Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What We're Reading: Gay Teens

Boyfriends with Girlfriends
by Alex Sanchez

In his latest novel, Alex Sanchez has once again broken new ground in literature written for GBLT young adults. Bisexual teens have been virtually invisible in fiction written for youth. This is one of the first books from a major publisher that prominently features bisexual teen characters. Sanchez’s last book, Bait, explored the very important issue of childhood sexual abuse and the myths surrounding its relationship to sexual orientation. In other books Sanchez has written about gay self-identity among adolescents and about gays and religion. His work as a whole has addressed a variety of topics that are of concern to young people growing up gay. He is cognizant and knowledgeable about these concerns and their impact on gay youth from his many years working as a youth counselor. For countless young gay teens, his fiction has been enlightening, reassuring, and has inspired self-respect.

What he has done for gay young adults has been of such importance that it is painful to be critical of his work as literature. Sanchez’s reason for writing is associated with the objectives of that now almost defunct genre, the “problem” novel. The clarity of the message and moral in such a novel seem frequently to take precedence over the quality of the story, which often seems largely contrived to serve their purpose. Complexity and ambiguity, the things we associate with verisimilitude in works of realistic fiction, are replaced with what seems a sketched and dichotomous world. Characters in this kind of literature tend to be under-developed, even if they are allowed to speak as narrators. The sophistication of today’s teen reading audience, and the literary quality of so much that is now being written for them, may have dated this approach.

Girlfriends with Boyfriends follows the dating and sexual self-identity trials of a group of four teenagers. Lance has known he is gay for a long time, comes from an accepting family, and is sexually inexperienced. Sergio is bisexual and has had many relationships with both girls and boys. Allie is one of the popular girls at school, has been involved in a sexual relationship with a long-time boyfriend, but has begun to question her sexual orientation. Kimiko is a young and inexperienced lesbian who comes from a traditional Asian family that is deeply troubled by the way she dresses like a boy and by her apparent sexual preference. The “story” of the novel concerns how those in this serendipitous mix explore their feelings and work out their various dating relationships. In the exposition, these youths often sound fatuous and shallow, and in an effort to make them seem “real” and contemporary, there is too much reliance on the clich├ęs and props of young adult material culture (malls, cell phones, texting, computers, and movies). The world they inhabit seems terribly limited to only a few personal concerns. It is one without deep feelings, momentous consequences, or tragedies. There is too much the feeling here of artificial characters dealing with real problems that have been unburdened of their gravitas. But as always, Sanchez sheds light on issues that are of importance, particularly the tensions and prejudices that exist within that catch-all community of gay, bisexual, lesbians, and Transgendered people that is too easily glossed over by the associative nature of the “GBLT” term.

In recent years there have been books written about gay youth that are more sophisticated in their literary development and have more compelling story lines. Among the best of these are two books written by young writers who have come from graduate school writing programs, What They Always Tell Us, by Martin Wilson and The Vast Fields of Ordinary, by Nick Burd. Several very gifted adult writers have written books for gay youth in recent years as well; of special note are Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, and a personal favorite, Sprout: Or My Salad Days, When I Was Green in Judgment, by Dale Peck. For those looking for further reading suggestions for GBLT youth, there are several good reference sources that have been published. The Heart Has Its Reasons: Young Adult Literature with Gay/Lesbian/Queer Content 1969-2004, by Michael Cart and Christine Jenkins, is somewhat dated in its content, but the essays that give an overview of the historical development of the genre for teens are interesting and amusing. Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning Teen Literature: A Guide to Reading Interests, by Carlisle K. Webber, is a relatively new resource. There is information about the development of book collections for young adult readers in the recently published Serving LGBTIQ Library and Archives Users: Essays on Outreach, Service, Collections, and Access, edited by Ellen Greenblatt.

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