"Two Boys Kissing" and the Rise of Gay YA

We’re ready for gay YA. We’re screaming for it. We’re talking about it.

Mar 18, 2013 at 4:00pm | Leave a comment

One of the big items of news in my world right now is the cover reveal for “Two Boys Kissing,” by David Levithan, due this August. Check this baby out:

Swoon, right?

A couple of things to notice here. One is the obvious. There are two boys kissing on it. As Levithan put it, “I felt quite adamantly that if you have a book titled “Two Boys Kissing,” you should show two boys kissing on the cover.” (We agree, David!) Another is not so obvious; you wouldn’t know unless you know the story behind the cover.

This is a real-life teen couple, photographed by a teen photographer. Which is pretty darn awesome, a brilliant delicious collision of gayness and reader interaction and thinking outside the box when it comes to cover art. I love that this couple is going to be winging their way to bookshelves around the country in August, getting their gay all over everything.

Because this is a really bold cover. When it comes to publicly displaying affection for a same-sex partner, gay men in particular come in for sharp criticism; they’re being all gross and gay and reminding the world that heterosexuality isn’t the only way the cookie crumbles. (Umm, cookies. Sorry, got distracted.)

So there’s been a lot of buzz about “Two Boys Kissing” and the cover; 10 years ago, David Levithan wrote “Boy Meets Boy,” which definitely played a key role in revolutionizing the representation of gay couples in young adult fiction. At the same time, as Malinda Lo points out in a detailed discussion of the cover reveal and the history of gay YA, other books were starting to come out, paving the way for a much more accepting and open culture when it comes to depicting diverse sexualities (and genders, and identities) in young adult fiction.

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Laugh now, but wait until you run out of storage space. 

And David Levithan has been a big part of that. He co-wrote the fabulous “Will Grayson, Will Grayson,” another book with prominent gay characters, together with the nerdfighter force of John Green. The book made it to the bestseller list, something unthinkable not that long ago. He also wrote “Every Day,” in which gender and sexuality become very, very fluid concepts for our mysterious main character A. (Seriously, read this book if you haven’t already, it’s outstanding.)

As Lo points out in her piece, David Levithan has some distinct advantages when it comes to the publishing industry; he’s an editor, so he knows the industry from several perspectives. And he’s a white gay dude, which means he gets more attention than, say, queer women of color. He’s been criticized for holding this position of privilege, which I think is a bit of a mistake -- the question isn’t whether people should be condemned for what they were born with, but what they do with the positions their privilege gives them.

Lo notes that Levithan has proved a staunch ally not just to middle class gay white boys, but to LGBQT YA in general, and he’s taken risks with his career that other authors cannot afford to take because they don’t have his profile. For an author who is not well-established, for example, poor sales and a bad reception can kill a career. For Levithan, these would be a blow, but they wouldn’t unseat him entirely -- and every time he, and other authors, publish a gay YA that does well, it sends a clear signal to the industry that the times, they are a changing.

In other words, he's using his privilege for the power of good. 

We’re ready for gay YA. We’re screaming for it. We’re talking about it.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” for example, drew a great deal of discussion and buzz when it came out. It bucks the trend of soulful issue books about gay boys and delves into the young lesbian experience -- I’m comparing it to “Rubyfruit Jungle” in terms of its potential impact as a queer coming of age novel, and it’s got an added side of sharp commentary about degaying schools and camps.

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So good, chicks (background) come running. 

Lo’s own “Ash” and followup “Huntress” featured lush, delicious queer storylines -- and while they have resulted in pushing Lo into the corner of “that one lady who writes about all the lesbians,” to some extent, they’ve also showed that readers are interested in gay YA, and in YA featuring characters of color, too.

They may not have packed the sales punch of Levithan and Green, but they were still important, and they still play a key role in the emerging publishing landscape of gaylicious goodness. Particularly because both “Ash” and “Huntress” are not designed to be issue books. They’re about hot awesome ladies doing cool stuff. Oh, and they happen to like ladies.

I just finished reading Ilsa J. Bick’s “The Sin Eater’s Confession,” meanwhile, which I can’t talk up enough. It’s about sexuality and uncertainty and tragedy and guilt and it is absolutely outstanding, though I fear that, again, it may not be as widely circulated as some of the blockbuster gay YA.

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Come on, like you don't photograph yourself while reading?

But the very fact that there is “blockbuster” gay YA is HUGE, and it speaks to something that is not going away. Gender and sexuality are getting much more broad and diverse representations in young adult fiction, and that’s something that is only going to improve with time. The more representations there are, too, the more likely readers will be to find something of themselves in what they read, instead of just ending up with more extreme feelings of isolation.

If you want to keep up with some of the latest releases in gay YA, and other young adult fiction featuring diverse representations including characters of color and disabled characters, check out Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon’s “Diversity in YA” project on Tumblr. Or follow me on Twitter as I ramble about all the awesome books I’m reading that you could be too.