That was the number of gay characters I met in a childhood of voracious reading. One. For the length of a young adult mystery trilogy, the lovely main character throws herself to no avail at a handsome but humorless and dim-witted quarterback only to find out at the end that he is gay. Realizing what a fool she has been all along, she gets a good laugh over her attempts to seduce a homosexual. I laughed with her, even though I was gay myself. I just did my best not to think about it, and didn’t want to consider that one day I might be the punchline to that particular joke.
In the thousands of books to pass through my hands from elementary school to high school, the minor character of a dullard quarterback maintained his singular position as the only gay person I ever encountered in the pages. From truest hero to vilest villain, everyone else shared one common factor in their heterosexuality. Their sidekicks were straight, their parents and siblings were straight, their nosy neighbors and guardian angels and household haunts were straight, everybody was straight and there was never a breath that anyone else existed. At least until the quarterback.
It wasn’t until college that I got my hands on bonafide books with gay characters. Looking nervously around the local Borders, I hunched over a book and skimmed at light speed since I still lived at home and couldn’t bring it there to line the shelves. A tiny section of the store was relegated to gay issues, and the choices orbited exactly two areas: coming-out tales and erotica. After a religious upbringing, I did not dare to pick up the latter. After all, if someone I knew stumbled upon me reading in that aisle, it was easier to explain away looking for a coming-out book for a friend who was gay than reading erotica for the person in question.
However, there are only so many coming-out stories that one can read. The revelation, the angst, the torment, the soul searching, the denial, the acceptance . . . these stories mirrored what I was going through, and I needed them. But in time, I needed more. Why were gay people reduced to endless explorations of coming-out and sexy time? Sexuality is part of us, but it is not all of what we are. I don’t get up on the gay side of the bed and eat a gay breakfast; my gay friends and I do not sit around a table at a nice restaurant and talk only about our coming-out experiences or our sex lives. Our lives are bigger than that, just like everybody’s lives are. We bitch about feckless bosses* and bemoan how much money just went to car repairs; we compare crazy siblings and wonder how long the Kardashians’ fifteen minutes are going to last (and exactly what they are famous for). And maybe we notice that the waiter or waitress is cute. Part of us, but not all of us. It bears repeating.
What I wish I had had as a teenager, eagerly engulfing all of the science fiction and fantasy and horror to come my way, were gay characters in the mix. That dim quarterback should have been joined by heroes and villains and sidekicks. The plots should not have been limited to their coming-out tales (of which there already exists a wealth) but the same plots that all of the straight characters in the books I read were experiencing: adventures, rags to riches, battling evil, discovering new worlds. I needed alternative sexuality to be a part of the plot, but not the singular driving force of the plot. Yes, these knights in shining armor are gay. Now how do we take on this dragon?
But those weren’t the books on the shelves. It dismayed me entirely to read about American authors told to straight-wash a gay character from their book or else forgo an agent’s representation. Either make that boy straight, or wipe him from the pages. You can’t sell a book with a homosexual in it! So, in interest of your career, he must be eliminated.
Writing my first young adult fantasy series with two gay characters was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. My heart was in my stomach as I tapped out the first draft, because I knew that I was making this series unpublishable. Sexuality isn’t a large part of the characters’ lives in the first two books (Runefool and Runefly), but as the characters mature in Runegame (due out April Fool’s Day), it comes forward. That’s what sexuality does, becomes a part of life, but not all of it. Yes, some of the five Gatecrashers are gay. I spent years on a series that I knew was unlikely to be traditionally published because of this choice. But I couldn’t bring myself to undo it, make them straight and give them opposite-sex partners just for the gratification of seeing my books on a shelf. And why should I have to? Right now, there are young adults out there searching shelves just like I once was, looking for their reflection in genres other than coming-out.
Writers write for themselves, and that’s what the Rune series is. These are the books I needed long ago, with characters thrown into an exciting, fantastical world of danger and duplicity. Oh, and two of them are gay. Now how do they find Rafe’s mother? And survive both malicious rune clans and high school?
Dim-witted quarterback, I’m sending you some company, follow?
* Hello, Mr. Magazine Time!