Even as early as elementary school, girls would curiously ask Marcus (all names are pseudonyms) if he were gay, and Marcus would deny it. By middle school, because of his clothing choices and his vocal inflections, he frequently heard random shouted slurs—“faggot,” “fag,” “queer”—during gym or assemblies. In response to this, Marcus would isolate himself in a bathroom stall for up to 40 minutes, just to avoid walking past older students on his way to sit with his own grade level during these assemblies. Marcus’s high school experiences resonated with his previous experiences when he was confronted by a popular student who asked him if he liked a girl; Marcus’s response was to lie, even as the popular boy walked away to his snickering friends.
Marcus had an urgent desire to hide his sexuality from everyone in his life. Even Jon, his good friend from sophomore year, returned for junior year behaving as an enemy. This pivotal incident brought out suicidal tendencies in Marcus, leading him to start cutting himself. He then turned to forging online friendships in order to find support, while hiding his identity from his family and classmates. English class provided a real-life refuge for Marcus as teachers offered him literature selections, such as The Odyssey, Romeo and Juliet, Equus (2005), and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (2002), that told him that the world cannot always shape how we define ourselves. As McLean (1997) points out, “multicultural literature is seen to be both a mirror to validate a group’s experiences and knowledge, and a window through which those experiences and knowledge can be viewed” (p. 178). The literature he encountered helped Marcus to feel more connected to his teachers, and the themes they explored gave him the courage to come out during his junior year. Despite coming to terms with his identity through literature, Marcus still experienced hateful responses during his senior year of high school, as when a male student slammed him into a locker and walked off, leaving the hateful word “queer” lingering in Marcus’s mind longer than the purple and yellow bruise running down his shoulder and arm.
I (Jennifer) met Marcus early in his educational career at Kennesaw State University, a somewhat urban campus about 20 miles north of Atlanta where our English Education program strives to create a safe environment where students can explore many difficult issues and make personal connections without fear of consequences. Over time, Marcus enrolled in four different courses I taught, as did another student, Jordan. We got to know each other well during those classes, and it was in this context that we came to learn about Marcus’s experiences as a gay teenager struggling with sharing his identity. Through his connection with Marcus, Jordan, who intended to become a teacher, began to explore ways he might help students like Marcus feel more safe, welcome, and accepted in his classroom.
Jordan recognizes that his own students will struggle with many aspects of identity, just as Marcus did. He also recognizes that identity extends well beyond safer mainstream topics, such as family and friends, and that topics like sexual orientation and gender identity are often skirted during open discussions. Through his courses in our undergraduate English Education program, Jordan could not get Marcus’s story out of his mind and chose to actively explore young adult literature relating to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) content. Since reading these texts, Jordan has started questioning why teachers don’t (or feel they cannot) incorporate them into the classrooms.
In our program, we specifically address the inclusion of various texts—young adult and canonical—including LGBTQ novels. We talk about why novels with LGBTQ topics may not be represented, including classroom teachers’ possible discomfort with or misconceptions about novels focusing on these issues (Mason, 2008). However, this is a core aspect of the identity of some students who sit in our classrooms. Offering literature with which students like Marcus can identify benefits all students; it can help some to feel more mainstream and others to become more understanding and tolerant of those who identify as LGBTQ (Mason, 2008; McLean, 1997). The inclusion of these novels also helps answer questions about identity that many students have,—“questions that can’t be answered by the pink and blue playbooks we’ve been using to define girls and boys since forever” (Zeisler, 2006, p. 5).
Few will argue that adolescence doesn’t include much personal turmoil and conflict, and for many students, these situations relate to sexual orientation and gender identity. During this time in their development, “teens naturally push away from authority figures in order to discover their identities, or ‘who they are’” (Cole, 2009, p. 32). In Marcus’s accounts, while he was pushing away from day-to-day authority figures, such as his parents and teachers, he was turning to religion, where he hoped to find acceptance. Just as the themes introduced to Marcus through traditional literature in high school helped him to identify his true self through a literary mirror, young adult literature serves as a vehicle to introduce teens to characters who “live in the same time and face the same dilemmas” (Cole, 2009, p. 41) as they do. Because Jordan recognized the role literature played in helping Marcus with his identity struggles, he hopes to introduce his students to texts whose characters mirror their identity struggles and whose characters can offer them some comfort and reassurance.
Young adult literature addresses almost all facets of adolescent—even preadolescent—identity. The reading classroom of today’s youth brings friendships, family, divorce, eating behaviors, and even fantastical possibilities into perspective through texts and discussions. Yet, in Marcus’s high school experience less than five years ago, teachers only offered him canonical literature to read. While those works undoubtedly presented quality literature, they did not necessarily offer a relatable context for Marcus’s primary teenage struggle—being gay. Until his senior year, Marcus found nothing in the literature offered to him that helped him define or accept his identity, encountering instead only American literary canon and social stigma. Later in college, the introduction of young adult literature allowed Marcus to find a connection to the gay teen who once slid quietly along the hallway lockers hoping to go unnoticed. That same literature allowed other students, like Jordan, to forge a connection to students like Marcus, who he will one day teach in an English language arts classroom. Had young adult literature with its variety of topics been introduced into Marcus’s high school classroom, perhaps his own voice of identity could have been heard instead of passively ignored by the implemented curriculum.
Compelling authors such as Julie Ann Peters (Luna, 2004), David Levithan (The Realm of Possibility, 2004; Boy Meets Boy, 2003), and Martin Wilson (What They Always Tell Us, 2008) have genuinely captured LGBTQ perspectives for audiences of all orientations and identities. Marcus’s experiences from elementary through high school led him to college feeling that, for many audiences, homosexuality, or being “gay,” still stands as a negatively stigmatized “lifestyle choice.” By allowing young adult literature dealing with LGBTQ concerns into the classroom before the post-secondary level, silent students, who are afraid of their peers, may finally feel connected and far less isolated in a world full of diversity.
In the introduction to How Beautiful the Ordinary: Twelve Stories of Identity (2009), Cart writes, “There are countless reasons for reading, but when you’re young and uncertain of your identity, of who you may be, one of the most compelling is the quest to discover yourself reflected in the pages of a book” (p. 1). He continues to point out that for too many years, students like Marcus searched their library shelves “in vain for [their] own face” (p. 1)—that “was the plight of gay, lesbian, and transgender young adults” (p. 1). As noted earlier, perhaps this is because teachers “still don’t feel safe or confident talking in their classrooms about LGBT people or texts, fearing backlash from parents and administrators” (Ressler & Chase, 2009, p. 17). Like Jordan, many preservice teachers recognize the need to allow students like Marcus to discover themselves in books and to allow other students to learn about a non-mainstream group of people, yet “time and again, English educators [like Jennifer] hear preservice teachers [like Jordan], especially, voice their fears about the negative consequences they might face for introducing LGBT texts and interpretations” (Ressler & Chase, 2009, p. 17).
For reasons such as these, 63.77% of teachers surveyed about their attitudes toward YA literature with LGBTQ content either did not know much about such literature or did not find importance in “incorporating YAL with LGBT content into [their] curriculum and teaching” (Mason, 2008, p. 56). Regardless of teachers’ understandable fears about incorporating LGBTQ texts and topics into their classrooms, students like Marcus need to have texts available to them that mirror and validate their identities. McLean (1997) reminds us that adolescents like Marcus, who identify as LGBTQ, “need to read about stable, committed, and loving gay and lesbian relationships, and about contented, productive, and quite ‘normal’ lesbian and gay characters” (p. 183).
Because of Jordan’s recognition of the tensions created for students like Marcus and of the potential for literature to address their identity struggles, we examined some young adult novels with LGBTQ content for their feasibility in the classroom setting, either for direct instruction or simple inclusion on the classroom bookshelf. Much of our consideration focused on what we know about schools and teachers in the Bible Belt—the area of the country in which Jordan plans to teach. Like Sieben and Wallowitz (2009), Jordan wants to teach “students to read the word and the world (Freire, 1970/2000) from multiple perspectives and to understand the complexities of gender and sexual orientation” (p. 48), but when he looks at the school experiences he has had as a preservice teacher, he does not feel comfortable in pushing too hard in his position as a new teacher. Sieben and Wallowitz also acknowledge that teachers sometimes “fear repercussions for teaching an LGBT curriculum” because they “assume their students’ parents to be closed-minded” (pp. 7–8). This characterizes Jordan’s fear, so in our conversations, we talked about which LGBTQ texts he felt comfortable including in the curriculum and why.
In considering the most appropriate young adult books dealing with LGBTQ issues for use in the classroom, we identified six criteria, which we used to rank the texts from most appropriate to most debatable use in classroom readings. In creating this ranking system, we took into consideration the concerns teachers have about incorporating these texts into their curriculum. In the study of teachers’ attitudes toward YA literature with LGBTQ content, Mason (2008) speculated, “Perhaps it is teachers’ unfamiliarity with the texts that contributes to their concern and/or negative attitudes” (p. 57). Therefore, our goal in ranking the texts from most appropriate to most debatable use in classroom readings was to consider inservice and preservice teachers’ current knowledge of and comfort with young adult novels presenting LGBTQ content. The criteria are as follows:
Several books for teens, such as Alex Sanchez’s Rainbow Boys (2001) and David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy (2003), address fantastical perspectives of reality and offer unrealistic consequences to life actions. To us, books like these are appropriate for leisure reading, but not necessarily for the classroom bookshelf. Therefore, our first criterion for introducing an LGBTQ young adult text into the middle or high school classroom strives to maintain a fair and realistic perspective on consequences resulting from public behavior by gays or lesbians. According to GLSEN’s 2009 School Climate Survey (Kosciw, Greytak, Diaz, & Bartkiewicz, 2010), “Nearly 90% of students reported being verbally harassed (e.g., called names or threatened) at school because of their sexual orientation” and “4 in 10 students reported being physically harassed (e.g., pushed or shoved) at school because of their sexual orientation” (p. 25). Undoubtedly, Marcus was one of these statistics. Perhaps seeing himself realistically mirrored in young adult literature might have helped him to make decisions about how to present or hide his identity.
Texts such as Garden’s Annie on My Mind (1982) that address realistic consequences to openly identifying as gay are more appropriate than those creating a false, or even absent, attitude about being gay. Garden writes about two lesbian girls experiencing trials of their discovered lesbian identity, along with the joys. However, two lesbian teachers suffer job loss because of society’s reaction to openly gay behavior. Wilson (2008) also depicts a very realistic social tone when one of his gay teen protagonists is harassed by high school peers in What They Always Tell Us.
However, it is even more appropriate to include texts where adolescents experience acceptance by others as a result of openly identifying as gay. Levithan presents such teens and acceptance in The Realm of Possibility (2004). Teens need to see both ends of the spectrum concerning realistic consequences for openly identifying as LGBTQ. Seeing characters who mirror the positive and negative struggles associated with this facet of identity can help teens make informed decisions about presenting their sexual orientation to others while helping other teens develop more empathy for peers struggling with sexual orientation.
Young adult literature might also be considered according to the degree of social views (along a continuum from condemnation to complete acceptance and support) about gay, lesbian, and/or transgender issues. Parents, teachers, and even students vary in degrees of acceptance toward LGBTQ issues. In Mason’s (2008) survey of preservice and inservice teachers’ attitudes, the findings showed that “although nearly a quarter of the participants’ responses indicated a sense of appreciation of YAL with LGBT content, many others’ responses indicated little tolerance for LGBT people and literature” (p. 57). GLSEN notes that high incidences of harassment toward students identifying as LGBTQ in schools “is exacerbated by school staff rarely, if ever, intervening on behalf of LGBT students” (Kosciw et al., 2010, p. xvi).
Consequently, more YA texts dealing with more accepted zones of LGBTQ identities, such as lesbianism in Annie on My Mind (Garden, 1982) and being gay and straight in What They Always Tell Us (Wilson, 2008), can be introduced into the curriculum. In this spectrum on YAL, The Realm of Possibility (Levithan, 2004) offers an even broader range of teenage voices, presenting 20 students who are gay, straight, lesbian, and, above all, intertwined with one another. Simply reading such texts and looking through the window to “glimpse into the lives of the ‘other’” (McLean, 1997, p. 178) can begin to address the stereotypes that parents, teachers, and students may hold about LGBTQ issues. By allowing a diverse range of voice in the young adult books introduced, our students can gradually demolish all socially stigmatized levels of sexual identities that keep some of the richest voices silenced in our literature and our society.
It is crucial that young adult literature in the classroom deal with issues other than those of LGBTQ identity. These texts deal not just with concerns of sexual identity, but also with suicidal tendencies, the struggle with honest decision making, and the pressures at home that most teens face. This criterion informs students about the diverse backgrounds that surround them, and makes the literature more relatable from their point of view. McLean (1997) asserts, “When I look at multicultural education materials, I usually find that one particular ‘segment of all humanity’—the 10% of the population that is homosexual—is conspicuously absent” (p. 179).
More often than not, teachers will shy away from texts that have an array of homosexual or transgender ideas, deeming them taboo or anticipating that parents and administrators will find them so (Mason, 2008). By ignoring texts because of these concerns, students can form slanted perceptions of our world. We also wonder if teachers’ fears about including LGBTQ literature for teens in the classroom leads them to overlook other themes on which they might focus students’ attention when reading these novels. While LGBTQ characters certainly play a role in the novels we considered, each offers other themes and topics worthy of classroom exploration.
As previously noted, LGBTQ voices tend to be silenced in our classroom literature; however, literature offers a window into those voices, confronting and dismantling stereotypes—a vital element in the curriculum (McLean, 1997). In What They Always Tell Us (Wilson, 2008), Alex steps away from the anti-sports homosexual stereotype, embracing his desire to run cross country. Konigsburg’s Out of the Pocket (2008) also attempts to shine light on the arena of straight-dominated high school football, intriguing readers with a closeted star quarterback. Stereotypes exist and are perpetuated out of ignorance and lack of realistic representation in some young adult literature. Including literature that varies the gender identity roles of teens not constrained by stereotypes is a healthy means of mirroring the similarities between adolescent LGBTQ characters and readers.
Accessibility to Students’ Not Identifying as LGBTQ
In order for young adult literature to relate to all of our students’ lives, the texts’ accessibility for students not identifying as LGBTQ must also be weighed. Students carry preconceived notions about sexual identity, as evidenced by the harassment of students like Marcus who identify as LGBTQ. Students’ negative attitudes may make them reluctant to read texts with an LGBTQ lead character who has “come out” or with descriptive romantic encounters between LGBTQ characters. Reluctance to read these texts, for whatever reason, makes them inaccessible to straight students.
Peters’s Luna (2004), Wilson’s What They Always Tell Us (2008), and Kluger’s My Most Excellent Year (2008) offer strong considerations for classroom use because their approach to LGBTQ topics is not centered solely on a gay protagonist. Regan in Luna (Peters, 2004) and James in What They Always Tell Us (Wilson, 2008) are straight siblings dealing with their respective brothers’ struggle to fit into a world that would likely shun them. In My Most Excellent Year, T.C. unquestioningly accepts his friend’s open homosexuality. By diving into the literature through the perceptions of a character not identifying as LGBTQ but who must come to terms with someone he/she cares about who does identify as LGBTQ, students can broaden their level of understanding and empathy. This, then, segues into the sixth and final criterion for selecting LGBTQ literature that incorporates honest teen identities—classroom application.
These novels can offer many levels for textual analysis, allowing for critical evaluation of characters and plot, as well as the sticky grammar usage teachers mostly dread. For example, What They Always Tell Us (Wilson 2008) is written in free verse, encouraging pairings with poetry, perhaps from Whitman or other canonical texts. Herz and Gallo suggest that if teachers and critics compare quality young adult fiction “with the elements of adult fiction, we begin to realize that many YAL authors . . . reflect mastery of the novel form combined with well-crafted writing” (2005, p. 11).
Sieben and Wallowitz (2009) use the literary lens of queer theory to engage students with analyzing texts. (Textual analysis is not limited to queer theory, of course; other lenses for engaging students in textual analysis are offered by Appleman in Critical Encounters in High School English: Teaching Literary Theory to Adolescents ). Even discussion resulting from students’ thoughtful opinions about the texts can engage a range of social and diplomatic skills necessary for creating prosperous citizens and lifelong learners who contemplate the cosmos one voice at a time. What better way to begin than by opening a book, one inclusive of all manner of identities?
The following six texts by no means offer an inclusive list of possibilities for introducing young adult novels with LGBTQ content in the classroom. Rather, they represent the specific texts that Jordan explored and discussed with me through his course work, and they represent texts that he saw as offering a mirror of identity for students like his classmate Marcus. Using the aforementioned criteria, they are presented from most appropriate to most debatable use in classroom readings.1
My Most Excellent Year: A Novel of Love, Mary Poppins, and Fenway Park by Steve Kluger (2008)
This novel presents endearing and dynamic characters who embark on a series of personal journeys during their freshman year of high school. T.C. tries to help a deaf child meet his idol, Mary Poppins; Augie, who loves musical theater, realizes that he is gay; and Alejandra, whose father is a Mexican ambassador, reveals her theatrical talents to her traditional parents. The novel is rich with cultural allusions and facts ranging from the Red Sox to Japanese Internment to Mary Poppins, so it offers something for every reader.
Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden (1982)
This novel was originally published in 1982 but still holds relevant themes for today and remains on banned booklists almost 30 years later. Liza and Annie are two girls from different New York schools who become friends after meeting at the museum one day. As the girls spend more time together, they develop a loving relationship, which they keep a secret despite feeling that it is right. While Liza house sits for two lesbian teachers at her school, which is ruled by an authoritarian principal, she and Annie have a chance to fully explore their feelings for each other. After they are caught having sex, they discover that their actions have consequences that reach beyond them.
What They Always Tell Us by Martin Wilson (2008)
This heart-wrenching and realistic novel illustrates the unique relationship that exists between two brothers. James and Alex are enduring high school intent on simply making it through. After Alex commits social suicide by drinking cleaning solution at a high school party, James must try and finish his senior year with some dignity. However, the distance that has grown between the two brothers is blown apart as Alex finds acceptance with cross country and with Nathan, James’s senior friend. The two brothers deal with sports, homosexuality, tests, friendships, family, and a brotherhood that sees them through it all. These brothers’ struggles can mirror issues many students face and open their minds to perspectives they may have previously ignored.
The Realm of Possibility by David Levithan (2004)
This poetic novel presents a collective teenage voice that deserves noticing, as Levithan sculpts 20 voices from high school students. He tries to recreate the traditional high school clichés without restricting the characters to traditional stereotypes. Characters in the book grapple with issues of homosexuality, love, sex, friendship, fights, school, rejection, and acceptance. Adolescents’ emotions and realities are all told through poetic verse, thereby adding a creative and personal tone to the perspectives reflected. Individuality and the ties that bind are woven into this novel and help students understand the complex emotions of others while also introducing them to poetic free verse.
Out of the Pocket by Bill Koninsberg (2008)
This novel is a refreshing and needed book for young adult readers. Konigsberg creates a world with quarterback Bobby Framingham at the center. Bobby is beloved by his friends, his team, his family, and especially the college scouts. However, what everyone doesn’t know is that Bobby is hiding a secret that could alter his dreams of a professional football career, and his world all together. Bobby is gay. Yet, with the betrayal of a friend, Bobby’s secret is splashed across the national headlines. Bobby must grapple with reality and rejection, but he also experiences acceptance and love. This book has the ability to compel students to reject traditional stereotypes of homosexuality and athletics, as well as to open the minds of readers to a current, important social issue.
Luna by Julie Ann Peters (2004)
Regan, Liam’s sister, tells this story about her brother, a transgender male with the inner female personality of Luna. After reading Luna, a story of struggle and acceptance, students are better able to see this girl, born in the wrong body, and the pain that accompanies her situation. Regan is dealing with her brother, Liam, and the constant struggle of seeing the inner Luna trying to escape social pretexts. Luna creatively and realistically portrays a sister’s struggle to help her brother find him/herself, as well as her struggle to find her own self. This novel has the capacity to broaden mindsets by entrenching readers directly in the middle of an issue that is real, current, and important.
With the recent proliferation of young adult literature dealing with LGBTQ characters, readers are introduced to protagonists whose sexual identity is not “mainstream.” Because these novels are character driven, “readers are challenged to understand [the protagonists] as fuller human beings with thoughts, desires, and interests that may mirror their own and that are not necessarily silenced by the novel’s end” (Banks, 2009, p. 35). Including such novels helps to construct an inclusive curriculum that provides “positive representations of LGBT people, history, and events” called for by GLSEN (Kosciw et al., 2010, p. 20). Seeing themselves mirrored in such an inclusive curriculum can also help improve LGBTQ students’ experience in school (Kosciw et al., 2010). Finally, GLSEN found, “Students in schools with inclusive curriculum were more likely to report that their classmates were somewhat or very accepting of LGBT people than students in schools without (61.2% vs. 37.3%)” (Kosciw et al., 2010, p. 20). These findings show that the curriculum we teach can transform students through the reflections of self they see in the literary mirror and through the views of “other” they see through the literary window.
We are by no means advocating that every classroom teacher rush out and include these or other books like them in their classrooms. We know that is not within the realm of possibility for many teachers, including many with whom we work. Unquestionably, “the role of any good teacher is to instill in students the desire to be lifelong readers” (Cole, 2009, p. 315), which requires that we become familiar with what teens want to read and the texts that will mirror their lives and connect with them, especially as they struggle with that great question, “Who am I?” Herz and Gallo (2005) assert, “Too often reading for pleasure is not a goal, and students’ opinions are irrelevant” (p. 16). They question, “Shouldn’t a major purpose in teaching literature be to help students find pleasure in reading and to become lifetime readers?” (p. 17). And while not all books need to be (or can be) taught to all students, any classroom library should include books that mirror our students, no matter what their struggles or circumstances. If those books are at hand, we need only reach for them when we see a need in a student’s life. Think how different Marcus’s life would have been if his teacher had offered him the right book at the right time. Let us strive to be that teacher.
Jennifer S. Dail, is an assistant professor of English Education at Kennesaw State University. She coedits SIGNAL and strives to instill her passion for young adult literature in her students. She primarily works with undergraduate preservice teachers and is interested in mentoring them into the teaching profession.
Jordan Leonard, is an undergraduate English Education student at Kennesaw State University. He student teaches during Spring 2011. He has developed a love of young adult literature, which he hopes to share with his own students one day soon.
1 During our ongoing discussion, we have begun adding to this list; some of our additions include Parrotfish by Ellen Witlinger (2007), Freak Show by James St. James (2007), Ash by Malinda Lo (2009), and In Mike We Trust by P. E. Ryan (2009)
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Cart, M. (Ed.) (2009). How beautiful the ordinary: Twelve stories of identity. New York: Harper Teen.
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