Keep It Queer: How My Love Affair with LGBTQ YA Started

keep it queer


I decided that since I talk about queer books practically all the time, and it’s no secret that I’m queer myself, that I should do a feature about… being queer. Sometimes it’ll relate to books, and sometimes it won’t. I think it’s important because when we talk about diversity and representation in books, we’re talking about visibility. What it’s like to open a book and see yourself reflected in it. Your gender identity, your skin colour, your disabilities, your sexual orientation. What it’s like to know you’re not alone in the world, and that you too are normal.

I want to talk about what that’s like. I want to be more open about myself so that other people can see me and feel better about being whoever they are, too. And I want to do this because it’d be great if other people could come to these posts and share their own experiences with me. In a way, I want these posts to demonstrate why I think queer books are so important.

So, first of all, to make things clear, I’m bisexual. I also like to use the word ‘queer’ to describe myself. I think I’ll probably talk about what these terms mean to me in another post soon! But to start off with, I want to make this first post completely about books.

When I was 11, I realised I wasn’t straight. At that time, I had started to read fanfiction. And as you all know, most fanfiction is totally gay. Many fanfiction authors were still very reluctant to admit that bisexuality was a thing at that point, but at least there was gayness in abundance! And that was so nice for me to read, because it made me think that being gay wasn’t such a bad thing.

But I read a lot of books too. And queer characters basically didn’t exist in YA books back then. Bear in mind that I was studying in England, and I was mostly only exposed to UKYA. I think the very first LGBTQ YA I read was The Shell House by Linda Newbery, and this one I accidentally stumbled upon in the school library. I read it with quiet awe. It was pretty tragic, but beautiful and well-written. I haven’t reread it since, but I’m fairly confident that I’d still love it if I reread it now.

Then I managed to find and buy a couple of books from bookshops, these ones about girls who fall in love with girls, but they were even more tragic and in fact not particularly good books (I won’t name these) and left me depressed for days about my own fate. Plus, at that point, I’d realised that most people I knew in real life weren’t very okay with girls liking girls.

As I got older, I discovered YA from the US. David Levithan turned into my hero after I read Boy Meets Boy, a book that was just so much HAPPIER than I could ever have dreamed of LGBTQ YA being. I was also ridiculously excited to hear about Malinda Lo’s Ash! It turned out to be one of my least favourite books by Lo, but the fact that the book existed was still amazing to me. Queer girls in a book who can be together and happy! At that time, I knew a girl from school who was a book blogger, and we talked about books occasionally. I was not out to most people, including this girl, and I kept it a secret that I liked reading LGBTQ books. But we were talking about new books, and I told her I was excited to read Ash, and she said something to the effect of, “Oh, I don’t read books that have a gay romance.”

I’ll always remember that moment. I felt so crushed and defeated, and I just stayed silent. I couldn’t say anything in reply. I mean, I knew this was to be expected from most of the people I knew in real life at that time, but it didn’t hurt any less. The fact that nobody understood how excited I was, how monumental these books were to me and how much they meant, how much they gave hope to my entire existence. The fact that I couldn’t really even tell anybody about why I cared so much about these books.

Queer book-lovers don’t really get to say, “I don’t read books that have a straight romance.”

It’s been 5 years since that happened. I’m now at university, I’m out to pretty much anyone who asks (I’ll do a post on coming out another time!), and I’m a lot happier. And it’s so much easier to find queer YA now–even UKYA is improving a lot on that front. And I love reading it and talking about it and enthusiastically telling people I know in real life about these books. I’m so glad so much has changed. I’m glad I can talk openly about how much these books mean to me now and have always meant to me.

Now it’s your turn! Tell me about your own story with LGBTQ YA. What was the very first LGBTQ book you read? Did you enjoy it? Have you ever encountered anyone who didn’t want to read LGBTQ books, and if so, what was your reaction?

14 thoughts on “Keep It Queer: How My Love Affair with LGBTQ YA Started

  1. Jo 15 December 2014 / 1:22 pm

    Oh, Cynthia, this is a brilliant post! Definitely think you should tweet a link to it to Malinda Lo, I’m sure she would love to read how her book made you feel!

    I have to say my heart sank when reading your blogger friend said she doesn’t read gay romances. And your response to that… of course! We all know that straight cis-gendered YA outweighs LGBTQ YA, but when you put it like that – ‘Queer book-lovers don’t really get to say, “I don’t read books that have a straight romance.”’ – it really hit me. Too much imbalance.

    The first LGBTQ YA book I read was Sugar Rush by Julie Burchill, and it was for my Sex in Teen Lit Month event. That was in 2009. I didn’t really like the book, but had no problem with it being an LGBTQ story. However, in 2012 I realised I hadn’t read a single LGBTQ YA novel since then. Not from avoidance, just from not having picked one up – I’ve always had a lot of books, and I’m very much a read what I fancy as and when, and the few that I owned I hadn’t fancied yet. So I decided to hold LGBTQ YA Month on my blog last year, and purposely sought out LGBTQ YA fiction. I was sad to see how few there were published in the UK – most of the books I read were US books by US writers – but also found there was so much I just didn’t know/realise/understand. It was awesome; I read a ton of books, had quite a few interviews and guest posts with authors, fellow bloggers, and one from Non Pratt, who was an editor at the time, who addressed the issue of fewer UKYA LGBTQ novels.

    Since then, I’m always on the look out for LGBTQ YA. I want to learn, I want to understand – I think that’s the only way we can move, as a society, towards acceptance and sexuality/gender identity becomes a complete non-issue. I think books are one of the best ways to do this, as I’d feel really rude asking questions about something that is so personal to someone, about something too many people judge them for. I’ve never had a problem with LGBTQ people, but through my reading, I’ve become more aware of their lives and experiences. If, through reading and reviewing these books as someone who is completely accpeting, I can help younger readers who are LGBTQ find the books they need and feel better about being themselves with me and a little less judged, then it’s the least I can do.

    • Cynthia @ Afterwritten 26 December 2014 / 9:35 am

      Thanks, Jo! 🙂

      Yeah, that moment is pretty much engraved into my heart. I just remembered thinking, “Well it’s just great for you that you have the privilege to bloody choose not to read them, isn’t it? I CAN BARELY FIND THEM WHEN I WANT TO READ THEM SO MUCH.”

      Ah, um, Sugar Rush was one of those books whose titles I didn’t mention in this post. I read it so long ago now I absolutely can’t remember a thing that happens in it, but I just remember that I felt quite disappointed by it and a bit empty after reading it.

      It’s great that you hosted LGBTQ YA month on your blog because you realised you weren’t reading enough of it! I think I’ve read that post by Non Pratt addressing the lack of UKYA LGBTQ novels. It was very interesting. It’s a lot easier to find US novels in the UK these days, which makes things better as well, because I remember when I used to scour the shelves in bookshops for David Levithan and not find any! (Thankfully I could also visit bookshops in Hong Kong where David Levithan was easily available.)

      I really agree with the last part of your comment and I’m so glad you think that way. I do really hope my blogging can also contribute even just the tiniest amount to helping any young people who might stumble across my blog feel better and find the right books for them!

  2. Margo 20 December 2014 / 8:36 pm

    LGBTQ YA is actually what helped me realize that I’m a lesbian. I’d spent a long time trying to avoid the idea of sexuality in general so I wouldn’t have to confront it. Then I went to a Maureen Johnson book signing (for one of her newer books) and a supercute girl in the row in front of me started talking to me and she told me I should read The Bermudez Triangle if I hadn’t already because she thought it was Maureen’s best book. I ended up reading it a few weeks later and realizing that Mel’s sexuality story was basically mine, and I ended up starting to come out to people a few weeks after reading it, 🙂

    • Cynthia @ Afterwritten 24 December 2014 / 9:07 am

      Hi, thanks so much for stopping by and sharing! 🙂

      It’s so interesting that LGBTQ YA helped you realise! THIS SUPERCUTE GIRL SOUNDS REALLY INTRIGUING. It would be awesome if you could find supercute girl again and be like GUESS WHAT THANKS SO MUCH FOR THE RECOMMENDATION! I sadly have not yet managed to read The Bermudez Triangle, but I totally should at some point!

      But that is really awesome for you! Hope your coming out experience has been nothing but positive. ❤

  3. vlangloisx3 21 December 2014 / 2:38 am

    That’s awesome! I’m really glad that you’re so much happier now! Personally I haven’t met anyone who’s been against LGBTQ in YA novels, so that’s a good thing? (Then again I talk to real life people about books, only bloggers, and the ones I’m friends with love everything). I think the only books I’ve read with LGBTQ is Ari and Dante and LIes we Tell Ourselves (which is a historical fiction one). I’ve also read a couple of books with LGBTQ in the background, which was weaved in very nicely!

    • Cynthia @ Afterwritten 24 December 2014 / 8:58 am

      I’m glad you haven’t met anyone like that! I’m hoping I don’t ever run into more people like that again… I mean, we were only about 15 or 16 back then when I had that conversation with that person, so I’m hoping that person has changed by now!

      Yeah, I read Lies We Tell Ourselves recently! IT WAS SO GOOD. I was pretty awed by it, I can’t WAIT for Robin Talley’s next book which is about a lesbian in a relationship with a genderqueer person! SO EXCITED. I actually made my friend read my copy of Lies We Tell Ourselves before I read it and she was like “WOW THIS IS REALLY GOOD YOU WOULD LOVE THIS IT HAS LESBIANS”. My friends are awesome.

  4. Lexxie @ (un)Conventional Bookviews 28 December 2014 / 9:51 am

    I’m so sorry you’ve had to deal with ignorant, insensitive people who aren’t capable of seeing a different way of life than their own, Cynthia! But I’m happy things are much better for you now that you’re in university, and that you’re out to most people you hang out with. I’m sure it helps you breathe easier.

    While I’m straight, I’ve almost always had gay friends, even in secondary school one of my best guy friends was gay, and it never occurred to me that it was ‘weird’ because he was a great person, and I loved doing things with him. I have never thought that who a person falls in love with has anything to do with what kind of person they are, and I just get to know people without thinking about their intimate life.

    It’s always been important to me to be open-minded. And I think the fact that some people say ‘oh my God I had no idea s/he was gay – s/he should have told me!’ is so fake. When I meet new people, I don’t tell them straight away ‘hey, just so you know… I’m straight’ and I don’t see why it should even matter.

    I can’t really remember what the first LGBT book I read was, but I usually read stories based on the characters, and the premise of the story.
    I’m really excited about Cayce’s LGBT challenge, I hope I’ll be able to discover lots of new books and authors in 2015 🙂

    • Cynthia @ Afterwritten 30 December 2014 / 8:51 am

      Hi, thank you for stopping by! 🙂

      I just went to an all girls boarding school that was quite a narrow-minded environment, and I think that prevented people from being able to open up their minds because the narrow-mindedness was so reinforced by the environment. Like, back then, if you even talked about feminism people would laugh at you. But I notice that a lot of the people from my old school who are now at uni are feminists, so I think it’s something that once you leave the school, you can manage to grow out of and become more aware of the world around you instead.

      Yeah, it’s always been important to me to be open-minded too. If I encounter something I don’t know much about, I always try and learn more about it and educate myself so I can have some understanding of it. That’s why diverse books with authentic voices are so important.

      I’m very excited about the LGBT challenge too! I read over 20 books this year that were LGBT… I’m not sure if I beat that next year but I will try my best!

  5. Lunochka 30 December 2014 / 6:19 am

    It’s a checkered past, mine. I was into the GBTQ side of things because of fandom, but until Empress of the World by Sara Ryan, couldn’t really see the L in front of my nose (along with the BQ that represented *me*). That was… what, 2003? 2004? And that was all my local library had, never mind my school one. Small towns, ugh. Got out of there, made it to at least one college library, had slightly more luck in their stacks but there just wasn’t much *there*. Now there is, or at least it’s visible now. Not sure which.

    • Cynthia @ Afterwritten 30 December 2014 / 8:42 am

      Yeah, I was really into fandom as well from a young age, and though at the very beginning I only read and wrote a lot of gay male pairings, once I realised I wasn’t straight I started writing fanfics about queer girls as well. But there was still a sore lack of f/f fanfiction at that time…

      I haven’t read Empress of the World. Did you like it? Yeah, there’s definitely a lot more now! LGBTQ YA is a lot more talked about and I think there was a definite increase in LGBTQ YA books published this year, and hopefully it’s just an upward trend from here! 🙂

  6. morethanbookish 7 January 2015 / 9:32 pm

    What a beautiful post! I seriously teared up reading this because I can relate to it so much. Thank you for sharing and I look forward to reading more about this. I love hearing other peoples stories ALSO HEY!! David Levithan was also the first author who showed me that it’s okay to not be straight! I didn’t read Boy Meets Boy but it was the Realm of Possibility and the parts with girls liking other girls was just so eye-opening to me. I was like “wow, it’s okay that I like girls too. it’s actually okay” and that’s probably why DL will always have a very special place in my heart! I discovered that girls like me could be represented and ahh since then I’ve just wanted more lgbtq books!

    • Cynthia (Afterwritten) 8 January 2015 / 1:20 am

      I’m really glad you liked my post! ❤

      YES OMG THE REALM OF POSSIBILITY IS SO GOOD. To date it is the only book in verse I've ever read that I can actually remember as being really moving. I don't think Boy Meets Boy was actually the first book I read by Levithan, and to be honest I think it's one of his weaker books (it is his first book, after all…). But the moment I discovered him I just kept reading whatever books of his I could find, so I don’t really remember. But I’ve pretty much read all of his solo books now apart from Marly’s Ghost which is apparently not as good. I think Love in the Higher Law is probably one of my other favourites, up until I read Two Boys Kissing which just pretty much is the king of all LGBTQ books to me.

  7. lynseycalderwood 8 January 2015 / 8:52 pm

    Thanks for writing this. One of the best YA books I’ve ever read is Perry Moore’s ‘Hero’.

    • Cynthia (Afterwritten) 12 January 2015 / 3:06 pm

      Oh, I’ve never read that, but I’ve always been intrigued by it! I love the cover for that book. I definitely should check it out at some point. Thanks for stopping by my blog and commenting! ❤

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