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Isolation, Exploration, Affirmation: Dominant Patterns in Four Books for Gay Teens
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Isolation, Exploration, Affirmation:
Dominant Patterns in Four Books for Gay Teens
Bach, Tamara. Girl from Mars. Trans. Shelley Tanaka. Toronto: Groundwood, 2008. 180 pp. $12.95 pb. ISBN 978-0888998258. Print.
Harris, Michael. Homo. Toronto: Lorimer, 2012. 142 pp. $9.95 pb. ISBN 978-1459401914. Print.
Ryan, Tom. Way to Go. Victoria: Orca, 2012. 214 pp. $12.95 pb. ISBN 978-1459800779. Print.
Sobat, Gail Sidonie. Chance to Dance for You. Winnipeg: Great Plains, 2011. 172 pp. $14.95 pb. ISBN 978-1926531113. Print.

In a 1995 article published in GLQ, anthropologist Kath Weston explores the role of urban spaces in the construction of a "sexual imaginary" through which queer subjects find comfort, community, and a sense of self in the context of a move from a rural, small-town, or suburban environment to a large urban centre. Weston notes that the narrative of gay migration to the city functions as "the odyssey of escape from the isolation of the countryside and the surveillance of small town life to the freedom and anonymity of the urban landscape," and as she suggests, the valorization of urban environments in opposition to rural and small-town settings is "embedded in the gay subject" (274). The claustrophobia of small towns and suburbs seems to be a typical, if not stereotypical, feature of narratives written for and about gay teenagers. Each of the four books reviewed here is set in a small town or an outlying suburb of a major city. In these four narratives, urban centres are seen as almost mythic spaces and as privileged sites of sexual and self-exploration, whereas small towns and suburbs are represented as restrictive sites of surveillance, bullying, and heteronormativity. Although the narrative of urban migration is a compelling one in queer culture and functions as an [End Page 171] overwhelmingly dominant trope in queer literature, as Judith Halberstam reminds us, the conflation of urban spaces with acceptance and community and the depiction of rural and small-town spaces as sites of homophobic violence should be scrutinized for its reliance on fairly simplistic class-based assumptions and for its refusal to account for the existence of rural queers who elect to "stay home in order to preserve their difference" (27). Indeed, the books under review here all replicate, to some degree, a dualism between the gay urban metropolis and the homophobic rural/small-town/ suburban setting that becomes a backdrop against which their narratives of self-discovery are constructed. While none of these texts narrates a gay urban migration (all of the protagonists are teenagers still living at home with their parents), a migration to the city is on the horizon for most of these protagonists by the end of each novel. Perhaps predictably, characters who hail from cities tend to function as catalysts for the protagonists' growth and facilitate their personal and sexual development.

This dynamic is perhaps most clearly illustrated in Tim Ryan's Way to Go. The story is set in 1994 in Deep Cove, a small town on Cape Breton Island. Danny, the protagonist, is a closeted high-school student whose world opens up when he begins to work for Denise, his mother's high-school friend who has returned to the town to open a restaurant after living for many years in Vancouver, New York, and Montreal. Denise left Deep Cove after finishing high school because she felt she could not live there openly as a lesbian, but a recent breakup has precipitated her return. Accompanying Denise to Deep Cove is J. P. (a chef from Montreal) and Lisa (a young woman from New York who has come to waitress at the restaurant). These three characters expand Danny's horizons: J. P. teaches him to cook, Lisa shares her knowledge of music by making Danny mix tapes, and Denise models for Danny how he can be comfortable in his own queer skin. None of these urban figures functions as an object of sexual desire or an occasion for sexual exploration (sex is mostly absent from this narrative). Instead, the three supporting characters open a psychic and social space for Danny to begin to explore his identity outside of the conventional...