"WE ARE HERE": queer books beyond subtext

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City, an event that laid the groundwork for the first Gay Pride parade and celebrations that have evolved into a month-long recognition of LGBTQ+ identities and communities.

During my 1990s childhood in a pervasively conservative, Christian, Southern environment, I never read any overtly queer literature. I had no idea what the word gay meant, other than its being something undesirable to be called on the playground. I vaguely remember the cover of Heather Has Two Mommies, which I probably encountered at the library during Mother’s Day or Banned Books Week.

Looking back, I can see that queer-coded characters were there all along, though I did not have the reference points to identify them as such. I was a fan of Sherlock Holmes, whose “confirmed bachelor” status now seems to me to be queer coded. Captain Hook is another queer-coded (to me) character, whom I first met in Disney’s animated Peter Pan. These examples hint at queer identities, playing off of types, but never providing specificity. I never got much past this subtext either. I read A Separate Peace for school (a private Episcopalian institution), but we didn’t discuss the “close friendship” between Gene and Finny beyond the surface. Like the societies that produced them, the books I read around this time kept queer characters on the margins — tolerated perhaps, but not openly acknowledged, let alone celebrated.

One book marked a turning point in my exposure to LGBTQ+ literature. I picked up Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz because it was about gay characters. Full stop. The novel was getting lots of attention, winning the 2013 Printz, Belpré, and Stonewall book awards. Until I saw the Stonewall sticker on the cover, I hadn’t known there was an award that celebrated authentic LGBTQ+ experiences in books (though I did recognize the significance of the name). Even though — being a white cis female from Florida — I did not identify directly with two Mexican American boys from Texas who liked other boys, I cried when I read their kissing scene. One could argue that I was swept up in the universal romance of it all (I admit, I’m an emotional person). But I know part of my reaction came from seeing a same-sex couple written so compassionately and with a happy ending.

Post-undergrad, I came to recognize my own queer identity. This led to an unspoken, even unconscious, need to see myself represented in the books I loved. You can imagine the amount of tears I wept when I reached the climax of Audrey Coulthurst’s Of Fire and Stars. Two girls physicalizing their romantic love in a lush fantasy world (my favorite genre) where attraction beyond the heteronormative is canonically accepted? Be still, my heart! With the added bonus of one of the girls fully embracing her attraction to more than one gender, this was like my personal Holy Grail of YA fantasy literature.

Hinting at queerness using subtext simply isn’t enough. The definitive act of consensual love-making or the inclusion of LGBTQ+ vocabulary — “I identify as ace”; “I was attracted to boys, girls or anything in between”; “she was trans”; “my teammate on the male soccer team is crazy cute”; “I love ___” — are irrefutable and affirming. For me, they have the same effect as a megaphone-enhanced chant or a giant poster in Sharpie that reads “WE ARE HERE.” Yet, they are also like a gentle hand on the shoulder and a whispered voice that says, “I see you; I am the same.” Their power cannot be overstated to readers who feel alone and/or unrecognized.

Over time my search for positive queer representation has expanded to include diverse portrayals of gender expression, such as books with transgender characters or those whose identities are beyond the binary. The 2016 novel If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo is a coming-of-age story that features a young trans woman and was drawn from the author’s own experiences. It was radical to me: a book with a transgender person from the same, often-unforgiving part of the country where I grew up, as the main character of a romance novel? This was huge! It was like a wall was torn down in my brain. My mother’s book club (back in Florida) even consented to read it at her recommendation. She reported that the club members appreciated reading about an experience so different from theirs. It was a great moment signaling the (at least partial) changing of the times.

Recently, I had the pleasure of reviewing Amy Rose Capetta’s The Lost Coast for The Horn Book Magazine. The novel features a group of racially diverse, queer girls called “The Grays” who perform magic in tune with the Earth and are intimate to the point of casual thigh-touching and kisses. A couple of the girls form a more committed romantic pair, and even create effective “sex magic” with all the energy of their attraction. The plot doesn’t necessarily hinge on the girls’ queer identities, but queerness is an integral part of that world, its magic, and every relationship therein. "The Grays" are a fictional embodiment of all Pride has come to mean to me: an open, accepting community of people who love who they love, no apologies.

In studying children’s literature, I have been exposed to many more openly queer characters and writers. I continue to intentionally seek them out, but they’re becoming easier to find all the time. Many of these books are remarkable works that could have changed my impressions of certain identities a lot earlier in life. Perhaps I would have realized my own queer identity sooner. And now they can benefit the current and future generations of young readers.

Jeannie Coutant

Jeannie Coutant is a graduate of Simmons University with a dual master’s in children’s literature and writing for children. She currently reviews for The Horn Book and Kirkus Reviews, and is an intern for The Horn Book, Inc. She identifies as queer generally, and demi-bisexual more specifically.

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