Outside Looking In: Representations of Gay and Lesbian Experiences in the Young Adult Novel
I teach a course entitled "Women's Literature/Women's Lives" at a small, mid western Methodist-affiliated college located in the middle of Iowa. Because the course fulfills one of the students' requirements for a minority-perspective credit, I work to make sure that the literature and lives my students are exposed to are not just white and heterosexual. We regularly spend the last third of the semester reading lesbian literature, beginning with Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, continuing with Adrienne Rich's "Compulsory Heterosexuality" and ending with Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle.
In spite of the fact that we cover these works towards the end of the semester when attention generally begins to flag, students usually cite this unit as their favorite in their end-of-the-semester evaluations. I expect there are many reasons for this, but two stand out in my mind. For the straight students, the course offers the opportunity to study a culture they are curious about, but which the homophobia, so prevalent in student life, prevents them from freely exploring. My course, then, becomes a mandate to explore that which is taboo for many of them. For lesbian students the unit offers both a validation of their experience and an arena where their voices can be heard.
A reappearing motif in the reading journals of the lesbian students began this project for me. Over and over I would hear both gratitude and appreciation that we were reading texts that spoke to their experience. But along with gratitude, there was sadness that they hadn't encountered such texts earlier in their lives. Comments like these appeared frequently:
I wish I had known about these books when I was younger, maybe junior or senior high would have been easier.
When I was a kid, maybe thirteen or fourteen, I spent a lot of time in the library looking, but not sure of what I was looking for. It wasn't like I was a great reader. I read Nancy Drew, but I think I must have wanted Rubyfruit Jungle.
My students are predominantly white, from rural backgrounds. Often they are the first generation in their family to attend college and they have chosen Simpson, in part, because it is small, located in the country, and so is "safe" in their minds. But sheltered as they might have been, was it possible that my students had encountered no texts as young adult readers that dealt with homosexuality? This possibility seemed unlikely considering the plethora of available realistic young adult fiction dealing with all other aspects of contemporary life.
A series of questions began to emerge for me. First, just how much realistic young adult fiction was "out there" that examined homosexuality? In answering this question, I wanted to focus on mainstream presses, books likely to be found in school or public libraries and the bookstores most likely to be frequented by adolescents. Second, in the fiction that was available, how was homosexuality represented? My questions led me first to Allan A. Cuseo's text Homosexual Characters in Young Adult Novels: A Literary Analysis 1969-82 (Scarecrow Press, 1992). Written as a doctoral dissertation, Cuseo's book is essentially a survey of how homosexuality appears in a variety of young adult novels. Though the study is long on summary and short on analysis, two important points emerge. One is that in the mid-1960s realistic problem novels for adolescent readers start appearing in great numbers. Cuseo connects this development to a change in language arts courses in high schools. He writes:
With the increased emphasis on elective language arts courses and alternative time schedules, schools in their eagerness for relevance, began to experiment with mini-courses and innovative curricula. In that environment young adult fiction became an accepted element. (p. 2)
But what I find most significant about Cuseo's study is this: though great numbers of realistic young adult novels appeared in the 1960s dealing with subjects such as sex, unplanned pregnancies, abortion, divorce, chemical abuse, and racism, far fewer appeared that explored adolescent homosexuality. Once I knew that adolescents struggling with issues of sexual identity had limited fictional resources to turn to for information, then the representation of gay and lesbian experience in these novels became increasingly important. During the last three years, I've read approximately fifty young adult novels that contain homosexual themes and characters. What I found in these books is that the representation of homosexual experience falls into one of three broad categories.
In the first category are books that depict homosexuality as a "tragic flaw" (Jenkins, p. 89) and that promote a variety of negative stereotypes. Homosexuals are predatory, for example, in Janice Kesselman's Flick, immoral in Judith St. George's Call Me Margo, doomed to lives of isolation in Isabelle Holland's The Man Without a Face, and prone to violence in Larry Hulce's Just the Right Amount of Wrong. Adolescent characters who do engage in homosexual behavior in these books are often assured that their behavior is not an orientation, but simply "youthful experimentation" (Jenkins, p. 86) caused by their membership in dysfunctional families, as in Jonathan Donovan's I'll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip.
Madeleine L'Engle's The Small Rain illustrates the tendency of books in this category both to negatively stereotype homosexual characters and to depict homosexuality as a pathological state. Though The Small Rain was originally published in 1945, it is worth discussing for a number of reasons. The most significant of these is that I have found very few deviations from L'Engle's depiction of homosexuals in other novels published between 1945 and 1982. Second, L'Engle, as winner of the Newbery Award, is a major name in young adult fiction. Her work is emulated by less well-known authors and frequently cited in scholarship. Third, The Small Rain was reissued in 1984 and is still in many school and public libraries. Consequently, the attitudes it embodies continue to be disseminated and absorbed by teenagers who read fiction for information.
Madeleine L'Engle is probably most famous for her Newbery Award-winning A Wrinkle in Time. She has written over forty books for children and adolescents. In a field too often dominated by series books (i.e. Nancy Drew, The Babysitters Club, The Sweet Valley Teens), all characterized by a blandness of style and flatness of character, L'Engle's novels stand out, in part, because they are populated by quirky characters, outsiders marginalized by their giftedness and willingness to be critical of the conventional. The most famous of these characters, perhaps, is Meg Murry, the heroine of A Wrinkle in Time.
L'Engle wrote The Small Rain when she was in her twenties, while working as an actress in New York. In the preface to the 1984 edition, L'Engle describes the book as "very much a first novel" (p. vii), but nowhere in this preface does she exhibit any discomfort with the homophobia in the book. The Small Rain covers the life of a talented pianist, Katherine Forrester, from the age of ten to eighteen. It is set "in those years of precarious peace between the First and Second World War..." (p. ix). Katherine is by no means an ordinary child. Like many of the children who populate L'Engle's novels, her extraordinariness is a function of the external circumstances of her life and her talents as a musician. Katherine is the daughter of Julie Forrester, a concert pianist whose career is cut short by a car accident, and Tom Forrester, an internationally renowned composer. After Julie's accident, Katherine is reared by her mother's best friend Manya, herself an internationally acclaimed stage actress. Absorbed by his music, Katherine's father is only able to manage dinner with his daughter once a week. The rest of his free time is spent with Manya, whom he ultimately marries.
In the eight years of her life covered by the novel, Katherine experiences a lot: the death of her mother; the marriage of her father and Manya; travels to and from Europe; becoming a student at a Swiss boarding school; the loss of her virginity; worries about an unwanted pregnancy; becoming engaged, then jilted; and, from the age of fourteen on, the regular drinking of Scotch and the smoking of cigarettes with her parents. (All of this before the age of nineteen and while practicing the piano five hours a day.) What is significant, though, is that nothing Katherine experiences is seen as out-of-the-ordinary for a teenager. On the contrary, her experiences are depicted as very much in keeping with the expected lifestyle of a child of two world-famous artists, artists who not only view themselves as unconventional, but who seem to celebrate that unconventionality.
Because Katherine's upbringing is so unconventional and her attitudes so sophisticated, the reader is not prepared for her reaction to homosexuality when she is taken to a lesbian bar late in the novel:
At the bar sat what Katherine thought at first was a man. After a while Sarah nudged her and said, "That's Sighing Susan. She comes here almost every night."
Startled Katherine stared at the creature again and realized that it was indeed a woman, or perhaps once had been a woman. Now it wore a man's suit, shirt,and tie; its hair was cut short; out of a dead-white face glared a pair of despairing eyes. Feeling Katherine's gaze the creature turned and looked at her, and that look was branded into Katherine's body; it was as though it left a physical mark.... There was a jukebox opposite their table. A fat woman in a silk dress with badly dyed hair put a nickel in it, and as the music came blaring forth, she began to dance with a young blonde girl in slacks. As she danced by their table she smiled suggestively at Katherine. Katherine looked wildly about but saw nothing of comfort.... Pete looked at Katherine and saw her white face, her dark eyes huge and afraid, so he began to very quickly, very gaily, to take her hand and hold it in his.... But Katherine could not laugh with the others. She stood up. "I'm awfully sorry, but I have a headache and I don't feel very well. I think I'd better go home. The air in Washington Square was so fresh and clear that it seemed as though she had forgotten what cold clear air could smell like.... "Let's sit down for a minute," she begged.
"You won't catch cold?"
"No. I -- I want to get myself cleared out of that air. Then I want to go home and take a bath." (pp. 311-313)
The above passage is significant for a number of reasons. First, Katherine's horror, her aversion to what she sees, undercuts the realism that L'Engle seems to be striving for in much of the novel. Are we actually expected to believe that Katherine, who has spent much of her childhood in concert halls and backstage at theaters, has never encountered lesbians before? And if we accept that Katherine's response is unrealistic, how do we account for L'Engle's breakdown in characterization?
The answer to this question is evident once we contextualize The Small Rain. L'Engle depicts lesbianism as pathological because it confuses Katherine's notions of gender. Note, for example, that in the above passage "Sighing Susan" is three times referred to as "it" and twice as "that creature." Susan's identity rests solely on her identification as a lesbian and as such she is viewed as both less than human and as someone who brings pain not only to herself but to others as well. Susan has "despairing eyes" and Katherine, who feels physically marked by Susan's gaze, feels compelled to retreat to the "clean air."
Limited and facile as L'Engle's depiction might be, it needs to be viewed as part of a literary tradition -- one that can be traced back to Radclyffe Hall and which was alive and well, not only in mainstream literature but in lesbian as well as, for example, in Ann Bannon's novels from the 1950s. We should not be surprised then that L'Engle, who in general seems drawn to young female characters who suffer from their status as outsiders, drew in her first novel upon literary stereotypes. But in 1984 L'Engle published another novel, A House Like a Lotus, which also contains lesbian characters. Though not as blatantly homophobic as The Small Rain, this later novel still treats homosexuality as a tragic state. The lesbian characters, Max and Ursula, a couple of long standing, are sympathetic, but their lives are depicted in such a way that the prevailing message is that homosexuality is a tragic state for those who are, and a threatening one for those who are exposed to it. This message is repeated in novels like Janice Futcher's Crush, Ann Synder's and Louis Pelletier's The Truth About Alex, and Ann Rinaldi's The Good Side of My Heart.
L'Engle is only one author among many who are reluctant to use their fiction as a tool to explore adolescent homosexuality in a non-judgmental way. Cuseo believes this reluctance stems from an author's awareness that the desires of adolescent readers, publishers, and educators are often in conflict with one another. He writes:
Homosexuality, a disconcerting subject for many adults in society, presented a sensitive area for the authors of the adolescent title. The author had to write for the teenager, but the adult controlled what was published and, equally as important, what was reviewed and selected for library and school purchase. This concern is not to be taken lightly as many adolescents although interested in an examination of homosexuality, have been reluctant to purchase these titles or borrow them from libraries. As the adolescent years have traditionally been particularly homophobic, this reluctance is not surprising. Adults have been eager to have the genre moralize, to perform a social service, while the adolescent has been eager for an understanding of society and his/her emerging, if continuing sexuality. (p. 3)
Publishers often seem motivated by the desire to maximize their profits, and librarians are often restricted by limited acquisitions budgets. Neither of these factors work to support, much less create, an environment in which much literature will be produced that explores homosexuality for adolescents in any meaningful way. Still, the decade beginning with the mid-1970s and running to the mid-1980s saw the publication of a second category of novels, ones in which the representation of adolescent homosexuality became increasingly complex and decreasingly moralistic. In 1976, Rosa Guy published Ruby, a significant work for a number of reasons. First, it focuses on the lesbian relationship of two young women of color, one of very few novels to do so. Second, though the relationship between the two girls ultimately ends unhappily, the sexual aspect of their relationship is neither hidden nor accompanied by guilt. And though the relationship does end, it leaves the main character, Ruby, with a renewed sense of self-worth. Sexual identity as something to be explored and come to grips with is a prominent theme in novels in this second category. Novels like David Rees' In the Tent, Deborah Hautzig's Hey Dollface, Emily Hanlan's The Wing and the Flame, and Scott Bunn's Just Hold OnRees' novel, for example, the protagonist, Tim, not only comes to accept himself as a gay male but also to accept the fact that his friend, Aaron, will be his friend, though not his lover. Within this second category, Nancy Garden's two novels, Annie on My Mind and Lark in the Morning, are milestones for several reasons.
First, both were published initially in hardback and by a major press -- ironically by the same press responsible for reissuing The Small Rain. Second, the novels are very clearly lesbian novels. The definition of lesbian novel I'm using is that coined by Bonnie Zimmerman in The Safe Sea of Women: Lesbian Fiction, 1969-89:
A lesbian novel has a central, not marginal lesbian character, one who understands herself to be lesbian. In fact it has many or mostly lesbian characters, it revolves around lesbian history. A lesbian novel also places love between women, including sexual passion, at the center of the story.... Unlike heterosexual feminist literature, which also may be very woman-centered, a lesbian text places men firmly at the margins of the story. (p. 15)
Garden's Annie on My Mind very clearly meets Zimmerman's criteria and just as clearly is written for an adolescent audience. The novel opens with its narrator, Liza Winthrop, a freshman at MIT, in a state of emotional paralysis, haunted by her past and undecided about her future. Her confusion stems from the events of her senior year in high school, the year she met the Annie of the title. The first chapter makes clear that Liza must come to some understanding of the past if she is to have any kind of future. Her inability (or unwillingness) to understand what she has experienced with Annie, and to draw conclusions from it, has left her incapable of doing the academic work she professes to love, i.e., studying to be an architect. Liza's dilemma is clear: in order to develop one component of her identity, she needs to resolve her conflicts about another. Her struggles to understand and accept herself as a lesbian are embodied in her attempts to write a letter to her friend and lover, Annie Kenyon. As she struggles to write a letter and to understand why the writing is so difficult, Liza reviews the events of the past year, including her meeting, falling in love with, and finally being separated from Annie.
Annie on My Mind is a classic coming-out novel and as such is thematically concerned with issues of identity and role. Settings are of great importance in this novel of discovery because they are so thematically aligned with different facets of the girls' relationship. Liza and Annie's first two meetings take place in settings that contain both the past and present and the possibility of easy shifts from fantasy to reality. Liza meets Annie at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and initially mistakes her for an early American colonial girl. Their early exchanges are characterized by lapses into worlds of fantasy and pretense. During their first meeting they engage in mock joustings in the Medieval Hall at the Met. Their second meeting, at the Cloisters, begins with their playing at Knight and Lady. Liza is initially embarrassed by Annie's predilection for play-acting but learns to enjoy it, because it offers her an opportunity to try on other identities and escape from her everyday world, one she describes as "...a bit dull in that nearly everyone is white and most parents have jobs as doctors, lawyers, professors or VIPs in brokerage firms" (p. 16).
Annie and Liza's play-acting has thematic repercussions. It allows the girls space in which to explore their attraction for one another while introducing one of the main challenges they will face as lovers: how to create a space for themselves in a world hostile to their relationship. Though their play-acting creates a space for them, a sanctuary as it were, both girls come to recognize that it can function only as a temporary retreat. Liza realizes that an important shift has occurred in their relationship when she and Annie talk "no pretending this time, no medieval improvisations, just us" (p. 62). Soon after Liza comes to this realization, Annie, too, recognizes that the pleasures of the fantasy world she so ably creates are only temporary. Riding the ferry to Staten Island, she begins an improvisation only to draw back:
We're in Richmond," Annie said suddenly, starling me. "We're early settlers and...." Then she stopped and I could feel, rather than see, that she was shaking her head. "No," she said softly. "No, I don't want to do that with you so much any more."
"You know. Unicorns. Maidens and knights. Staring at noses, even. I don't want to pretend anymore. You make me want to be real." (p. 76)
To be real. The rest of Annie on My Mind examines what reality is for two young women coming to grips with their sexuality and trying to find models around which to structure their lives.
Allan Cuseo's study ends with 1982 and Nancy Garden's novel was published in 1982 -- a year which is considered by some to have been the peak year for publishing of young adult novels dealing with homosexuality. When I finished reading both works, I reasoned that in the wake of multiculturalism, with its emphasis on diversity in the curriculum, both the treatment of and market for young adult fiction dealing with homosexual themes, issues, and characters might have opened up.
A few years ago I attended the National Council of Teachers of English conference in Seattle. My self-imposed task while there was to find out from publisher's representatives what, if any, titles they had forthcoming dealing with adolescent homosexuality. By the end of two days I had acquired only six titles but did have the dubious pleasure of having embarrassed a variety of publisher's representatives simply by asking my questions. More often than not my queries were met with averted eyes and lowered voices. One representative assured me that her company was seriously interested in AIDS education, but, no, they had no titles available at this time and none planned for the near future. Another representative told me that this was an area that needed to be explored, but again his company had no titles to offer. Only once was my question met with any enthusiasm and that was when I asked it of an author of just such a novel who was delighted to sell it to me for a mere $14.95, signed at no extra charge. I snapped it up, grateful as much for a title (albeit a 1988 one) as to have someone look me directly in the eyes.
Unfortunately, of the titles I found, only The Arizona Kid by Ron Kortege contains a major character who is gay, and this character is the main character's uncle. The other novels fit into what I consider a third category, one which, I think, today dominates the market. In this category, gay characters and gay issues are often depicted sympathetically. In Marilyn Levy's Rumors and Whispers, for example, the protagonist, Sarah Alexander, has to work through a series of conflicts, ranging from being the new girl in her school to having a teacher with AIDS to having a brother who disrupts her family's fragile peace with the announcement that he is gay. This brother, beset with his own difficulties, still helps Sarah work through her various problems. In Jesse Maguire's Getting It Right, the reader encounters a group of teenagers trying to accept the homosexuality of one of their peers. And in Jacqueline Woodson's The Dear One, the protagonist, an upper-middle-class young African-American girl, is nurtured by two friends of her mother, a lesbian couple of long standing. Though the positive presentation of homosexual characters and themes in novels for young adults might be viewed as a progress of sorts, it is important to note that in all the above novels the homosexual characters are very much off center stage. As a consequence, the presence of homosexual characters and the issues associated with their lives are of secondary concern in these novels. The implications of this positioning for young gay readers are twofold. First, they learn from reading these books that their issues and concerns are only of secondary importance. And second, they learn what it means to the teenager who is struggling with that identity primarily from the perspective of a heterosexual.
Lest I end this paper on too gloomy a note, I should tell you that at this same NCTE Convention several years ago, I occasionally left the exhibition hall to prowl through bookstores. At these I would again ask for young adult fiction dealing with homosexuality. At one store a woman, who looked amazingly like my mother (that is to say, disapproving) thrust a newly published hardback into my hands. It was Lark in the Morning (1991), a new Nancy Garden novel. Supporting Bonnie Zimmerman's contention that lesbian fiction has "gone beyond the coming out novel" (p. 210), Garden's new work combines detective work, adventure, and romance, all of which are engaged in by seventeen-year-old Gillian and her lover, Suzanne. Delighted to have found this book, I said, too loudly apparently, "Great -- do you have any more like these?" The clerk, pursed her lips, glared, and hissed, "No -- isn't that enough?" The answer to her question, of course is, no.
In our culture, one out of ten adolescents struggles with what it means to be homosexual. If we as teachers truly believe that literature helps students understand themselves and the issues they face, then we have an obligation to provide our gay students with the same resources as we do other minority students. Nancy Garden's novels, and Marion Dane Bauer's anthology of short stories, Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence (Harper Collins), are acknowledgements of this need and responsibility, and are hopeful signs, but they only begin to address a major need.
First presented at the 1994 ALAN Workshop, Nancy St. Clair's article is a part of a larger project that she is carrying out at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa.