stories where the plot is something more than that, the characters are gay and it's a part of who they are but it's not what the story revolves around.

Patsy said...

I like Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe books. Sgt Wield is gay, but that's just one part of his character and he's just one part of the story.

Gina Ciocca said...

A couple of the supporting characters in Nightshade by Andrea Cremer are gay, and I loved that she incorporated that aspect into the story. Everything about that story is hot. And I wish people would stop acting like it's somehow wrong to be gay, and then even more wrong to write about it. It's real, it happens, it's not something they choose. Get over it, people.

Brent Taylor said...

JH Trumble's DON'T LET ME GO (January 2012 from Kensington) has the most authentic LGBT characters I have ever read. It's about two boys that fall in love, and what happens when one of them moves away. It's about independence, stepping away from things and examining them with a clearer eye, and not giving up.

It's just a regular ol' book, with LGBT characters. And that's why I love it.

Anonymous said...

Not a book, but I really liked the way Marshall was portrayed in United States of Tara. The series wasn't about Marshall and his gayness. He was just a teenage boy exploring his nascent sexuality, who happened to be gay, and his parents were loving and supportive, but it was mostly a non issue. He did join up with the gay straight alliance at school and had a few boyfriends and explored what being gay means to him, but the show wasn't about his family's struggle to accept him or his life as a gay teen. He was just gay because he happened to like boys. And I really liked that. So it is possible to do this in books/movies/series that are set in our world.

Contrast that to the movie "The Kids Will Be Fine" which is basically all about two women who are lesbians who like to watch male porn because we can't get off without a man. and then one ends up having an affair with a guy. ugh. pandering to male fantasies much? if she'd had an affair with a woman and the story had been about trying to rebuild their relationship and repair trust afterwards, then it would have been an example of "just happen to be gay."

Unfortunately, I can't think of any books that did this well off the top of my head. Most books I've come across with gay characters have been all about the gayness, which is sad.

As a lesbian who is marrying a transwoman, I'm really more interested in reading about characters living life and doing exciting things than about characters who sitting around being gay all day. :) I can tell you, playing backgammon, eating dinner, and feeding the cats while gay isn't all that different from doing it while straight.

veela-valoom said...

Jenna in Hex Hall is fun! Yeah she's a lesbian, but she's also a pink-haired, outcast, vampire who happens to be the main characters best friend & roomie.

Jill McCaw said...

A New Zealand novel, Nights in the Gardens of Spain is about a gay Maori man in the '80s. He comes out, leaves his wife and tries to rebuild his life as a gay man. Quite heartbreaking and hopeful at the same time. As much about being true to who you are as it is about gayness as such.
Very definitely an adult novel. Erotic, thought provoking and with a very sympathetic main character.
One of my favourite books

Jill McCaw said...

Nights in the Gardens of Spain by Witi Ihaemira.
Sorry, meant to put the author in the main post.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more Suzie. A great book with characters whose stories you want to know more of is key. It's why books like Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan , Will Gray Will Gray by John Green and David Levithan, Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger, and Crush by Carrie Mac are compelling reads. These are not "issue" books. They're books about interesting people who may be fictional, but who could very well be real.


Jaime Morrow said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stella Omega said...

In the responses to your question, I am reading the same few characters and novels, repeated over and over. There are a very few names here, let's be honest.

We queer folk can't afford to set the bar quite so high just yet.

I am so very grateful to Sarah Rees Brennan for her character Jamie, who-- actually-- makes a real big fuss about his gay identity-- within the context of his characterisation-- AND his romantic interests are plot points at times, just as much as the hetero characters, but the specific fact of his gayness is not ever the main point of the novel.

An oldie for the "gay but it's okay" list: "The Persian Boy" by Mary Renault.

Anonymous said...

Every now and then you find a gem in the undiscovered self-published e-book pile. NO USE FOR A NAME by Penny Wright is one of those.

In fact, right now, it's my FAVORITE edgy teen novel, the kind you can re-read over and over, and never get tired of reading it.

The premise behind this novel is this: when the MC goes to get her driver's license, she digs her birth certificate out of a pile of old mail in the garage, to find that her good-for-nothing, neglectful parents never gave her a real NAME. Can you imagine? Her birth certificate just says, "Baby Anderson."

She plummets into an identity crisis. The nickname she'd been using her whole life wasn't who she really was. So throughout the novel, she toys with different possible names, and various identities. Confusion and mishaps follow her, of course, with some comic twists.

The gay character in the novel is outed at the end, surprising everyone, including the reader. But his secret identity (the hidden gay self) helps the MC realize that everyone struggles with identity, regardless of whether they're gay or straight, black or white, tall or short, etc... And it's up to each of us to shape our own identity, like a potter working the clay.

NO USE FOR A NAME is a beautifully written masterpiece of YA literature! An undiscovered gem!

Another of my favorites is Shannon Hale's AUSTENLAND. In this book (not YA but for adult women), a single woman from NY inherits a trip to a sort of anacronistic summer camp for women who love Jane Austen. Again, the gay character in this book turns out to be a real surprise, because he seems to be having a romantic liason with one of the women at the camp. Just as with NO USE FOR A NAME, I found myself reading this book a second time through after the fact. It's cool when a book has a surprise twist at the end; you want to go back and re-read it after you're done the first time, because you now want to read it again with the knowledge of what's coming next.

LORD, I love these two books! Seriously. There's nothing better than a damn good book!

Unknown said...

How could I forget Dorian Gray?