As part of UCL’s Festival of Culture 2018, scholars, publishers, readers and lovers of all things YA gathered at London’s iconic Gay’s the Word bookstore for a panel discussion on ‘Queer Visibility in Young Adult Fiction’ (hosted by Dr Erica Gillingham (@ericagillingham) and UCL’s Catherine Thomson (@bluestripe77)). Erica chaired an engaging and provocative discussion between UCL’s Dr Alexandra Parsons (@alexandrparsons), Simon James Green (@simonjamesgreen) and Charlie Morris (@charlieinabook).
Gay’s the Word, located in 66 Marchmont St, Kings Cross, London, was founded in 1979 and has rich cultural and historical importance within the contemporary LGBTQIA+ community. More recently the bookstore has found fame thanks to the 2014 UK film Pride (Dir Matthew Warchus). The film centres on the true story of the alliance formed between the Welsh miners and LGBTQIA+ activists – the latter helping the former during the 1984 miners’ strike in the UK – resulting in what is now officially called the ‘Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners Campaign’ (LGSM). The portrayal of Gay’s the Word in Pride as the meeting hub of the campaigners has resulted in the bookstore reaching a new level of relevance in contemporary British Queer culture and beyond. All this is cemented by the blue plaque in the shop front in honour of Mark Ashton, co-founder of the LGSM.
As two scholars, an author and a publicist took their seats in this iconic location, the panel shared their diverse experiences concerning all things queer YA. The panel began with a conversation about professional and personal overlap. Each panellist spoke of how their work had been inspired by their own queer YA experiences. For Simon, watching the 1996 film ‘Beautiful Thing’ was a ground-breaking moment – the first time he realised he was attracted to boys. Years later, Simon described, he writes with a knowledge of how life changing his books might be for someone. Charlie remembered reading Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet (1998) and realising that queer women existed. She described that her career in marketing and publishing has been inspired by the desire to find and promote these queer voices. Alexandra similarly talked about wanting to read about her own experiences when she was a young adult, explaining that she’s driven by what she can do to make sure these books are published for, and read by, the people who need them. For each of them, queer visibility in YA literature, media and culture was paramount.
Erica then invited the panellists to explain what ‘queer visibility’ means in practice. Simon spoke of the importance of more and more queer characters. Alexandra advocated the need for queer characters to have agency visible to the reader and to the other characters in the books. She also emphasised the need for these books to sell and to be read. Charlie expressed a similar perspective. She stressed the importance of queer books being visible in the world – in book shops, libraries and in non-queer-specific spaces. The conversation shifted to considering how present the actual queer young adult is in the literary thought process. For Simon, they are very present. He described thinking about how his younger self would have felt, and how going into schools and meeting his young readers emphasises his responsibility as author. Charlie offered similar thoughts from a publishing perspective. She discussed the responsibility to see what young adults want in literature, including the opportunity to read about themselves and their friends. Simon also gave an example of how his literature had been shaped by these considerations. For his protagonist, Noah (Noah Can’t Even and Noah Could Never), a happy ending was essential. Simon felt that LGBTQIA+ YA literature often foregrounds darker issues to the detriment of representing positive experiences, something he wanted to rectify in his fiction.
A particularly noteworthy topic of discussion was the effect the repeal of Section 28* has had on YA literature. As Simon said, Section 28 meant that LGTBQIA+ literature was not in his school library, and it would prevent him (as author) from visiting schools were it still in effect. But despite the positive changes its repeal has facilitated, the panellists shared concerns for its continuing impact. Simon described the legacy of the legislation still echoing in schools through the absence of queer sex education. He also talked about the effects this had on today’s writers who grew up during that time. This was reiterated by Charlie who suggested that our contemporary authors are policed by a pervasive ‘self-censorship effect’ – they are still nervous about including the ‘taboo’ subjects in their writing particularly when it comes to possible pushback from gatekeepers.
Erica then asked the panellists to draw from their own reading and viewing experiences to suggest what they’d like to see more or less often in YA media. Charlie was exhausted with bullying being an ever-central theme. Queer people have whole lives, she argued, and reading about violent bullying can be triggering. Alexandra called for more characters whose (unapologetically apparent) queerness is not the focal point, but occurs incidentally in rich and exciting stories. There was also a collective demand for more diversity. Alexandra noted the persistent prominence of white males, and Erica condemned the absence of queer characters of colour, and lack of class diversity. Simon then expressed his wish for authors to be less nervous about queer sexual content. For him, there is no better place than literature to explore these themes due to the rigour of authorial, editorial and publishing processes. And, (thankfully) the panel were optimistic for the future YA literature!
To finish the formal panel, Erica asked each panellist to recommend their must-read queer YA:
Erica: Emily M. Danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2012)
Molly Beth Griffin’s Silhouette of a Sparrow (2012)
Simon: Julian Winters’ Running with Lions (2018)
Charlie: Keris Stainton’s Starring Kitty (2014)
Alexandra: Simon James Green’s Noah Can’t Even (2017) and Noah Could Never (2018)
Overall, this was a deeply fascinating, engaging, moving, provocative and special discussion, and we are very privileged to have been able to attend. The panel marked a much-needed landmark on YA media’s continuing journey to become a more diverse and inclusive field. Events such as this massively help increase the progress already starting to be made in making YA more inclusive. The lack of diversity in both queer YA and YA literature in general highlighted during the panel is something which is already starting to change. Slowly, YA media which focuses on characters with diverse identities are emerging. Literature which is inclusive of a spectrum of sexual orientations, gender identities, racial, ethnic and religious identities, physical and mental (or ‘invisible’) disabilities are coming to the fore (hoorah)!
Aside from the progress being made on the publishing front, there are also efforts in academia too. Recent conferences in the UK such as ‘Investigating Identities in YA Narratives’ (@Identities_YA) at the University of Northampton (2017), ‘Reading YA’ at the University of Birmingham (2018) and the launch of the Young Adult Literature, Media and Culture Research Network (@YALMC_ResNet) in 2018 have all helped to expose, promote and generate research and analysis into inclusivity in YA media. The ongoing work of the recently launched UCL Grand Challenges funded project ‘Adolescent Identities’ (@YAIdentities), for example, focuses on researching the representations and diversity of identity in YA.
Finally, we’d just like to thank Gay’s the Word who were wonderful hosts and, having spent an hour browsing their shelves before the event began, we can attest that they are also a wonderful bookstore.
*For those unfamiliar with Section 28, the act (1988) stated that the local authority was not to intentionally promote homosexuality. It was eventually repealed in the UK in 2003 (Scotland in 2000).