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Find more Love and Survival
I do remember being intrigued by a recurring feature, “My Most Unforgettable Character,” which profiled people ranging from Albert Einstein to somebody’s aunt Myrtle. All that was required was that the person be, well, memorable. Yeah, they were memorable, all right, so memorable that I can’t remember a single one of them.
Yet I have a head full of memories of characters I have encountered in books. That brings me to LGBTQ literature for youth: why not examine some of the most memorable characters from that growing genre to see how they epitomize its evolution—with the understanding, of course, that “memorable” doesn’t mean I have to like the character. Here, then, are characters from a baker’s dozen of books, each of them distinguished by courage, love, and/or ability to simply survive.
Justin from The Man without a Face, by Isabelle Holland (Harper, 1972)
Unlikability, thy name is Justin McLeod, the titular faceless man and arguably the most annoying character in all of LGBTQ literature. McLeod is a humorless, self-important martinet—his nickname, appropriately, is “the Grouch”—who mercilessly bullies his student Chuck. Yes, there is a tender moment between the two, but it comes too late. In the end, McLeod dies offstage. While there are no tears shed here, McLeod is, like it or not, doubly significant to the evolution of LGBTQ youth lit: both the first gay adult in the genre and the first to die, inaugurating the early tradition of killing off the gay character.
Uncle Wes from The Arizona Kid, by Ron Koertge (Little, Brown, 1988)
A vastly more agreeable gay adult is Wes, the uncle of 16-year-old Billy. Wes is everything McLeod isn’t: caring, compassionate, and (thank the Lord) witty, making this the first LGBTQ novel to employ humor as a literary device. When a gang of bigots drives by his house, throwing a beer can and yelling, “You fucking faggots,” Uncle Wes calmly closes the door and says to Billy, “Another opening, another show.” Even better, Uncle Wes not only survives, he thrives, cheerfully defying the stereotype of the gay-uncle-about-whom-we-shall-not-speak.
Liza from Annie on My Mind, by Nancy Garden (Farrar, 1982)
Liza is arguably the best-realized lesbian character of its era and one of the first to acknowledge love as an aspect of homosexuality. This occurs when Liza reads an encyclopedia entry for homosexuality and discovers “the word ‘love’ wasn’t used even once. That made me mad.” The relationship between Liza and Annie develops accordingly, and by this heartfelt book’s end, Liza’s lesbian teacher captures its spirit by declaring, “Don’t let ignorance win, let love.”
Sahar from If You Could Be Mine, by Sara Farizan (Algonquin, 2013)
But letting love win sometimes takes a herculean effort. Just ask Sahar, the first Persian to figure in LGBTQ youth literature. She is prepared to undergo sex conversion surgery, even though she is not transgender, to be able to marry her true love, Nasrin. She feels that she has no other choice, for in Iran, homosexuality is punishable by death. It’s the kind of dilemma that is hard to forget—and so is Sahar.
Evie from Deliver Us from Evie, by M. E. Kerr (Harper, 1994)
With her short, slicked-back hair, Evie is said to look like Elvis Presley, though—unlike the King—she enjoys fixing farm machinery. To some degree, Evie is a stereotype of the butch lesbian, but that’s the point. When her mother implores her to wear a dress, Evie tells her, “I know some of you so-called normal people would like it better if we looked as much like you as possible but some of us don’t, can’t, and never will!”
Cameron from The Miseducation of Cameron Post, by emily m. danforth (Harper, 2012)
Though misfortune seems to dog her, Cameron is a survivor. Her parents are dead in a car crash, her lover has betrayed her, and her conservative aunt Ruth has sent her to a church camp called “God’s Promise” that promises to “cure” her of homosexuality. But Cameron takes after old Uncle Wes: she flourishes, epitomizing gay people’s capacity not only to endure but to overcome.
Luna from Luna, by Julie Anne Peters (Little, Brown, 2004)
Liam, born a boy, becomes Luna, the first male-to-female transgender character to receive novel-length treatment in youth lit. Luna displays courage and determination when, unable to be true to herself at home, she leaves in search of community. Shortlisted for the National Book Award, her inspiring and innovative story remains a bellwether for the growing body of transgender literature that has followed.
Laura from Down to the Bone, by Mayra Lazara Dole (Harper, 2008)
Another character who fits into the “survivor” category is Laura, the first Cuban American to appear in the canon. Kicked out of the house when her mother discovers she is a lesbian and expelled from her parochial school by “the psycho nuns from hell,” Laura finds a loving home with her best friend, Soli, and, perhaps, true love with Gisela. Laura’s story is distinguished by both its exuberant humor and its depiction of life in Miami’s Little Havana.
Dirk from Weetzie Bat, by Francesca Lia Block (Harper, 1989)
Another indelible character who finds comfort and community in friendship is Dirk, the best friend of the now-iconic Weetzie Bat. You’ve got to love a boy who sports a shoe-polish black Mohawk and owns a red 1955 Pontiac convertible. But not all is light in Dirk’s world; the dark specter of AIDS hovers over Block’s book and leads Dirk to utter the haunting line, “Love is a dangerous angel.”
Tiny from Hold Me Closer: The Tiny Cooper Story, by David Levithan (Dutton, 2015)
Not exactly angelic but certainly larger than life (literally) is Tiny Cooper, the self-dramatizing dramatist who splashed onto the scene and stole the show in Levithan and John Green’s Will Grayson, Will Grayson (2010). In Levithan’s follow-up, the hopeless romantic takes center stage in an autobiographical play called Hold Me Closer, which is approximately as irrepressible as Tiny himself.
Aristotle and Dante from Aristotle and Dante Discover the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (Simon & Schuster, 2012)
On the other end of the spectrum from Tiny (who has fallen in love 18 times) are Aristotle and Dante, who have fallen in love only once, with each other. The two are not only unforgettable characters, they are also significant as being two of the very few Latino characters in all of LGBTQ youth literature. Their story, though complex, revolves around the classic LGBTQ plot of coming out.
Rafe from Openly Straight, by Bill Konigsberg (Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine, 2013)
While Aristotle and Dante are coming out of the closet, Rafe is diving back into it—well, at least into its doorway. Why? He’s tired of being labeled “the gay kid.” And so he enrolls in a new school where no one knows him so that he can become “openly straight.” But then, wouldn’t you know it, he falls in love with his new best friend . . . and so it goes.
Kevin from Kevin Keller, by Dan Parent (Archie Comics, 2012)
And now, for something completely different! Keller, the most significant regular character to be added to the Archie cast in decades, is one of the very first and very few gay characters in comic books for kids. Yes, Kevin is an idealized character—few teenagers, gay or straight, are so happy and well adjusted—but he’s so darned likable you don’t care.
Michael Cart is coauthor with Christine A. Jenkins of Top 250 LGBTQ Books for Teens (Huron Street, 2015).
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