Homosexuality in Young Adult Fiction and Nonfiction:
An Annotated Bibliography
Dave Webunder and Sarah Woodard
Today, young people select their role models based on their individual interests. For example, professional athletes, musicians, artists, or actors may influence today's youth. In young adult literature, heterosexual teens have a multitude of examples of how to live life successfully. Homosexual teens do not. The YA literature available dealing with homosexuality is predominantly permeated with negativity and often ends with the demise of the homosexual protagonist, reflecting our society's homophobic mentality. Young adult literature is one of the resources available to young people searching for positive role models concerning homosexuality. As educators, we need to provide, through literature, viable resources for both gay and straight teens. This bibliography reviews research articles and young adult titles that are beneficial for gay, straight, and not-so-sure adolescents who may be struggling with their sexuality.
Alvine, Lynne. "Understanding Adolescent Homophobia An Interview with Bette Greene." The ALAN Review 21.2 (1994) 5-9.
This interesting interview by Alvine with Bette Greene, the author of The Drowning of Stephan Jones, provides some insight into how Greene constructed her story of homophobic hate and what drove her to write it. While creating the characters in The Drowning of Stephan Jones, Greene interviewed 485 people associated with victimizers of homosexuals in eight states. With this data, she then created the figures of embodied hate in her novel. When asked about the homophobic climate of the country, Greene answered, "Homophobia is endemic in America. The air we breathe is filled with homophobia. A great amount of it is coming from fundamental Christianity" (p. 7). It would appear that this fundamental form of brain-washing is promoting violence towards homosexuals. It is also Greene's view that those who are victimizing gays are in fact questioning their own sexuality. It is as if the victimizers have something to prove to show that they are manly: "In this society, violence is too often the short-cut to masculinity" (p. 9). Alvine concludes that Greene wrote the novel to expose the heinousness of violence, in this case against gays. She declares that the importance of the work is to help make humankind aware of, and realize the seriousness of, homophobia. Also, this article can be used as a valuable resource for teachers presenting the issues of homophobia to their classes. In addition, the teacher can use Greene's research-and-development techniques as an example of the necessary steps in writing a novel of this calibre. Not only is this an anti-homophobic novel, but also a novel for humanity.
Bargar, Gary. What Happened to Mr. Forster? Clarion Books, Ticknor & Fields A Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981.
In this young adult novel, Louis Lamb is faced with the reality of homosexuality and homophobia. The year is 1958, Louis is in the sixth grade when he no longer wants to be called Billie Lou or to be known as the class crybaby. Mr. Forster is the new sixth-grade teacher who is a positive influence and role model for Louis. Halfway through the school year, many of the sixth-grade mothers suspect that Mr. Forster is not "normal." They fail to realize that he is an excellent teacher despite the fact that he lives with another man. Mr. Forster is eventually fired for the way he is -- homosexual. At first, Louis does not understand, nor does he feel it fair that Mr. Forster, who is such a good teacher and brings out the best in Louis, is fired. Mr. Forster explains to him that life isn't always fair and that sometimes people just don't understand how other people love each other.
We recommend the novel be taught at the middle-school level. It is appropriate for a young audience as it pertains to a sixth-grade class and deals with issues that students this age are beginning to discover and rationalize. Bargar shows how homosexuality is perceived as immoral and the ultimate sin by a predominately conservative Christian community. At the same time, he emphasizes the fact that homosexuals are people who have feelings, emotions, and feel love just as anyone else.
Bloom, Carol. "Getting Books on Gay Themes into the Library An Action Plan." Interracial Books for Children Bulletin 14.3 & 4 (1983) 33-38.
This article is written from the perspective of a New York City high school teacher who is homosexual. Bloom discusses the difficulties she had to surpass in order to have more young adult books with homosexual content available to students in the school library. Upon her first exploration of the library's information on homosexuality, she found only three titles concerning the topic, one being "Overcoming Homosexuality." This is not the most conducive title for a student seeking positive and supportive information that possibly pertains to his or her life. Bloom then makes numerous attempts to persuade the librarian to include books in the library that deal with homosexuality. After much frustration and struggle, Bloom succeeds in getting books that pertain to homosexuality placed into the library. The students embrace the books even though the librarian places them on the back shelves, alongside the books on abortion and VD.
Bloom gives us another example of the need to have this literature available to students and shows that, through determination, small battles can be won. Not only is this a cold look at the reality of homophobia, but it also shows that with persistence it can be broken down. Homophobia can appear anywhere, and in this case it was found in the influential figure of a librarian.
Fricke, Aaron. Reflections of a Rock Lobster. Alyson Publications Inc., 1981.
This autobiography relates the challenge of growing up gay in a small Rhode Island town. Fricke knows he is different early on in his life and begins having homosexual relations at the age of six. As he matures, he is the object of unrelenting prejudice. He has trouble making and keeping friends and feels rejected by society because of what he is. Eventually, he meets other young homosexuals as well as straight friends who help him gain self-confidence and feel acceptance. When he is a senior in high school, he stands up for himself, as well as for human and gay rights, when he invites another gay male to the prom as his date. Initially, Fricke was not granted permission from his principal, so he took his case to court in order to receive consent. Through this very public experience, Fricke learned that people do respect and support him, but there will always be those that will never accept homosexuality.
Reflections of a Rock Lobster is appropriate for secondary classroom use because it gives readers an example of life as a young homosexual. The author draws the reader into his very personal feelings and emotions and provides a perspective of prejudice and degrading treatment that many people would not otherwise have. Aaron Fricke rises above the prejudice and proves to be a proud and happy homosexual, an example many young homosexuals can follow.
Gardner, Nancy. Annie On My Mind. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982.
Annie On My Mind is the story of Annie and Liza, high school seniors who come to terms with their homosexuality as their relationship develops and they fall in love. Annie and Liza struggle with their strong feelings of love for each other and slowly recognize that their love is real and cannot be denied. As their relationship deepens, they are faced with the physical aspects of homosexuality. At first it is uncomfortable and awkward for them, but they talk with each other, share their feelings, and decide to let things happen naturally.
An unfortunate, yet maturing, incident forces Liza's sexuality "out of the closet" to both her family and peers. This incident results in the firing of a lesbian couple who are both teachers at Liza's private school. Gardner effectively incorporates into her story how authority and society generally feel and act toward homosexuality.
Gardner presents young adults with a realistic view of what young people go through in accepting and acting on their homosexuality. The story is written from the perspective of Liza six months after the incident. The fact that Liza remembers the development of her and Annie's relationship is important because many times young adults will repress what they do not want to face or admit.
Gardner provides young readers with a captivating novel in discovering the beauty of homosexual love, but at the same time does not avoid the reality of a homophobic society. In these ways, the novel can be a beneficial resource for both the teachers and the students of the secondary classroom.
Goodman, Jan. "Out of the Closet, But Paying the Price Lesbian and Gay Characters in Children's Literature." Interracial Books for Children Bulletin 14.3 & 4 (1983) 13-15.
Goodman's article is focused primarily on the increased visibility of gay characters in children's literature. She agrees that this development is very promising; however, even though there is an increase in visibility, homophobic views still pervade the works. She supports her thesis with a list of ten homophobic stereotypes that are most common in YA literature as well as in society. This list states the stereotypes and gives specific examples of each in current YA literature. Goodman discusses and reveals these limitations in an objective way. She doesn't side with the straight or gay viewpoints but rather is on the side of humanity. She finds hope in the future of the literature and its readers. For example, she finds Annie On My Mind to be particularly positive and helpful for the gay adolescent as well as for the straight child. Goodman foresees that the future of gay literature, and its inclusion in YA literature, is not as bleak as it might seem.
Greene, Bette. The Drowning of Stephan Jones. Bantam Books, 1991.
The Drowning of Stephan Jones portrays how homosexuality is viewed and treated in a small town in the "Bible Belt" of Arkansas. In Ratchetville, the majority of the community is conservative as a result of their fundamental and literal interpretations of Christianity. The story centers around Carla, a high school junior, who is torn between her beautiful Baptist boyfriend, Andrew Harris, and her strong beliefs of equality and human rights. A homosexual couple is the target of Andrew's hatred and prejudice. On prom night, Andrew and his gang torment, harass, and humiliate Stephan Jones, one of the gay men, resulting in his drowning that same evening. Carla stands up for herself and her beliefs as she runs from the scene to notify the police. The homophobic community bans together to support Andrew and his peers who drowned a man simply because he was homosexual.
Greene shows what can happen when people take their beliefs and values to the extreme. This is an excellent novel for bringing home the fact that homosexuals have feelings like anyone else and should be treated with respect. The novel realistically relates the damage that homophobia can cause to people and the fact that the bad guys do not always receive the punishment they deserve.
Guy, Rosa. Ruby. Dell Publishing, 1976.
Ruby and Daphne, both seniors in high school, deal with the uncertainty, confusion, and identity concerning themselves and their sexuality in this YA novel. The shy, sensitive Ruby is awe-struck by Daphne, a dominating, intelligent, and beautiful young woman. Ruby is immediately fascinated by Daphne's very presence and feels she must pursue her. At first, Daphne is rather cold, but they begin spending more and more time with each other and eventually develop a strong relationship. The young women are good for each other. Daphne helps Ruby gain knowledge and self-confidence, while Ruby shows Daphne how to be sensitive to others. At the end, Daphne decides to go straight, and the reader is left with the impression that Ruby still isn't quite sure of her sexual orientation.
Because Guy focuses her novel on the development of identity, which includes sexual orientation, it is an effective teaching and/or counseling tool. The book powerfully relates the situations, thoughts, feelings, and questions that young adults are faced with. Although one might think that it portrays young homosexuality negatively because Daphne decides to go straight, it addresses the fact that she had strong homosexual feelings at one point in her life and accepted those feelings.
Hanckel, Frances, and John Cunningham. "Can Young Gays Find Happiness in YA Books?" Wilson Library Bulletin 50.7 (1976) 528-534.
Although this is an older article relating to the subject of homosexual themes in YA literature, it still provides insight into the urgent need for this form of literature. Hanckel and Cunningham provide the reader with a short summary of four books: I'll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip; The Man Without a Face; Sticks and Stones; and Trying Hard to Hear You. Unfortunately, all of these books end with punishments for the protagonists. For example, the implied punishments in these four selections include "three natural deaths and one by violence -- plus four car crashes resulting in one mutilation, one head injury, and five fatalities!" (p. 534). Even though YA literature is melodramatic by nature, this degree of violence does seem a bit lop-sided in view. Fortunately, Hanckel and Cunningham bring to light these deficiencies and provide some stimulating proposals for the librarian. It is important, they say, that the librarian realize that there are three types of sexual orientation among young adults: the straight, the gay, and then those "in-between." With this in mind, the librarian then needs to evaluate how an individual work with a gay theme may affect each of these groups. Does it represent gays in an accurate and sympathetic way in order to eradicate homophobia in straights? Does the book give young gays a clear view of decisions ahead of them and how they might meet them? Or does the work give those "on the fence" an up-front picture of gay life that they deserve to see in this heterosexually reinforced society? All of these questions must be evaluated before any work can be rejected from, or accepted into, a library. If the deficiencies and qualities are revealed to the reader, the novels can accomplish what they are meant to do.
Heron, Ann, ed. One Teenager in Ten. Alyson Publications, Inc., 1983.
One Teenager in Ten is a compilation of autobiographical writings by homosexual youth. The submissions were voluntarily written for the purpose of this book and tell how these young people discover and accept their sexual orientation. The writers share significant experiences and stories and provide support and advice for their readers. They also share whether or not they tell their friends and family of their homosexuality and the various reactions they receive. Each story is different, just like every individual. This is a wonderful book for all young people to read, but especially for young people who are, or think they might be, gay. Approximately one of every ten people is homosexual. This collection of true stories will let young adults know that they are not alone and will surely provide them with experiences they can relate to.
Phifer, Nan. "Homophobia The Theme of the Novel, Jack." The ALAN Review 21.2 (1994) 10-11.
Nan Phifer takes her turn in yet another battle against homophobia in this review of A. M. Homes' novel, Jack. In her high school class, Phifer effectively compared the actions of a gay father to that of a heterosexual father and found that the students in her class were more favorable toward the former. The compassion and quality time given to Jack by his newly realized gay father is unparalleled by his friend Max's father. This fact was a wonderful surprise for Phifer. Not only was the class more favorable toward this man's actions, but reading the book also shattered some of their stereotypes of gays in the process. Jack forces students to face their own assumptions and attitudes. In doing so, they can address their own faults and strengths and grow from there.
A strength in the article is that Phifer gives examples of how she used the story in her lesson plan and gives advice on how it could be added to any other plans or curriculum. She also gives ideas for comparing this story with such YA staples as The Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird. With its use of slang and vernacular, it is much like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, creating a stark reality any reader can grab ahold of. Phifer emphasizes that literature is one weapon teachers can use to combat the ignorance and hate of homophobia.
Wieler, Diana. Bad Boy. Delacorte, 1989.
Bad Boy is a young adult novel about A. J. and Tulsa, two high-school-senior boys who are best friends. The boys spend all of their time together and are dedicated hockey players. One day A. J. unexpectedly discovers that Tulsa is gay. A. J. simply cannot handle this reality. He does not want to be associated with homosexuality and feels his only option is to cut off the friendship. In addition to breaking ties with Tulsa, A. J. takes his anger and aggression out on the hockey rink by fighting and hurting players on the opposing teams. Slowly, A. J. comes to terms with his best friend's homosexuality, realizing that it does not change who Tulsa is.
Young adults, especially young athletic males, can relate to this novel. It realistically addresses how the macho stereotype influences people and also points out that homosexuals can be anyone and possess a variety of interests. Wieler successfully relates the effects that homosexuality has on friendships and how it is dealt with by both parties involved.
Williams, Robert F. "Gay and Lesbian Teenagers A Reading Ladder For Students." The ALAN Review 20.3 (1993) 12-17.
This article provides a valuable resource guide for finding interesting and helpful material and literature pertaining to homosexuality in young adult literature. Williams brings to light some powerful statistics. For one, the Kinsey Institute supplied information stating that "ten percent of the population is homosexual" (p. 13). This alone is not a staggering percentage until one realizes that a high school with 1,500 students may have up to 150 gay or lesbian students -- one to three in every classroom (p. 13). This information supports the movement for homosexually oriented young adult literature to be included in the libraries and required reading lists nation and schoolwide. To support this movement, Williams provides a thorough and extensive list of resources and YA novels that pertain to this subject. Also given are the names of organizations devoted to this same cause. The list of works contains an extensive annotated bibliography that gives brief summaries of the included material. The bibliography is separated into categories that include: "Homosexuality," "Telling Your Parent's You're Gay," and "Growing Up Gay (Autobiographies)" among others. Also included is reading for straight youths who may have gay friends and/or relations. These are offered to help combat the stereotypes involved in homophobia. Some categories are: "Straight Teens With Gay Family Members," "Straight Teens With Gay Friends," and "Straight Teens With Gay Experiences." There are also suggested readings on gay history and famous gay historical figures. These are included not only to shed light on the ignorance of homophobia, but also to supply gay teens with the positive role models they need, ones so frequently absent in most YA literature. Williams provides a thorough presentation of works that are available to benefit both the gay and straight adolescent reader as well as teachers and parents.
Wilson, David E. "The Open Library YA Books for Gay Teens." English Journal 73.7 (1983) 80-83.
The importance and influence of literature in the lives of adolescents is great. Adolescents look to literature to help them with questions they have that "are not to be asked" or that students are afraid to ask. Doing so affects the gay teenager, as well as the straight, but most importantly those caught in-between. Wilson notes that the problem arises when students are in need of this help but cannot find it in the libraries. Where are they to turn to but outside the school environment? Out there, the sources are not picked for their advantages, their helping voice, but for availability. These sources often cause more harm than good to the knowledge-hungry teen because of biased, stereotyped views on homosexuality. This potential damage is why valuable resources are desperately needed in our public and school libraries. Wilson gives a definitive look at seven books that could help answer some of the most frequently harbored questions. The annotated bibliography includes a brief synopsis of these books: Dance on My Grave; Independence Day; A Boy's Own Story; Annie On My Mind; Young, Gay, and Proud; Reflections of a Rock Lobster; and One Teenager in Ten (selections in bold print have been included in this bibliography). With his bibliography, Wilson provides positive, as well as negative, qualities of each work thus providing a springboard from which young readers can begin their own discovering.
Dave Webunder and Sarah Woodard prepared this bibliography as third-year students at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.