The evolution of LGBTQ characters in Y.A. lit

There’s a great piece in The Atlantic about how LGBTQ characters have changed over the years. We no longer live in a society where all books about and for gay kids have to focus on the coming out process, or understanding that some people are gay and some are not. Homophobia no longer dictates every story.

I was interviewed for the piece, written by the excellent Jen Doll. We had a fascinating conversation about how this change has happened, and why.

I am no scholar, believe me, so pardon me for the oversimplification of this concept. But what I see are three distinct phases of the modern LGBTQ novel for teens. None of these phases should be seen as judgments; to me they simply illustrate where we were/are as a society at any given time.


1 – The Birth. There were LGBTQ novels for teens years before this, but the proliferation of these novels occurred back in the early 2000s, when Brent Hartinger wrote Geography Club, Alex Sanchez wrote the Rainbow Boys series, and Julie Anne Peters wrote Luna. Among others.

These novels, all excellent in their own right, served to educate and to illustrate the struggles that gay teens were having at that moment. Those kids needed to see those struggles reflected in their literature.

pretend you love me

2 – The Slant. Think of the late Perry Moore’s Hero, in which a teen superhero must deal with his sexuality. Or Peters’ Pretend You Love Me, in which a lesbian must struggle with her attraction to a straight girl. Or my own Out of the Pocket, in which a high school football player must deal with his sexuality when he is outed against his will. I call these novels “Slant” novels because they add a slant to those original stories in a way. Yet at the center of each one is dealing with sexuality.


3 – The Modern. I refer to Modern Family as much as I do to “modern” as in contemporary, because what is modern today will be old tomorrow. I simply mean to point out that in these new books, being gay is simply one aspect of the protagonist’s personality, as is the case in the sitcom Modern Family (note: in the most recent episodes of that show, the writers seem to be moving in a disappointing direction with regard to Cam and Mitchell, the gay couple. Another subject for another time).

These books, all coming out later this year, could not have been written without the books that came before. For example:

PROXY_coverIn Alex London’s futuristic and fabulous “Proxy,” Syd is a proxy in a world where the rich people are patrons. When a patron who “owns” a proxy screws up, Syd gets punished. Syd happens to be gay.




adaptationIn Malinda Lo’s sci-fi thriller “Adaptation” (came out last year), a web of conspiracies and bizarre happenings includes a secret treatment at a military hospital and an ensuing lesbian relationship that occurs seemingly out of the blue.



Rapture PracticeIn Aaron Hartzler’s amazing memoir “Rapture Practice,” Aaron describes growing up in a deeply religious household. While it is a coming of age story and the main character does begin to come to grips with his sexuality, it is not at the center of the novel. Questioning his own beliefs plays a far more central role.



Two Boys Kissingby David LevithanIn David Levithan’s “Two Boys Kissing” (I haven’t read yet but can’t wait!), two boys take part in a 32-hour kissing marathon while a Greek chorus of gay men lost to AIDS narrates.




Openly Straight coverIn my book “Openly Straight,” Rafe Goldberg just wants to be thought of as a person. His sexuality is not a big deal to him, but it feels as if it’s the headline to everyone else.




What do these “Modern” novels have in common? It’s hard to say at first glance. But to me, they all feel like they take the LGBTQ teen novel to a new place. David’s book cover shows two boys kissing. As he says in the article, “It’s no more gratuitous than straight people kissing. It’s crossing another line, but that’s what we keep doing.”

I am fascinated by how this process happens. We authors don’t always sit around and talk about this… We had no meeting in which it was decided to “move things forward” regarding LGBTQ Y.A. books. To me, this growth is organic and individual in each author, and it reflects the changes in society. I was able to write something that hadn’t been written before with Openly Straight only because I had already written my “Slant” book, Out of the Pocket. I could delve into an issue that I hadn’t seen before because I had unpacked my own slant on the coming out novel. I’d be curious to know how this played out for Malinda, or David. What led them to this particular point in time in their own writing?

Anyhow, what do you see as common themes in these and other current Y.A. novels dealing with LGBTQ protagonists?


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10 Responses to The evolution of LGBTQ characters in Y.A. lit

  1. M-E Girard says:

    Great post.

    I feel like the LGBT characters of right now are dealing with the same stuff they were dealing with in the novels of back then, except they’re not being treated like that’s the only reason they’re starring in a novel. That LGBT-specific “problem” is only one element out of the many elements that make them people. So, I still read about hate crime and violence, falling in love with a straight person, getting rejected by your parents for being gay–all those LGBT realities that are still true today, but instead of it being the “thing to write a story about,” it’s just “something that may or may not happen in the life of this kid that the story is actually about.”

    • bkonigsberg says:

      Thanks! I agree that one of the main differences is that these problems are now just “one thing” rather than “the thing” in an LGBTQ protagonist’s life. I do think, however, the this shift has knocked a lot of these novels out of the realm of “problem novel” into a different realm. Check out Alex London’s book when it comes out. It’s true that his protagonist has problems, but the handling of the character is thoroughly 2013. His sexuality isn’t mentioned until it comes up in dialogue, and it works. That would not have happened a few years ago.

  2. M-E Girard says:

    Oh, I’m just realizing now that I wasn’t clear on what I meant by “LGBT-specific problem.” I made it sound like I was referring to a problem novel, as in “being gay is a problem manifested in the way this novel will demonstrate.” I actually meant “problems” as in trouble for the main characters that drives the plot forward. So, when I said that I was still seeing LGBT protagonists dealing with the same issues that were explored in the older LGBT YA novels, I meant that this type of LGBT issue–as in, the hate crime, parental rejection, etc.–are only one of many issues the LGBT protagonists have to deal with, if at all. So they’re still present, but they don’t dominate the characters and their stories.

    The thing about writing contemporary YA with an LGBT protagonist is that the fact that this kid isn’t straight usually factors into the story in some way, especially with teens establishing their identity–but it doesn’t mean what it used to.

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  4. Caela says:

    Great post! But I am soooo curious about what you’re seeing in the more recent episodes of Modern Family!

    • bkonigsberg says:

      I have not been loving the direction the writers seem to be taking Cam and Mitchell. They have always been caricatures at least in part, and I’ve always been happiest when they’re given moments of humanity (usually toward the end of an episode). The episode that really bugged me was the one in which Mitchell battled his daughter’s bully in handball and acted like a jerk after beating the kid. I’m used to Cam being an utter stereotype, but when they make both of the men these absurd, mincing man-children, it bothers me some. Does that make sense? As I wrote it, I began to realize that this is hardly new in that show, but it does seem to be getting worse.

  5. mrisomwrites says:

    I love this post! In my own writing journey, what started out as my “problem” novel has, in revision, shifted and transformed into a more well-rounded YA contemporary novel. Over the years I’ve been rewriting and rewriting and rewriting it the book pushes itself further out of the Slant category into Modern. Honestly, I think it’ll end up somewhere in-between but I love the fact my protagonist’s relationship with boys takes a backseat to his other relationships–friends, family, God. More of this is needed in LGBTQ teen fiction, and I think we’re seeing only the beginning of that (for lack of a better word) trend.

  6. mrisomwrites says:

    Reblogged this on The Familiar and the Strange and commented:
    I simply adore this man and his books! Such an endearing soul. 🙂

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