Young Adult (YA) fiction, has become somewhat of a safe space for LGBTQIA+ narratives, with a plethora of narratives for a diverse readership who deserve to see themselves represented in the stories they read. Alongside gay cisgender male and lesbian cisgender female narratives, which now have a strong establishment within YA field, there are a growing number of transgender narratives such as works by Meredith Russo, Lisa Williamson and Anna-Marie McLemore. Building on this more underrepresented identities and orientations such as non-binary and A-sexual ones are starting to be recognized in YA. Examples of this are Kathryn Ormsbee’s 2017 novel, Trash Hearts Tolstoy which follows an A-sexual protagonist and Julia Watts’s 2018 novel about a non-binary teenager, Quiver.
With this ever-diversifying representation in mind, our contributor Seán Kavanagh, and European Officer, Anthony Stepniak look at how, and if, gay cis gender YA has also continued to diversify its representation and given itself a progressive push further out of the closet. L.C Rosen’s Jack of Hearts and Other Parts, Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight and Honestly Ben, Adam Silvera’s More Happy Than Not and Mackenzie Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue are put under spotlight in this commentary on contemporary gay cisgender YA.
Explicit and/or Emotional? Representing Gay Male Sex: Jack of Hearts versus More Happy Than Not (A. Silvera) and Release (P. Ness)
Rosen wrote Jack of Hearts to smash what he calls the ‘glass closet’, the notion that gay characters are acceptable in mainstream media only if they stick to certain tropes. For women, this means not being too butch, and for men it means not being too effeminate, and not being overly sexual. Rosen takes issue with the sanitization of queer sex lives, and wrote Jack of Hearts in part to shine a light on what exactly a gay teen boy might get up to in the bedroom (emphasis on the might).
However, in order to sex up his character, to make Jack less ‘good’, he made Jack all about sex, and only about sex, to the point that the character seems totally blithe to anything that might approximate an emotional attachment. This drives the novel away from Rosen’s sought-after realism and towards the fantastic: Jack is so focused on being ok with having no-strings sex that it comes across as totally unbelievable. Rosen’s bid to diminish the importance of an emotional justification for sex only serves to highlight how complex the topic of sex is. By focusing on the physical, Rosen diminishes the inevitable emotional exchange that always happens during sex.
The emotional complexity has been explored explicitly by authors such as Adam Silvera, whose novels More Happy Than Not and History Is All You Left Me feature stories that centre complicated emotional motivations as well as explicit sex between gay teens.
In MHTN, Aaron Soto develops feelings for Thomas, his straight best friend. He decides to undergo a procedure at the Leteo Institute to erase all memories of those feelings. But a homophobic attack leads to the return of already-repressed memories: Aaron had previously undergone the Leteo procedure once before to erase his past relationship with another of his friends, Collin.
The backdrop to MHTN is a group of teens and the relationships between them. When Aaron and Collin begin seeing each other secretly behind their girlfriends’ backs, the scene is set for a complicated emotional web to develop. The self-doubt that Aaron professes, the desire to erase his homosexuality, as well as the burning physicality of his desire for both Thomas and Collin, all combine to make an explosive piece of writing that touches on the key concerns of any teenager: the heady mix of new emotion and physical desire, and the complications and fears that arise from worrying about parts of ourselves we need to accept. These are the things that were missing from JOH, where Rosen situated Jack in an environment that was more-or-less totally accepting of him as an out and sexually active gay teen. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a welcoming environment for queer teens – there is even a dearth of it in YA – but the result in this case was no motivation for Jack to question himself, even if only to affirm how comfortable he is with his own sexuality. Even the main driver of the plot, the stalking incident, didn’t motivate Jack to question himself – once that threat had been removed he reverted to his previous behavior, without reflecting on the experience at all. The reader is left with the impression that Jack didn’t really understand or care about what happened to him. The link between rational and emotional thought and sexual desire, executed so well by Silvera, is much less clear in JOH.
Rosen also wanted to portray realistic or more realistic gay sex scenes in his book, taking issue with the sanitization of mainstream media that means, while straight teens are taking their clothes off, the gays are staying buttoned up for fear of being ‘too gay’. In his Guardian article, Rosen complained of the clear-cut polished porn that many gay men will be familiar with. He construes Jack as a foil to the ‘good’ (i.e. desexualised) gay, and as someone who lays bare the truth about sex in contrast to what a lot of porn might present. However, Jack’s sexual escapades appear to be nothing more than rote performances very much in line with the kind of pornography Rosen rails against. It’s explicit, yes, but it’s also totally and flawlessly self-assured. Neither Jack nor his partners ever doubt their sexual abilities, or voice uncertainty, or even seem to consider anything beyond the sexual. Sex seems to be a guaranteed good time for all involved, instead of the complicated mix of physicality and emotion that it so often is. Of course, sex can be more or less emotional and God knows we need sex scenes that aren’t always founded on the notion of heteronormative marital love. But the result in JOH is that Jack comes across as vapid, and the flat ending leaves him with no development in any sense of the word. The depth of Jack’s sexual knowledge is laid bare in his newsletter, and this only serves to distance the novel further from reality since Jack writes with a self-assuredness that rings unbelievable for someone of his age, even with his sexual history.
Patrick Ness’s 2016 novel Release, in contrast, features sex scenes that relish the ecstasy of sex with graphic descriptions, but also examine the connection that can occur between two people. Similar to MHNT, Release features an object of unrequited love and like MHNT this allows the protagonist, Adam Thorn, to question why he feels the way he does about certain people and not about others. Adam comes to contemplate the different types of love that exist in the world, and this is done partly through the lens of his different sexual encounters. Ness presents a real challenge to the polished world of gay pornography and the increasingly high sexual expectations that society demands. Sex in Release is messy, suffused with personal connections and connotations, and features a distinct lack of objectification, in contrast to JOH where the goal appears to be pleasure alone.
Demonstrating Diversity, The Shadows of the Past and Label-less Love:
There have been a number of gay cis gender YA novels in recent years which have looked beyond the door of their own gay male closet, and unlocked, even in some cases knocked down, doors concealing other issues around diversity.
Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight (2013) and its sequel Honestly Ben (2017) are examples of gay cis gender YA which interrogates the various levels which sexual identities function on. In the first installment protagonist and openly gay Rafe, decides to ‘go back into the closet’ when he moves to a new school to escape the attention the label of ‘the gay kid’ gives him. Interestingly, Rafe is explicit about how supportive his family and friends are, so rather than the more typical negativity driving him back into the closet it’s a suffocation of the ‘label’ of being gay from the cultural perspective. This brings up interesting questions around identity and the cultural rendering of homosexuality and the potential for it, even in a supportive environment, to warrant unwanted attention and even become suffocating as a cultural label. In exploring these themes Konigsberg refreshingly acknowledges the complexities of sexual identity and how it functions on a personal and cultural level and some of the negatives of the latter.
The sequel, Honestly Ben, reflects the issues highlighted in Openly Straight and follows the first-person perspective of Ben, the straight school friend who has a friendship and then sexual and emotional relationship with Rafe, who all along he believed was straight. Couniting the clash of the personal and cultural levels of sexual orientation, Ben’s rejection of Rafe, upon finding out the truth, is perfectly portrayed through not a reflection based on sexual orientation, but on a feeling of betrayal where Ben believed he and Rafe were sharing an experience of same-sex feeling for the first time of ‘opening the personal closet door together’, only to discover Rafe’s was opened long along. This is a relatable reaction from Ben and parallel to this, Honestly Ben sees the novel’s namesake struggle to understand his attraction to Rafe. Once again, Konigsberg’s critique of the cultural categorization is maintained with Ben’s struggle not being his feelings, but rather his inability to label himself due to them… he discusses how he doesn’t feel gay or bi, but simply attracted to Rafe. Ultimately it is this conclusion which enables the happy ending for both characters – finally getting back together – with Ben proclaiming that its simply his love for Rafe that is important -whatever you want to label it as. This return to a focus of the personal closet of sexuality, stripped of too many cultural ‘labels’, is a refreshingly one which simultaneously represents the fluidity of sexuality.
Another progressive push comes from Mackenzie Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue (2017) which follows the love affair of lovable gentleman rogue Henry, heir to his father’s vast estate, and Percy, Henry’s mixed race friend. The 18th century setting functions on two key levels in relation to the novels representation of diversity. First, it illustrates the racial tensions and prejudice between their inter-racial friendship, let alone romance. While not public about it for many reasons, Henry and Percy are not ashamed by their sexuality; in the case of Henry it is hinted that it is a worst kept secret amongst the aristocracy his family knows. In multiple scenes we see the racist treatment of Percy by various persons they encounter on their adventure around Europe and Henry’s protection of him. Secondly, the setting works as an effective distancing device. As we know, interracial couples of all and any orientations still face prejudice today – let alone homosexual ones. The historical setting distances the reader at first, creating an almost fantastical space, where once engaged in the adventure the prejudice Percy faces can then be related to the present day in the eyes of the reader. The delayed relatability and distancing the historical setting creates makes the horror of the prejudice even more unsettling as the realization dawns that hundreds of years have still not abolished racism.
Part Historical fiction, part adventure – the exploration of and inclusion of gay male cis gender romance is not the primary purpose of the genre-hybridizing novel. Henry and Percy’s trauma, trials and tribulations of their formation into a committed relationship is more about Henry’s wandering eye, racial and financial issues than the fact they are both men. Much like Konsigberg it deals with a ‘label-less love’ of two characters and focuses on their attraction and connection on a personal level – where their personal closet doors are wide open to one another, but the complexity of the time means that, as many in the present can relate, the cultural ones must remain shut.
In raising questions such as the intersections of sex, emotion and explicitness and the complexities of how sexual orientation functions on the personal and cultural level, gay cisgender male YA can be seen to progressively be pushing itself further out of the closet. Intertwining itself with questions of ethic, sexual and gendered diversity and fluidity and hybridising itself with other genres results in normalizing gay cisgender male representations. The process of normalization is a cog in the ever-growing queer YA machine which we can only hope continues to responsibly portray the plethora of queer identities and orientations the LGBTQIA+ community contains.