Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Jo Knowles on the importance of GLBTQ characters in teen fiction

Young Adult Author Jo Knowles (who wrote Lessons From A Dead Girl) posted this essay for Gay YA: GLBT characters & pairings in YA Fiction, and I thought it was beautiful. She was kind enough to allow me to share it here with all of you:

Last weekend I was driving near the Brown campus in Providence, RI with my family. When we stopped at a light, two male students crossed the street, holding hands. They were chatting away, smiling, like what they were doing was the most natural thing in the world. My husband and I both commented on how nice that was. And how rare.

Because honestly? In most places in this country, you will not see two boys walking along a busy street holding hands. Carefree. Safe.

In most places in this country, there are still boys and girls just like those two ,wondering what’s wrong with them. Wondering if their parents will kick them out of the house if they tell them they’re gay. Wondering if their best friends will still be their best friends. Wondering if they will get the crap kicked out of them if anyone finds out.

I hate that this is true.

When my book, LESSONS FROM A DEAD GIRL, was banned from classroom use in a Kentucky school, the objection was that the book contained "inappropriate themes, including homosexuality." Calling homosexuality inappropriate is ridiculous. I know this. You know this. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t.

In my latest book, PEARL, a blogger who reviews books wrote that, while she liked the book very much, she couldn’t recommend it because of the homosexual content. A reader thanked her, saying homosexuality in books made her feel “uncomfortable.”

When I read this, I cried. Not because I care about the review, but because of what it says about where we are in this country. The irony about all of this, is that the objectionable piece in the book is about two women who love each other and hide it all their lives because they’re too afraid to be themselves. And why? Because who they are is “inappropriate.” It makes people feel “uncomfortable.”

What message do reviews like this give to gay teens who stumble across them? Keep hiding.

That’s why I cried.

My older brother was gay. He didn’t come out until he was in his twenties. He waited to come out because he was afraid, too. The whole first half of his life he had to be two people. In public, he was one Scott. In private and among a small group of friends, he was the real Scott.

I was lucky enough to know the real Scott. The real Scott had a huge heart. He loved adventure. He loved to travel and eat and read and cook and watch James Bond movies and Dr. Who. He wanted to share all of these things with the people he loved. He used to force me to watch cheesy movies with him, trying to convince me to love them as much as he did. He could put his arm around you and I swear you could feel the unspoken words he meant in that simple gesture. The love he gave in it. But far too few were lucky enough to experience this Scott. This beautiful man who was bursting with love and life and never able to fully share his true self. Because for some crazy reason, for some reason I will never accept, people thought who he was, was “inappropriate.” So he hid that side of himself for years. And that is tragic.

What do we do about this?

That’s my big question. How do we make the world a more accepting place? How do we make our communities, our schools, our classrooms, our homes, more accepting places?

I wish I knew the big answer.

But I think one small one, is books.

The beauty of books is that they show us a new point of view. They show us what it’s like to walk around in someone else’s shoes for a while. They show us the world through a different lens. Sometimes it’s a more frightening world. Sometimes it’s a more beautiful one. Sometimes, it’s a more accepting one. Sometimes, it’s ugly. But even in those frightening, ugly worlds, we see some tiny reflection of ourselves and the world we know. We find connections to what we ourselves believe, and maybe we shift those beliefs just a little. Maybe we step away a little less intolerant, because we’re able to see more clearly the ignorance our intolerance stems from. Maybe we step away able to see the person down the street who we’ve always been a little afraid of, as a little less scary. I don’t know. But I think always, always, we step away changed somehow. For the better. Books do that.

Maybe that’s what people who ban gay books are afraid of. Maybe they just need to read more. It’s a start.

--Jo Knowles

Jo is right. Books are part of the answer. And I'm so glad she's writing some of them!



Alex said...

Great essay! Thank you.
I knew a teenager who read Annie on My Mind when she was about 14 and felt like she had been saved because finally there was a book that really helped her with her feelings. Who knows what that one book may have saved her from.
Hopefully writers like yourself will keep on writing - even in the face of adversity.

Anonymous said...

This is an amazing essay. (And I'm not just saying that as a former writing student of Jo's.) As an advocate for tolerance, as the Youth Librarian who put up Safe Space stickers from GLSEN around the library, as the good friend of several people who are gay, as the sister of a gay brother, as a person who cannot, and will not, put up with ignorance - I appreciate and applaud Jo for her bravery and her ability to cry. Not because of a bad review, but for those who still have to hide who they are. Thanks Jo! I can't wait to read Pearl and have you back to the library!


Anonymous said...

Yes! Her lovely post appeared the same day that you posted that wonderful Irish video. It was such a beautiful coincidence that I posted links to both from my blog. I should've thought to email you. I'm glad you found the post. Keep up the great work.


Jo Knowles said...

Thanks for your very kind words, Lee, and for your fantastic blog! I love your posts and the information you share.



ivanova said...

This is a wonderful essay.

Everything is very polarized right now, where in one very tiny state you can have a young gay couple who feel safe holding hands in Pvd and then a wacko elected official in Tiverton who wants to defund a school because it has a GSA.

Anonymous said...

As I read this something struck me-I could in fact know someone who is gay but hiding. I work in a library-so _yes_ books are important because when I recommend a book because of the amazing story and it happens to have a gay character is about a gay character I could very well be putting into the hands of someone who _needs_ to read, it's okay. Huh, I hope that makes sense.

Marquita Hockaday said...

As everyone has said this is a great essay. I have a Jo Knowles book- Jumping of Swings and I plan to read some of her others now that I know she stomps for the GLBTQ cause.

Anna said...

How well said! Loved the whole essay. Wonderful words and great ideas.
Books do make a difference and help to make the world a bit better. Thanks Jo, for writing them!

Lee Wind, M.Ed. said...

Hi everyone - thanks for your comments so far!

Alex, yeah, these books really do save lives.

Molly - thanks for being such an ally and advocate. Librarians like you ROCK!

Brenda, thank you for the kind words.

Jo, it's a mutual admiration society!

ivanova, yeah - how amazing that it was the same state!

Deb - yes, as I said above. Librarians can do SO much good! Thanks for all you do.

Marquita, I hear you - I'm always a little extra excited about their books when I learn that an author is pro-GLBTQ equality. Oh, and just to clarify, Jo's book that you reference is "Jumping Off Swings"


Sarah Laurenson said...

I didn't even know what gay was until I was in college. Then my life made sense. And it was followed by a lot of internal fighting with who I was inside versus what I showed to others. How safe was it to be out? And how to come out to family and friends?

My best friend wanted to join the KKK. She was the scariest to tell and the least disturbed by the news. She said "It's different when it's your friend."

So simple and yet so odd. It's okay to love someone gay if you knew them before you found out they were gay? Sad and very limiting.

Jin said...

Good read. Thank you.