Why Gay Characters Matter

Every day more and more authors and publishers are providing books for students who feel like the minority. Teens by definition are discovering who they are. And I consider myself a successful librarian if they are turning to books to figure themselves out.
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Many of us at one time or another have belonged to a minority. Maybe you grew up a man with many sisters. Maybe you're the only one who likes a juicy hamburger in a crowd of vegans. Left-handed? Night owl? Deaf? At some point you may have looked to the left and looked to the right and wondered, "Where are others like me?"

One of my favorite books is The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, by Carolyn Mackler. I identified with the teenage main character, Virginia who didn't believe a boy could like her because she was overweight. Virginia's sarcasm, her defenses, and her self-destructive nature were things that I could completely relate to. I'm no psychiatrist, but I believe it's good for people to find other people like themselves. Whether it's a neighbor or a fictional character, it's nice to know we aren't alone.

Why would we deny that to anyone? As a brand new teen librarian in a small town, I sought a connection with teen groups around my community, including the YMCA, homeschoolers, and high school clubs. I was invited to speak with the Gay Straight Alliance and talked about some of the great books available for teens looking beyond the hetero relationship viewpoint. They were seeking alternative perspectives. They were seeking answers. They were seeking solidarity. Many of the students had never met another gay person, teen or adult. Many of them had never told their friends or family.

At the GSA meeting, they shared their experiences browsing the stacks for books or searching the online catalog, not knowing how to begin and not finding the books they wanted. None of the students felt comfortable approaching a librarian with their request. I was thrilled that I could provide a service that would fill this need.

First it started with a bookmark. But we needed a way that I could update it easily as new LGBTQ books came in, to make it easy for them to access the books. I included a booklist on the library website's readers' advisory page that linked the books directly to the catalog. There the students could read descriptions of the book, find out its availability, or place a hold on the book. For years, this method worked great. Until the website was challenged by the larger community. And all the books on the list were challenged. And consequently the kids felt challenged.

All the Gay Straight Alliance members wanted was to feel acceptance. To read about characters like themselves. Characters that feel similar joys and anxieties and threats. Like Russel Middlebrook from Geography Club, by Brent Hartinger, who discovers others like him in his school after assuming for so long that he was the only one.

"Geography Club" was just one of the many books that underwent public scrutiny by censors in our town. Cries of pornography and deviance sounded in public meetings. In our case, the students rallied together and found support from others in the community, and these words made them stronger. But this is not always the situation. Sometimes the words stick. Sometimes the books are removed. Sometimes the kids are shamed.

I still keep in touch with a few of the students who were active in the GSA during the 2009 book challenge. I've asked them how it affected them five years later, and one wrote back:

I was able to go into college with high self-esteem and confidence to enter into same-sex relationships. I had already gone through the process of coming out and finding out what being LGBTQ meant for me. Thanks to those books and those who were part of my life in high school, I came to college with a strong sense of identity. I got to focus on college, unlike some of my peers who had to find their sexual identity and research what that meant for them in college at the same time as trying to survive freshman classes. I can't tell you how many girls I had to teach about female condoms my freshman year or books that would help them try to come out to their families. I am very grateful for the resources I had as a teen.

Every day more and more authors and publishers are providing books for students who feel like the minority. Teens by definition are discovering who they are. And I consider myself a successful librarian if they are turning to books to figure themselves out. I want books with every single perspective and character jammed onto the shelves of libraries. I want every single different kind of kid -- deaf, left-handed or gay -- to find themselves staring back from the pages of a book.

"The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things" is just one of many books that I see myself in. I'm grateful I don't walk through life believing that everyone looks like a Barbie doll. Just as I can be myself today, hopefully so can LGBTQ teens who read about the struggles of Annie and Liza in Annie on My Mind, by Nancy Garden. Or maybe they'll pick up Boy Meets Boy, by David Levithan and read about the courtship of Paul and Noah. Or possibly, if they're lucky, they'll experience the compassion and fear for Liam by his sister Regan in Luna, by Julie Anne Peters. Whether majority or minority, these voices have a spot on the shelf.

Banned Books Week is an annual reminder to embrace the freedom to seek ourselves in books. The First Amendment awards each and every single person the right to read and speak freely. Celebrate the characters that help us discover ourselves.

CORRECTION: This post was previously published under the incorrect byline. The byline has been corrected.

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