|Bill and young people at the Nashville Oasis Center|
It was a life-changing trip. I met so many people who have forever changed me as a person, and as a writer. Those changes have shown up immediately in my life, and they’ll be seen in my writing as soon as my next book, HONESTLY BEN, which will come out about a year from now.
Following are the major lessons I learned, as well as a world-premiere sneak peek into one way these lessons are manifesting in my current writing.
1. IT’S ALL ABOUT THE T!
I knew that the current generation of teens were exploring gender in ways that my generation never did, but I don’t know that I realized just how much that was dwarfing all the other letters in the LGBTQ acronym. At least in terms of the visits I made to community groups along my route, I would estimate that 70 percent of the young people I met consider themselves to be somewhere on the trans spectrum.
I’m fascinated by this! I had so many questions, and the teens I met were happy to answer them. The big thing for me was that I came in with a binary notion of gender. My understanding was that “trans” meant that someone believes that they are not of the gender to which they were born. This is a terribly incomplete understanding of trans. Most of the teens I met considered themselves gender fluid, with some sense that sometimes they felt more male, and sometimes more female, and sometimes an entirely different gender. I met kids who were asexual, and pansexual, and polyromantic, and genderqueer. I think when I was growing up, these were not really considerations for my generation. I am so proud of those young people who are exploring their authenticity in these new ways, and I do think it’s up to those of us who write LGBTQ YA fiction to catch up.
2. I’M OLD!
Along those lines, I am SO OLD! I’ve never felt older than I did on this trip. I am 44, which by most standards is not actually that old, but I began to understand the gulf between the time when I went to school, and the current day. A few times when I spoke to groups that consisted of mostly trans and genderqueer teens, I was keenly aware that to them, my discussion of coming out in the 1980s would have been like someone coming to my high school and talking about coming out in the 1950s, pre-Stonewall. I would have found it interesting, but not particularly useful to me in my current situation. I definitely had the sense sometimes that kids were looking at me thinking, “when will this old, cisgender gay dude stop talking?”
Oh well. I am who I am, and I know that the teens I met know my heart was in the right place. And of course I did meet many teens who were clearly very glad to hear me speak. No matter how much better things get overall for LGBTQ teens, there are still so many painful stories. Which leads me to:
3. PROGRESS IS A MACRO THING
What I saw, over and over, was a world which is IN GENERAL far more accepting and celebrating of teens who are on the LGBTQ spectrum, but can still be extremely cruel on a micro level. That’s something of which those of us who are involved in this movement need to be very aware. I met countless young people who expressed to me, either in group settings or privately, that they weren’t sure that they’d make it through this challenging time. Being different than one’s family of origin, and being in a sexual or gender minority in a school setting remains extremely challenging for many people. Those who think coming out stories are passé are completely wrong. We still need to write these stories, because these stories are still terribly important to young people. We just need to update them. And of course we also need to write stories in which young people are LGBTQ but aren’t focusing on the coming out process. We need to do both.
4. TOBY IS GENDER FLUID
Which brings me to my final point. And I haven’t said this to anyone yet, so this would be a world premiere: I’m finishing up the sequel to my popular novel OPENLY STRAIGHT, and I am incorporating much of what I’ve learned into this book. Toby, as it turns out, is gender fluid. Going to a conservative all-boys school in Massachusetts, that’s going to be a struggle for them. But as those of you who have read the first book can attest, Toby is nothing if not authentic, all of the time. He’s not going to let anyone stop Toby from being Toby!
This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I’m so glad I took it. Traveling around and meeting kids throughout the South and Midwest gave me a chance to see just how similar we all are. Whether we’re 17 and trans and living in Little Rock, Arkansas, or 44 and cis and living in Phoenix, Arizona, we’re all in this together. We all need help sometimes, and we all struggle with shame and we all have moments when our hearts are entirely open. That’s the most important thing for me to remember when I’m writing for teens. No matter our age or our label, we are all one.
Bill Konigsberg is the award-winning author of three Young Adult novels: Out of the Pocket, Openly Straight, and The Porcupine of Truth. He coordinates the Your Novel Year writing program at The Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University, and he lives in Chandler, Arizona, with his husband, Chuck, and their two Australian Labradoodles, Mabel and Buford. For more information, check out billkonigsberg.com.