- From Homoplot to Progressive Novel:Lesbian Experience and Identity in Contemporary Young Adult Novels
Teens have long sought themselves in the pages of adolescent literature, not for answers, but simply to see themselves there, to remember that they are not alone. Some teens, of course, find themselves in this literature more readily than do others. Heterosexual teens, for instance, abound, as do, increasingly, uber-rich teens, teens consorting with vampires, and teens endowed with magical or other supernatural abilities. However, teens who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ), magical, vampiric, or otherwise, are significantly underrepresented in young adult literature published in the United States. While increased societal awareness of the relative normalcy of nonheterosexual orientation and identification has led to increasing production and marketing of YA novels with LGBTQ characters, these exceptions remind us of the rule: queer sexual orientations are still an "issue" for publishers, booksellers, and many readers. In Over the Rainbow: Queer Children's and Young Adult Literature (2011), Michelle Abate and Kenneth Kidd recognize that
recent scholarship dealing with more contemporary "out" queer literature for children and young adults asks . . .: What are the politics of visibility and affirmation, especially in relation to childhood and adolescence? How does this literature function socially and pedagogically? What correspondences can we observe between social history and the literary record; can queer literature for young readers effect, as much as document, change?(146)
Like the scholars Abate and Kidd, I position myself as an advocate for positive, progressive portrayals of lesbian characters and experience in Young Adult (YA) literature as a force for effecting positive change for queer young people. Even though more novels are available than used to be, we must recognize that presence and inclusion are merely first steps—necessary, [End Page 74] essential, but not enough. There is still need for critical attention to the ideological work such novels accomplish. Readers and critics will be more effective in their roles as readers and critics by surfacing passive ideologies that surround LGBTQ sexualities, thus calling into question society's dominant ideological assumptions about LGBTQ individuals—particularly teens. Several critics, including Esther Saxey, Vanessa Wayne Lee, and Michael Cart and Christine Jenkins, have developed schemata for assessing and categorizing texts with LGBTQ characters and content. Building on their schemata, I here consider the ways contemporary lesbian YA novels stimulate, challenge, and encourage young lesbian women to affirm their sexual and personal growth through narrative innovation that reconfigures existing YA tropes by resisting conventional ideologies that Other nonheteronormative characters.
Being Sexual, Being Lesbian in Young Adult Literature
Sexuality itself—not simply lesbian sexuality—is an uncomfortable topic for children's and adolescent literatures. Ellis Hanson surfaces our societal discomfort by acknowledging children's "queer[ness]": "[t]heir sexual behavior and their sexual knowledge are subjected to an unusually intense normalizing surveillance, discipline, and repression of the sort familiar to any oppressed sexual minority" (110). The culture manages its discomfort by denying child sexual desire or by labeling it queer. Lee Edelman and Kathryn Bond Stockton both identify the sexually desirous child as queer, and James Kincaid notes social tendencies, in our fervor to erase sexual desire from the child, to erase the child itself.1 For adolescents, Roberta Trites situates sexuality as a major locus of conflict noting, "we live in a society that objectifies teen sexuality, at once glorifying and idealizing it while also stigmatizing and repressing it" (Disturbing 95). According to Trites, adolescents are simultaneously freed and restrained—while "[a]dolescents are empowered by institutions and their parents and by knowledge of their bodies, . . . [but] by offering up rules and holding repercussions over their heads that limit their newfound freedoms, these things also restrict them" ("Harry Potter Novels" 473). Both Trites and Suzanne Juhasz explore the regulation of non-normative sexual expression by disapproving societal forces (respectively, between young people and between women). Just as Juhasz stresses that romantic elements overshadow sexuality in lesbian fiction, Trites characterizes "genital sexual contact" as "more likely to be depicted interstitially than not in heterosexual YA novels" and points out that "any gay YA novel as sexually explicit as, say, Blume's Forever would likely be...