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  • From Bad Boy to Dead Boy:Homophobia, Adolescent Problem Fiction, and Male Bodies that Matter
  • Benjamin Lefebvre (bio)

Oh, Tul. If you could just get over it. Back on track. You've gotten out of other things. One mistake doesn't have to screw up your whole life. I'd never bring it up. I swear to God. And I'd be the friend I'm supposed to be. If you could just get over it.

—Diana Wieler, Bad Boy (113; emphasis added)

In her contribution to a special issue of Canadian Children's Literature on "Transgressing Gender Norms in Canadian Young Adult Fiction" (2002), Paulette Rothbauer offers an insightful overview of Canadian young adult novels that feature gay and lesbian characters as part of the issue's overall goal to examine the range of "imaginative possibilities for gendered behaviour" (Findon 6) available in the larger group of books. This overview becomes more revealing when read alongside Kenneth Kidd's introduction to his guest-edited issue of Children's Literature Association Quarterly on "Lesbian/Gay Literature for Children and Young Adults" (1998): noting the strong compatibility between coming out and the conventions of young adult fiction, Kidd notes that "close to one hundred" young adult titles (114) with gay and lesbian characters had been published in the U.S. and in Britain since John Donovan's groundbreaking novel I'll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip (1969).1 But Rothbauer's list of such novels published in Canada totals only 15 titles, all published between 1989 and 2001, with a total of 26 central or supporting gay and lesbian characters (either adolescents or adults).2 Reminding us that "the presence and the [End Page 288] absence of homosexuality in fiction for young people have political implications" surrounding the challenge to or reinforcement of heteronormativity (13), her investigation of the range of "possibilities" depicted by these characters leads to discouraging results: although these texts include a few strong female protagonists, young gay male characters—when they exist at all—are largely confined to secondary roles that rely on clichés of effeminacy, passivity, and self-hatred (15–19). Most noticeably, in sharp contrast to the wide range of American and British titles discussed by Kidd, Rothbauer cannot find a single example of a gay male adolescent character in Canadian young adult fiction who tells his own story.3

Troubled by both the absence of a strong gay male protagonist and the presence of these problematic supporting characters in Canadian young adult fiction, I examine in this paper two novels that depict a gay male secondary character as a figure who represents an anxiety or an obstacle in the development of a heterosexual central character. Both narratives prevent the gay character from describing his sexuality through language by concentrating on a protagonist whose automatic reaction to the discovery of his friend's sexuality is homophobic. The first, Diana Wieler's Bad Boy (1989), has received a fair amount of critical attention in Canada and was the recipient of a Governor General's Literary Award for Children's Literature (Text); the second, Brian Payton's Hail Mary Corner (2001), is so recent that it does not appear in Rothbauer's overview. Throughout both novels, a hyper-masculine sixteen-year-old protagonist negotiates several subplots in which his masculinity is challenged or tested. In Bad Boy, A.J. Brandiosa's obsession with proving his worth on his hockey team prompts him to become a goon on the ice. His homophobic reaction to the discovery that his best friend is gay reaches a somewhat ambiguous resolution: although there is some suggestion that the narrator wishes readers to see A.J.'s homophobia as part of what makes him a "bad boy," and although A.J. ultimately recognizes Tully's courage in coming out, the final scene does not depict them finding a way to reconfigure their friendship. Published a dozen years later but set earlier than Bad Boy, Hail Mary Corner revisits this theme in a story archetypically similar to a number of American private-school narratives that result in deadly consequences to non-normative boy behavior:4 Bill MacAvoy continually rebels against...