"Targeted" young adult fiction: the need for literature speaking to gay/lesbian and African-American youth


The dawning of young adult literature as a separate literary genre is not easily established. Defining what constitutes a "young adult" is part of the problem posed in outlining the actual development of the literature itself. Ascertaining the rise of a truly adolescent culture in this society also proves difficult. Adolescence did not really exist until extended education kept children dependent upon their parents for a longer period of time. While children’s literature more or less existed along with adult literature from the late nineteenth century to the present, young adult literature itself is only about 40 years old (Garden, 1992). Even this figure is speculative. Can one include church literature written for teenagers at the turn of the century, or the serial novels produced by the Stratemeyer syndicate as young adult literature? Or did modern young adult literature begin with the "new realism" of the young adult novels of the 1960’s?

When reviewing trends in young adult literature over the last 40 years it is clear that more literature is being written that specifically addresses not only adolescent concerns and points of view, but the concerns of distinct populations of adolescents, such as disabled, gay, African American. and Christian teenagers. Each of these adolescent groups embodies its own cultural perspective; thus, it is important to remember that "multicultural" literature can also include the literature of any group sharing common cultural characteristics, even if that group Caucasian teenagers. This paper focuses on the similarities and differences of fiction concerning African American and gay and lesbian teens. During the development of these novels, trends show both a thematic and cultural blurring between the literature of the two groups. Today, it is not uncommon to read a young adult book written from the perspective of both an African American gay or lesbian teenager. "Multiculturalism" is truly evident in such works.

While one might argue that fiction aimed at specific groups of teens "targets" them, one can also argue that the proliferation of the multiplicity of adolescent viewpoints serves to promote the individual experiences of members of these groups to the larger adolescent population. While much literature still needs to be created that describes the experiences of these adolescent groups, it need not and should not be "targeted" only to an audience consisting solely of these individuals. Such an approach defeats the purpose of having multicultural literature available at all, since the purpose of such literature is to broaden the horizons of young minds -- both by building bridges of similarities and by showing the beauty of difference.

Who Are Young Adults?

Professionals ranging from librarians to booksellers to psychologists disagree on the defining ages of the young adult. The original young adult reading audience was perceived in the 1970s to be high school age, but today most young adult librarians place the age range as anywhere between ten years old to eighteen (Campbell, 1997). In 1991 YALSA officially defined young adults as persons aged between twelve and eighteen years (Carter, 1994). Because these definitions have been recently established, a plethora of juvenile fiction exists in libraries that is suitable for young adults, but has not yet been reclassified. Yet it is important to begin meeting the needs of young adults, which is one of the fastest growing populations in the country (Jones, 1998). Numbers are currently estimated at 25 million and expected to peak at 30.8 million by the year 2010 (Carter, 1995). Many of these youth are at risk: 15% of them do not have health insurance, and, as of 1992, one in five live in poverty. One in five Causasian, 30% of Latino and 50% of African American adolescents live in a single parent home, and some 15,000 homeless teenagers live on the streets of Los Angeles alone (Carter, 1995). Clearly, this is a population that needs to be reached out to.

What Is Young Adult Literature?

Before the term "young adult literature" existed the generic and somewhat pejorative "juvenile" literature. Not surprisingly, many young adults tend to shy away from books classified as juvenile. A simple definition of young adult literature is anything that is read by young adults -- from juvenile fiction to comic books to adult biographies. But there is also a specific style unique to young adult literature. Young adult literature tends to be told from the outlook of the teenage protagonist and is strongly associated with contemporary social issues, often referred to as "contemporary realism" or the "problem novel", a form that began in the 1960s with the dawning of the "new realism" in children’s literature (Jenkins, 1998, p.299). "New realism" is characterized by blunt candor, realistic, gritty characters, and plots that do not always end happily.

Development of Multicultural Literature

Multiculturalism is an important component of young adult literature, particularly African American and gay teenage fiction. In general, the desire for multicultural education and literature grew out of the ferment of the civil rights movement of the 1950’s (Banks & Banks, 1989). After African Americans began to demand authentic representation of their lives in society, other cultural groups, such as Latinos and Asians, demanded realistic portrayal. What defines multicultural literature? Brenda Michell-Powell, editor of the "Multicultural Review", notes that true multiculturalism stresses "culture and its multifacetedness rather than [the] concept of multiculturalism as a euphemism" (Ford, 1994, p.2).

This definition is the most relevant and authentic because it applies the term to as many distinct cultural groups as possible. Literature need not necessarily represent the experiences of a person of color to be multicultural. Finally, truly multicultural literature allows the reader to see differences and similarities between him/herself and the protagonist(s), and gain understanding of him/herself and the world as a whole. This understanding is especially important during the formative young adult years.

However, controversy emerges over who is qualified to write multicultural literature. This question of authenticity, of the ability of an "outsider" to write about a group of which one is not a part, applies to both African American and gay and lesbian teenage fiction. For example, prior to the 1960’s practically all literature depicting African American characters was written by white authors, who often portrayed stereotypes and biases. Recently, however, some white authors have attempted to accurately research their novels to portray authentic characters free from bias (Smith, 1993). This is especially helpful when some authors have written on topics that otherwise might not be published. Yet the ability of white authors to write authentically about multicultural characters is not the sole issue at hand. White authors predominate the publishing world almost exclusively in both the adult and young adult genres, and it is extremely difficult for unestablished authors of color to get into print.

Despite these continuing controversies, the publication of multicultural fiction for teens is especially important. Willett (1995) notes that through such literature "children are able to recognize themselves" and relates how one student commented that "finally, there are good books about us and our communities. It’s giving us a chance to learn about our history not told in textbooks….I like these books because I’m meeting kids I don’t meet in my everyday life" (p. 1).

Who Are African American Teenagers?

African American teenagers are teenagers at risk. Two thirds of all African American babies are born out of marriage and 56 % of African American single parent families have incomes beneath the poverty level. Violent death accounts for more deaths among young black men than any other cause and 63.3% of all African American school age children still attend segregated schools (Collins, 1993). Even suicide rates in the African American community have risen by 300%, an astonishing rate in a cultural group that historically has had the lowest suicide rates of all other American ethnicities and classes (Lane, 1998). Throughout the years, a multitude of social programs have attempted to improve these youths’ lives, but have largely failed. Yet Collins (1993) believes that young adult literature provides an untapped resource that "can provide black young adults with a means of transcending racism and segregation, can lead them to self-discovery, and can help them eliminate whatever sense of isolation or alienation they may have" (p. 2). African American leaders and writers have known since the late 19th century that they must create literature addressing the needs of their own youth, since society at large would either ignore or denigrate African Americans. Thus, a tradition of children’s literature for and by African Americans spans more than a century.

History Of African American Young Adult Literature

Establishing an exact starting point for this tradition and creating complete bibliographies is difficult, though, as few texts have survived. These works were mostly produced by African American fraternal and sororal, religious, and social organizations (Kutenplon & Olmstead, 1996). By the 1900s, an emerging educated African American middle class desired culturally authentic literature for their children. In the 1920’s W. E. B. Dubois and Augustus G. Dill formed a publishing company which produced biographies for young people, and produced "The Brownies’ Books", the first newsmagazine for African American children (Kutenplon & Olmstead, 1996; Lane, 1998). These publishing efforts marked the beginning of African American young adult literature as they provided a forum for artists of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps. Indeed, Langston Hughes published one of the first African American young adult novels in 1945, called We Have Tomorrow (Kutenplon & Olmstead, 1996). Other notable young adult novels came later, such as Lorenz Graham and Jesse Jackson’s South Town and Call Me Charley. During the 1940s, Chicago Public Library children’s librarian Charlemae Rollins founded "We Pull Together", which included annotated recommendations of books about African American life and literature for elementary through high school grades.

By the early 1960’s, the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, and American society gradually began to recognize its diversity. Title II of the Elementary and Secondary School Act passed in 1965 made federal funds available for multicultural projects for the first time. Later that year, Nancy Larrick published her landmark study "The all white world of children’s books", which forced publishers to look at the extreme disparity between books speaking to white children and those representing African American children (Horning & Kruse, 1991). All of these events spurred the publishing industry to take African American young adult writers seriously, and in 1967, Virginia Hamilton’s Zeely was published. That same year, the Council on Interracial Books for Children (CIBC) was founded to encourage authors and artists of color to create good books for children, and to sponsor contests for unpublished African American writers and authors. In 1969 the Social Responsibilities Round Table of the American Library Association established the Coretta Scott King award for outstanding works written or illustrated by African Americans. All of these developments paved the way for African American authors to create quality fiction for young adults.

By 1979, several African American authors of young adult fiction became increasingly prolific, particularly Walter Dean Myers and Virginia Hamilton. Today, these authors remain dominant in their field, along with newcomers such as Jacqueline Woodson. Yet by the 1980s, the upswing in African American young adult fiction reversed. As Rudine Sims (1985) notes, "during the eighties, however, a vastly different cultural climate has emerged….The national government is busy trying to turn back the clock on civil rights" (p. 9). Indeed "retrenchment" seemed to be the watchword for African American young adult books during this time period. Authenticity was questionable, as books about African American young adults written during this time tended to be written by white authors, and few awards were given to deserving titles written by African Americans (Kutenplon & Olmstead, 1996). Publishers saw the market declining for these kinds of books, and tended to select manuscripts more conservatively than ever. Alternative presses that were successful in the 1970s folded.

Fortunately, the 1990s are bringing about a welcome revival. In 1992, HarperCollins and Scott Foresman announced a mentoring program and annual awards in conjunction with the Center for Multicultural Literature in order to once again encourage new talent among African American writers (Smith, 1993). Publishing statistics, however, are still bleak. In general, children’s book divisions of large publishing houses rarely make the profits of their adult counterparts. Any children’s books that may seem remotely controversial or unsellable are almost automatically vetoed. Also, if the publisher believes that the targeted audience cannot sustain the product, they will not attempt to achieve parity with other better selling books. This creates a double bind for African American young adult fiction -- the demand is low in part because access to the product is limited, and this creates a vicious cycle of perceived low demand (Kutenplon & Olmstead, 1996).

In the mid 1960’s only 6.7% of all children’s books published included African American characters, let alone young adult titles speaking to black teens (Larrick, 1965). By the mid-1970’s that number increased to 14%, but has since dropped again to only 2% today (Kutenplon & Olmstead, 1996). On average, only 1 % of all children’s and young adult books published are written by African Americans and 20% of these titles come out of small presses (Kutenplon & Olmstead, 1996). Translated into actual numbers of titles, this means that roughly 50 to 75 children’s and young adult African American literature (not just fiction) are published out of a total of 4000 children’s books per year (Hopkins & Tastad, 1997). Many of these books feature "safe" topics such as folktales to avoid controversy and promote sales (Hopkins & Tastad, 1997). Because of these figures, Sims (1985) declares that the "heyday of publishing children’s books about blacks is past" (p. 9).

Thematic Trends in African American Young Adult Fiction

Historical and contemporary realistic fiction are the two types of novels published about African American youth. Historical fiction is particularly important for all young adults to have access to because they "provide a glimpse of history in a palatable form for both black and white young adults" (Corson, 1987). Hamilton’s Zeely, Myer’s The Glory Field, Mildred Taylor’s, Roll Of Thunder, Hear My Cry, and Harriet Robinet’s Children Of the Fire are examples of historical young adult fiction. Today’s contemporary realistic fiction is told from the point of view of a black teen protagonist and emphasizes friendships, family, neighborhood life, and coming of age dilemmas. Such books include Myer’s Scorpions, Sapphire’s Push, Woodson’s I Hadn’t Meant To Tell You This, and Hamilton’s M.C. Higgins, the Great, although the latter clearly has elements of historical fiction in its description of family traditions on both Sarah’s Mountain and Kill’s Mound. Both historical and contemporary novels emphasize a strong sense of community and continuity from generation to generation, as well as the will and strength to cope and survive both physically and psychologically (Sims, 1985). African American realistic fiction was not always so well balanced, however. Sims conducted a survey of these types of books from the 1960’s to the present and divided them into three categories. "Social conscience" books tended to be written by white authors and were very popular in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. They are characterized by having a paternalistic or patronizing attitude toward the black characters, and being overly sympathetic or sentimental (Sims, 1983). "Melting pot books" first appeared during the 1940’s and continue being published today, though in limited quantities. These books tend to suggest that all Americans share middle-class values and life experiences, tend to contain no racial conflict, and focus on integration (Sims, 1983). While these books in and of themselves make positive contributions to understanding between races, they tend to ignore important aspects of African American life experiences. The "culturally conscious" books provide the best means of describing the African American teen’s point of view. These are the books largely published today, and encompass the majority of works written by African American authors themselves and are characterized by "black characters [who] are looking into themselves, rediscovering their mythology, redefining their history, celebrating their language, their music, their art, their ethos" (Dybek, 1974, p.64).

Historical fiction about African American young adults continues to play an important role in helping both African American and white teens understand the context of racism in this country. Some historical fiction is not limited to one time period, but covers a span of decades or even centuries, ending contemporarily. The Glory Field by Myers is one such example. Every other chapter traces the fate of some members of the Lewis family, which manages to be connected through the ownership of the field in which they initially worked as slaves. The final chapter is actually more contemporary realism than historical -- as Malcolm Lewis has to convince his present-day crack addict cousin Shep to go to a family reunion.

Lane (1998) notes the importance of initiation in African rituals and as an essential exercise in the identity development of African people. This concept of initiation is repeated in Myers’ novels as characters must learn to overcome temptations such as gang membership in Scorpions, and, in The Glory Field, to attempt far reaching goals such as going to college or escaping slavery. Other examples of historical fiction can depict more recent examples of racism. Taylor’s Roll Of Thunder, Hear My Cry is a coming of age novel in which Cassie discovers the extent of racism in the rural South of the 1930’s. This Newbery Award-winning novel also employs gripping Southern dialect and expressions, which are another hallmark of young adult African American novels.

Contemporary fiction is no less significant. However, it is important for the sake of representing accurate multicultural settings that a reasonable balance be struck between realism and negative imagery. Kutenplon and Olmstead (1996) note that "until recently, images of family were another major shortcoming of this literature: too many absent fathers; too many sick, dysfunctionally neurotic or addicted mothers, too many children parenting themselves" (p. xxviii). They also note that most male-centered novels of the 1970’s suggested that the young adult African American experience was universally "monolithic and grim, with its unrelenting focus on drugs, police violence and/or arbitrary arrest, violence, and death" (p. xxviii). Novels like Myers’ Scorpions and Sapphire’s Push may seem rife with negative circumstances, but protagonists in both situations end up taking charge of their lives, and the reader sees them learn to analyze the world and to take responsibility for their actions.

Gay and Lesbian Teenagers -- Also At Risk

Robin F. Williams notes that "a high school with 1500 students may have up to 150 gay or lesbian students", supporting an often-quoted statistic that one out of every ten individuals is gay or lesbian (Webunder & Woodard, 1996, p. 43). Most gay or lesbian teenagers have realized that something was "different" about them since childhood. Savin-Williams reviewed several studies from the 1980s which reported that gays and lesbians often noted this difference between the ages of 11 and 16 (Fischer, 1995). Adolescence for gay and lesbian teens is fraught with danger. Likely to face harassment, violence and suicide, these teens are the most alienated, rejected and isolated youth in American schools (Gibson 1989). Alarming at risk behaviors range from decreased school performance, truancy, and substance abuse, to juvenile prostitution, unsafe sex, and suicide (Gibson 1989). About one third of all teenagers who commit suicide are gay or lesbian (Torres, 1995). Often these teens are terrified of sharing their newly-discovered sexual orientation with others and feel as though there is nowhere to turn. Supportive information, whether in the form of accurate information about homosexuality, or quality fiction supporting the transition in their lives is imperative. Sears notes that many gay or lesbian teens surveyed felt that "reading material supportive of homosexuality" is essential for their self-acceptance (Caywood, 1993). Quality young adult fiction for these teens is even more scarce than for African American teens, however, and stereotypes and negative portrayals of gay and lesbian life continue to be prevalent.

History Of Gay And Lesbian Young Adult Literature

The earliest mention of gays and lesbians in young adult novels is usually limited to anti-gay epithets and the occasional character included to represent the "wrong path" (Jenkins, 1998). Although a few books, such as the The Diary Of a Young Girl by Anne Frank include homosexual references, the first novel to truly address homosexuality as a theme was published in 1969 -- the same year that the Stonewall rebellion in New York City sparked the gay and lesbian liberation movement. John Donovan’s I’ll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip was considered quite controversial at the time, although the ending emphasizes the distinct possibility that the male protagonists are going through a homosexual "phase", and also hints at punishment for their sexual behavior when Davy’s beloved dog is killed. Three other books followed on the heels of Donovan’s title in the early 1970s: The Man Without a Face, by Isabelle Holland (1971), Happy Endings Are All Alike, by Sandra Scoppettone (1978), and Ruby by Rosa Guy (1976). Taken as a group, these young adult novels emphasize that being gay or lesbian has no lasting significance for any of the characters, and can be thought of as a "phase". No plot has a happy ending in which protagonists meet the challenges of being gay or lesbian and remain in a successful healthy relationship (Hankel & Cunningham, 1976). While most books do not outright condemn the protagonists as sick or immoral, the plots generally portray a strongly discouraging picture of homosexual life. Much of what was written was controlled by publishers' fears of controversy, and thus authors were forced to portray negative images Jenkins (1998) compares these early gay and lesbian books with Sims’ African American "social conscience" books of the 1960’s because these books depict gays and lesbians as having to be brave and shouldering the burden of educating the straight world about their plight. Yet aspects of these kinds of books are seen in today’s novels. Jenkins (1998) notes that in Paula Fox’s The Eagle Kite reconciliation between Liam and his dying gay father is only possible after his death, as is reconciliation between Charles and Justin in The Man Without a Face.

A new category of fiction was published between the mid 1970’s and the mid-1980’s. In these titles, the representation of homosexuality became increasingly complex (St. Clair, 1995). In these titles, sexual identity is seen as something to be positively explored and dealt with, although not all books in this category end "happily". The milestone title for this era is Nancy Garden’s Annie On My Mind, in which two lesbian teens come to grips with their sexuality and the subsequent exposure of their sexuality by the school secretary. While the plot does include many negative episodes, such as the firing of two lesbian teachers, these events serve to provide a realistic portrayal of the difficulties one often faces by coming out. The book is also important because it was published in hardback and by a major press despite the fact that it essentially celebrates a lesbian romance (St. Clair, 1995).

Today, a third category of titles dominates the market. No longer are gays and lesbians the protagonists of these books. Often, they are side characters -- portraying parents, uncles, siblings or friends. Such "distancing" is both positive and negative. For the heterosexual young adult reader, they show characters dealing with gay and lesbian people as a normal part of their extended world (Jenkins, 1993). Ford (1994) agrees that it is equally important to present heterosexual readers with images of gays and lesbians as part of everyday life, and not only as victims of disease, violence, or oppression. For the gay or lesbian reader, however, these books provide little in the way of addressing their personal experience, since the lives of the gay or lesbian characters are usually secondary to the plot, barely explored (St. Clair, 1995). According to Jenkins’ (1998) adaptation of Sim’s model, these books are like "melting pot" books: the story is told from a mainstream heterosexual perspective and "promote[s] gay/straight harmony…[and]… American cultural homogeneity" since most characters are male, white and middle class (p. 314). Jenkins (1998) notes a counterargument to the melting pot metaphor in which

gay/lesbian people’s lives are entirely different from heterosexuals’ lives, except for what they do in bed… it is how one is treated the rest of the time that matters, and if a gay/lesbian identity places one outside the mainstream, then one’s life will be considerably different from lives lived inside those exclusive gates. This mode, predicated on difference…takes a civil rights approach to gay/lesbian…lives in contemporary American society.…Such a presentation of difference suggests Sims’ third category: books that are "culturally conscious" (p. 314).

Like "culturally conscious" African American young adult fiction, these kinds of books require authenticity in plot and character development, and positive themes that place gay or lesbian protagonists in the context of their community. Yet, according to Jenkins (1998) "with rare exceptions, it appears that this literature has yet to be written" (p. 315). Finally, books still abound with negative plots about gay and lesbian lives -- partly because realistically gay and lesbian lives are difficult lives to lead, though this cannot be the only excuse, since so many African American novels are written realistically and yet far more positively. Jenkins (1998) feels that this portrayal of gay and lesbian characters as targets, scapegoats, and victims will continue, which proves how little the literature has developed in the past 30 years.

Mike Ford, former editor for Macmillan, notes that "gay books are the black books of the ‘90’s (Garden, 1994). Many issues once considered taboo, such as interracial relationships, drug abuse, and premarital sex, are now the staples of the young adult problem novel. Yet the lives of gay and lesbian teenagers have often been ignored. Publishing houses are still wary of controversy. Indeed, Ford notes that sales representatives, wary of offending customers, often point to gay and lesbian titles not to sell them but to steer the customer away from what they considered potentially embarrassing purchases (Garden, 1994). Such issues, Ford claims, never come up when dealing with multicultural books. Jenkins notes that although there have been "dramatic shifts" in the visibility and public perception of gay and lesbian people in U.S. society, that few changes in gay and lesbian young adult novels have corresponded with these shifts, and she wonders why the literature continues to be so "conservative" (Jenkins, 1998, p.311). One major factor, she suggests, is the conservative publishing industry.

Fortunately, while publishing statistics lag far behind African American young adult fiction, they are generally on the rise. Garden (1992) reports that more gay and lesbian young adult books have been published by mainstream houses in the 1990s than in the 1980s. Jenkins (1998) notes that about 100 young adult gay and lesbian themed novels have been published since Donovan’s 1969 title. On average, 1.9 titles per year were published between 1969 and 1984, 3.75 titles per year between 1985 and 1992, and a whopping 7.6 titles per year between 1993 and 1997. Another positive trend is that the proportion of titles that portray gay and lesbian people of color has increased from 5 % to 34 % (Jenkins, 1998).

Thematic Trends in Gay and Lesbian Young Adult Fiction

As mentioned above, initial young adult titles about gay and lesbian youth emphasize the negative aspects of being homosexual. Most relationships end poorly, as in Guy’s Ruby, in which Daphne decides that she must go straight to please her mother. Peggy abandons Jaret after Jaret’s rape in Scoppettone’s Happy Endings Are All Alike. Gay bashing novels such as The Drowning Of Stephan Jones, by Bette Greene, imply that being gay or lesbian is dangerous. The firing of the school teachers in Annie On My Mind shows that a gay or lesbian person’s career future is bleak. Most books, with the exception of Earthshine, The Arizona Kid , and Francesca Lia Block’s books show gay and lesbian people living isolated lives, out of context with the reality of an amazingly active community. Stereotypes such as all gays are male, middle-class, and white abound in earlier novels. Statistics show that most novels are written from the perspective of young white men. Finally, gay and lesbian sexual relationships are mysterious. Although most young adult fiction lacks adequate description of sexual behavior -- descriptions of gay and lesbian sex rarely go beyond the first kiss. The reader if often unsure if the relationship is sexual in nature at all -- especially in lesbian young adult novels such as Tomorrow Wendy by Shelley Stoeff and Dive by Stacey Donovan. Exceptions exist in Phases of the Moon by Julia Watts, and The Cat Came Back by Hilary Mullins. More sexually graphic scenes exist in gay male young adult novels, particularly in David Rees’ books. (For example The Milkman’s On His Way graphically describes the first sexual experiences of young Ewan.)

Francesca Lia Block’s delightful novels "employ magical realism to picture a closetless world with characters of various sexual orientations" (Jenkins, 1998, p.311). Baby Bebop is about Dirk McDonald’s coming out story and acceptance by his grandmother, Weetzie Bat is about a young adult community formed between Weetzie, Dirk, and his new lover Duck, and Witch Baby is about Weetzie’s progeny by Duck, Dirk and her boyfriend, Secret Agent Lover Man. These books are controversial in their depiction of drug use and casual sex -- yet are compelling to teens because of their realism and their overall positive sense of community.

Books about AIDS are an essential part of the gay and lesbian young adult collection, though most titles did not appear until the mid-1990s, with the exception of M.E. Kerr’s Night Kites (1986).

The obvious irony is that these books necessarily deal with death and "negative" aspects of homosexuality, yet they are such a realistic part of life in today’s gay and lesbian community that they cannot be seen as part of the usual negative stereotyping. Other examples of "positive" stereotyping are found in novels such as Kerr’s Deliver Us From Evie, which is a coming-out story told from the perspective of Evie’s younger brother. Born as a farmer’s daughter, Evie is as "butch" as a stereotypical lesbian can be, but no one in her farming community views her outward appearance as odd. Cart (1997) notes that "the point is that beneath the look there is a fully developed, multidimensional human being who may choose to look the way she wants and is not doomed to die…" (pp. 42-43).

"Crossover" books about both gay and lesbian and African American youth are increasingly available. Jacqueline Woodson has contributed the most to these titles, with From the Notebooks Of Melanin Sun, The House You Pass On the Way, and The Dear One. The first title describes a young boy’s coming to terms with his mother’s lesbianism and interracial relationship, the second title is a coming out story of a young bi-racial lesbian, and The Dear One, while not gay or lesbian themed, includes influential lesbian characters in the plot whose sexuality is assumed to be normal by all but the visiting Rebecca. All of these books contain themes relevant to the African American experience, such as the importance of family and community, and themes relevant to the gay and lesbian experience, such as the risks of coming out.

Commonalities and Differences Between Gay and Lesbian and African American Young Adult Fiction

As might be suggested by the existence of "crossover" books about African American gay and lesbian teenagers, some commonalities exist between both groups of teens and the literary genres that represent them. Obviously, protagonists of both groups are minorities. Another commonality concerns the issue of authenticity. Lobban and Clyde (1996) note that the majority of gay and lesbian young adult titles are written by gay and lesbian authors and that "books by writers such as these do not deny the difficulties young people will face when they accept their homosexuality but they also present the possibility of a happy fulfilling future. Straight writers, whilst appearing to intend to give the same message, often cannot get beyond the trauma" (p.xxxiv). An obvious example of lack of authenticity is the lack of gay and lesbian community portrayed in the vast majority of these novels. Clearly, both community and family also play an important role in African American life, and are amply illustrated.

Yet gay and lesbian fiction is far less accepted (and published) than African American young adult fiction. Since September 1990, the American Library Association has recorded 224 challenges to gay and lesbian material in children's books (Ford, 1994). Jenkins (1998) states that "other minority status groups have begun to be represented in young adult fiction that places them and their world at the center and tells the story from their perspective. This is not yet the case for gay men and lesbians" (p. 319).

Lives for gay and lesbian young adults continue to be difficult in ways quite different from their African American counterparts. Gay and lesbian youth cannot count on the support of their families as "coming out" is rarely viewed by families as a celebratory event. They must nurture their own self-esteem, and travel their journey towards maturity alone. Once gay and lesbian teenagers have reached adulthood, discrimination continues, but often without the possibility of successful legal action. Torres (1995) notes that, for African Americans, "one reason that de facto segregation could be fought was that de jure segregation was found illegal in 1954. The legal protections enable the social discourse to continue" (p. 1). Though African Americans obviously are still discriminated against, there is more of a chance of obtaining legal justice.

Probably the most influential factor for both gay and lesbian teens and the conservative publishing industry is the non-existent "guilt factor" that Ford (1994) believes is the reason that gay and lesbian issues do not command the respect that has enabled other one-time marginalized groups to move into the mainstream.

What Is Being Left Out?

Specific needs in African American young adult fiction include the appearance of more female protagonists in historical fiction, and the creation of a variety of genres, such as African American suspense thrillers, science fiction, mysteries, and romances (Kutenplon & Olmstead, 1996). Additional themes include better explorations of class issues, the working world, biracial identity, Black Muslims, relationships between African American communities and other communities of color, sexism, and disabilities (Kutenplon & Olmstead, 1996).

Specific needs in gay and lesbian young adult fiction have been mentioned above -- yet there are additional sexual minority youth whose lives are not being addressed by current literature. For example, Jenkins' third article on this subject finally uses the term "queer" in the title, along with the terms gay and lesbian, which implies the previous absence of those young adults that do not fit the cut and dried label of homosexuality. She notes that

there is a general unwillingness in this literature to represent sexual orientation as anything other than permanent and unalterable. What to make of the self-identified lesbian who occasionally sleeps with men? Or the bisexual whose current sexual relationship does not necessarily predict the sex of future attractions or partners? Where to put a queer sensibility that embraces the identity of Other in multiple ways in which categories are deliberately resisted, fragmented, conflated, or blurred? (p. 325)

Another set of voices is entirely absent which must be addressed: the transgendered young adult. Transgendered individuals are conflicted between the physical gender of their bodies and the gender identity established by the brain (Glausiusz, 1996). According to Brown and Rounsley (1996) approximately 1 per 30,000 adult males and 1 per 100,000 adult females seek sex reassignment surgery, or about .01% of the U.S. population. Douris (1998) notes that

"Transgender" refers to any person whose gender expression appears at odds with his or her biological sex, including transvestites, drag queens and kings, intersexed persons, "passing" men and women, feminine men, and masculine women. "Transsexual" refers to men and women who challenge the sex they were assigned at birth, whether they choose sex-reassignment surgery or not (p. 20).

According to the above definition, many of the gays and lesbians who started the Stonewall rebellion were transgendered by today's standards, showing a historical connection between the two groups. Many transgendered individuals, like gays and lesbians, trace their desire to be the opposite sex from early childhood (Glausiusz, 1996). During puberty these young adults are in a constant state of misery. An overwhelming sense of helplessness regarding nature's mistake may cause attempts at suicide. Brown and Rounsley (1996) note that 70% of their patients admitted to such attempts at some point in their lives. The words of one transgendered individual describe this situation best:

During my teens and even before then, I had begun to feel terrifically uncomfortable as a female-bodied person. When I was twelve years old, I heard of people changing sex, and I even wrote away for information. [author's emphasis] But who could I tell? Who would understand what even I could barely verbalize? (Cameron, 1996, p.9)

This population of young adults may be the most marginalized of all. And yet, how likely will literature addressing their situation be created given the extreme controversy this subject engenders? However, at one time, African American young adult literature was "unpopular" with publishers, and gay and lesbian literature was non-existent. Perhaps with time and advocacy on behalf of these young adults, material will be written, published and made accessible to this newly-visible population of teens.


While the preceding pages obviously imply the need for increased publication of both African American and gay and lesbian young adult fiction, there are still gaps in the genres. More of these books need to be available to all young adults -- not just the "targeted" groups about which they are written. Certainly, these novels speak to African American and gay and lesbian young adults' lives -- but their lives must be understood and "lived" by other young adults if true tolerance and understanding of human diversity is to be successfully inculcated in our young. Fischer (1995) argues that heterosexual students need to have accurate information about the range of sexual expression in order to make sense of their own sexuality, and also in order to make sense of the lifestyles of their gay or lesbian friends or relatives. Linn (1996) emphasizes that "if…the rationale for inclusion stops here; with the needs of [gay or lesbian youth]; we risk the continued marginalization of [gay and lesbian youth] by suggesting that texts with gay and lesbian voices are merely something for 'those' students" (p. 2). And Cart (1997) sums up the need for all young adults to enjoy this literature when he says that he

believe[s] it is literature…that will prove to be the place of light, the neutral center where all of us can go to find out about each other and… about ourselves as well. 'We' need to read about 'them' and 'they' need to read about 'us', and perhaps, we will find…that we are all, simply, 'we' (p.135) .

Reveling in our truly multifaceted culture should be the value society transmits to all young adults through the accessibility and enjoyment of fiction.


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Brown, M. L. and Rounsley, C. A. (1996). True selves: understanding transsexualism…: for families, friends, coworkers, and helping professionals. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Carter, B. (1994). Best books for young adults: the selections, the history, the romance. Chicago: American Library Association.

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Willett, G.P. (1995). Strong, resilient, capable, and confident. The Horn Book Magazine, 71, (2), 175-180.

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