I read this great, thought-provoking post by Kody Keplinger (author of The DUFF which is FREAKING AWESOME btw) about bisexual characters in YA. And, like thought-provoking posts tend to do, it got me to, well, thinking.
When I was in high school, back in the 90s ― pre-Dawson’s Creek, pre-Buffy, and vastly pre-Glee, when everything my friends and I knew about gayness came from our own, um, gayness ― I recall bisexuality as being the default assumption about anyone who expressed same-sex interest. There was no expectation that just because a girl was interested in another girl one week, she wouldn’t be interested in a boy the following week. But I don’t recall using the word “bi” very much. Maybe that was a generational thing; we didn’t have many examples of people calling themselves bi (we’d never heard the acronym “LGBTQ” either), so it didn’t occur to us.
Today, the vocabulary of the LGBTQ movement has entered the mainstream, and so labels are much more the thing. Kids come out earlier, too, both to themselves and to others. And in some cases, certainly, there is a rush to claim a label of their very own.
But the thing that hasn’t changed from my own teen years to today is the fact that high school is a time of sexual uncertainty for a lot of people. There is much deliberation and much exploration, and, especially for a lot of teens who identify as being on the LGBTQ spectrum, there is much fluidity. On Monday you’re totally in love with that redheaded girl in Geometry; on Tuesday she blows you off so you hate her; on Wednesday you hook up with her ex-boyfriend just to spite her; on Thursday you think hey, maybe you and the redhead’s ex-boyfriend could actually have, you know, a thing; on Friday you and the ex are picking out your prom clothes; then on Saturday you catch the ex exchanging sexy Facebook messages with your ex, and on Sunday you’ve totally moved on and are crushing hard on your field hockey coach. During all that time, are you worrying about your sexual identity? Maybe, but more likely you’re too busy exchanging melodramatic text messages with your best friend analyzing it all.
All of which, in my mind, ties back to the presence of bisexual characters in YA novels like so:
I think a huge chunk of the protagonists in LGBTQ YA novels, especially the girl protagonists, are bi. But they don’t get credit for it. Because the books themselves aren’t branded as bi in the books’ back cover copy, in reviews, in Publisher’s Marketplace blurbs, etc.
Because novels are about problems. And usually, the problem when you’re a teenager isn’t that you’re attracted to people of both genders. Attraction to people of the opposite sex is the norm; it’s expected. The problem is that you’re attracted to someone of the same sex. So that’s what books tend to focus on.
So a book gets branded as a “lesbian” book because it’s about a girl having a relationship with another girl. Sometimes one or both of those girls explicitly refers to themselves as a lesbian, but just as often, maybe more often, the protagonist just spends the book obsessing over the feelings she’s having about this one particular girl. (Btw, I’m talking about girl books here because that’s what I write myself and that’s most of what I read as well; on the boy end of the spectrum, I think this happens much less often.)