Yesterday while I was peeking at the Barnes & Noble page for Five Stages, I noticed a new review from VOYA that I hadn’t previously seen. Usually, I see the trade reviews before they come out, but sometimes they slip through the cracks. It was a really lovely review, and one of my favorite lines is, “for those struggling with issues of doubt or identity, reading it could be a powerful, affirming experience.” Which I love because that was sort of the point.
I posted the review in its entirety on my Facebook page, and I. W. Gregorio, author of the recently released NONE OF THE ABOVE (which I’m dying to read) and founding member of We Need Diverse Books, left a comment about another line from the review that said, “That Drew and Rusty are gay adds another layer of complexity. All of this means a pretty heavy story that probably will not attract a wide readership…” where she expressed her frustration about similar lines in reviews she’s received for NONE OF THE ABOVE that seem to suggest that only teens who are in the same situations as the characters in the book will find diverse stories useful.
Honestly, it’s something I was afraid of. I’ve always wanted to be true to myself and write stories about queer characters, but I feared being labeled a “gay author” and limiting my audience. I worried non-gay readers would see that Five Stages was about a gay kid and feel like they wouldn’t be able to identify with him. That his experiences would be so alien to their own that they wouldn’t connect.
But that’s silly, right?
I was a really messed up kid in high school. Not just because I was gay. Truthfully, my problems with coming out didn’t even begin to manifest until I was like 16 or 17. But I had other problems. I loved Star Trek and science fiction and fantasy novels and comic books. I hated sports and loved theatre. I loved role playing games and didn’t really care much for Nirvana. But I hid those things. I was so scared of how people would react to the real me, that I crafted an identity based on what I thought people wanted. Sure, there were some friends I could be myself around, but when I said I had to go home because my mom needed me to do chores, really, I was running home to catch the newest episode of Star Trek: Voyager.
Later, when I realized I was gay and began to come out, doing so also helped me accept and be honest about other parts of myself as well. I’m a geek. I love playing with computers. Yes, I watch The Vampire Diaries and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Doctor Who. The struggle with accepting one part of myself helped me accept other parts of myself, and I think that’s definitely something teens—gay, straight, questioning, or otherwise—can relate to. So stories about anyone who’s different aren’t relatable just to people who are different in the same way, they’re relatable to everyone, because everyone (at some point in their lives) has felt like they didn’t belong. Everyone has questioned their identity or their place on this earth. Every teen eventually struggles to define who they are.
We all know that in X-Men, mutants are a thinly veiled metaphor for homosexuality. They’re born that way, they’re despised, they can’t control who they are, some can’t hide their powers, and some even seek a “cure.” So why is it that people believe it’s easier to relate to a fictional group of people with fantastic superpowers who struggle with being different than it is to relate to gay people? Why can readers see their own struggles with being different in Rogue and Cyclops and Wolverine (people who could never exist in the real world), but not with kids in books that could easily be their neighbors or classmates or best friends?
Dismissing books that feature characters who don’t fit the “norm” (a term I use loosely, since I feel just as normal as anyone else) as “niche” books that will only appeal to a narrow demographic doesn’t give teen readers the credit they deserve. I’m not black. I didn’t grow up in NYC. I came from a comfortable middle-class, suburban background. And yet I found Jason Reynolds’ THE BOY IN THE BLACK SUIT so relatable. I connected to his search for meaning and happiness. That his experiences growing up were different from mine only served to expand my world and give me greater insight into things I knew nothing about.
Not all books are for everyone. I get that. But they can be. Because some struggles are universal. We all want to be accepted. We all want to be loved. We all want to know who we are and why we’re here. Those questions, those struggles transcend race and religion and gender and sexuality. If they didn’t, X-Men would have been marketed for mutants only.
But we’re all kind of mutants in our own way. Right?