Today, we have Chelsea Pitcher, author of The S-Word, with the most personal post so far about her own experience, finding representation in literature, and how this has affected how she writes.
Once upon a time, I fell in love with a girl.
Yeah. That happened.
I was sixteen years old and, to be honest, it took me completely by surprise. I’d only ever had crushes on boys before. But this—this was not a crush. This was full blown, head over heels, earth shattering first love. And it changed everything.
It was also incredibly difficult.
Not only did I have to navigate the often-rocky terrain of a first time teenage relationship, I had to do it with someone who couldn’t tell her family about us, for fear of being disowned. I had to figure out how to tell my friends and family what was happening in my life (and in my heart) when I couldn’t even name it. Was I gay now? Had I always been gay? Was I bi? Was I something else entirely?
WHAT DID IT ALL MEAN?
As I often did in times of emotional difficulty, I started searching for forms of media that represented people like me. I fell in love with But I’m a Cheerleader, related a little too much to Heavenly Creatures (um…the non-murdery parts, anyway) and put up with the cheesiness of Lost and Delirious because the message spoke to me. I rooted for Katchoo in Strangers in Paradise and snatched up the issue of Girlfriends magazine with Willow and Tara on the cover. I gobbled up everything I could find that made me feel like I wasn’t a total weirdo-freak, and in a lot of ways, I was successful.
Except with books.
Now, I want to preface this by saying that fiction with queer characters did exist. It wasn’t a mythical unicorn that people whispered about but never saw. Still, finding it was difficult, and trust me, I tried. For years, my girlfriend and I went down to Powell’s and scoured the shelves, looking for stories that featured people like us. We found uh… let’s say “instructional” books in the Sex and Sexuality section. Several more on sexual theory in non-fiction. But in terms of queer teen novels, we just didn’t have much luck, and it’s too bad, because we could’ve used them.
They would’ve helped us through some really difficult times.
Made us feel like we weren’t alone.
Maybe, they could’ve saved people’s lives.
That’s the thing about fiction: even when the rest of the world refuses to acknowledge your worth, or even your existence, books are there to make you feel loved. Books are there to make you feel understood, valuable, real. Books are there to tell you: you exist.
I think that’s why I’m so insistent on putting queer characters into my stories now. Besides the obvious life experience that allows me to write certain tales with authenticity, I just can’t imagine handing one of my books to a queer teen and saying, “Sorry, you’re not represented here.” I can’t imagine creating a world where queer characters don’t exist, because that wouldn’t be representative of reality. Even when writing fantasy (which, yes, I dabble in), I wouldn’t want to create a world without queer characters because that world would be drab and colorless without them. It would be like painting a picture using only shades of blue, pretending reds and greens and purples don’t exist. It would be a form of dishonesty.
And art, if nothing else, is about telling the truth. That’s why characters like Jesse will always exist in my stories—characters whose gender and sexuality can’t be labeled so easily. Jesse refuses to conform to traditional gender stereotypes, sometimes dressing in women’s clothing, and sometimes men’s. In terms of his sexuality, he’s still figuring things out. Maybe he’ll be figuring them out his whole life.
And as for me, well, I’m done trying to figure things out. I spent far too many years wondering WHO AM I? What is my label? What is my official sexuality? And anytime I thought I’d figured it out, something happened to surprise me. Something, or someone.
Life’s funny like that.
In the end, I decided those labels were more important to other people in my life than they were to me. Other people wanted to define me, but love can’t be defined. Love can’t be contained, stuck into a box, labeled and put on a shelf for easy referencing. I love who I love. So should you.
Your heart knows the way.
I want to end by mentioning some wonderful GLBTQ novels that have come out in the past few years. There are so many more than there used to be, and here are some of my favorites:
THE BERMUDEZ TRIANGLE by Maureen Johnson
This is the book I wish I’d had when I was sixteen. I related to each of the main characters so well. One of them has always known she’s gay, one of them isn’t sure, and the other is struggling with a long-distance romance (something I also dealt with in my first relationship!) I laughed, I cried—I wanted to reread it the minute I was finished.
BEAUTY QUEENS by Libba Bray
Maybe you’re like me, and “gay” and “straight” don’t really define you. Well never fear, my darling dear, this book is for you! Libba Bray, the illustrious genius that she is, has included gay, bi and trans characters in this hilarious story about friendship, survival and identity. One of my all time favorites!
Get ready to cry (or maybe that’s just me—I am a sap), because this story will tug on your heartstrings. This stunning, laugh-out-loud coming of age story features two Latino boys learning about life, friendship, family and love.
THE MODERN FAERIE TALES by Holly Black
My absolute favorite urban fantasy series, featuring multiple queer characters, including faeries! You really can’t go wrong with that.
GIRL GODDESS NUMBER NINE and THE ROSE AND THE BEAST by Francesca Lia Block
Two short story collections from the goddess of magical realism, featuring gay and trans characters. Block’s lyrical writing has kept me coming back for over a decade. A treat for the heart and senses!