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From Romance to Magical Realism: Limits and Possibilities in Gay Adolescent Fiction

Abstract

Authors of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) adolescent novels have recently moved away from addressing the “problem” of sexual identity and have instead focused on personal and societal “acceptance” of non-normative sexualities. Within the increasing number of “acceptance” titles published depicting gay males, there are two distinct means of representing forms of gayness. In this article, I illustrate that what distinguishes these forms from one another is their handling of homophobia and the extent to which they subvert heteronormativity, the implicit belief that heterosexuality is the only “normal” self-identity. While some authors use homophobia as the foil against which queer characters struggle in order to find happiness as a couple, others work to suspend “reality” by imagining away homophobia—showing queer characters building relationships in an environment relatively free of discrimination. Despite their differences, I argue that both methods ultimately reinscribe heteronormativity through the assumption that monogamous coupling is the goal of LGBTQ youth.

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Notes

  1. Will and Grace, for example, situates its gay portrayals inside the TV genre of other “gay” and “lesbian” couples like LaVern and Shirley or Lucy and Ethel (Doty, 1993).

  2. Special thanks to Suzanne Knezek, Jacqueline LaRose, and Debbie Reese for the conversations that guided me in this interpretation.

  3. Renowned author of LGBTQ fiction Nancy Garden actually suggests that Levithan’s book could be classified as contemporary realistic fiction when she writes that Boy Meets Boy treats readers “to a glimpse of what life can and should be for GLBT kids, and what, in some enlightened parts of the country, it to a large extent already is” (p. 33). Garden’s statement exposes a quandary in the way she classifies those who embrace LGBTQ sexual identity as being “enlightened” when compared to those who reject the book as impossibility (and call the book a “fantasy”). She relies upon an “us/them” mentality where binary distinctions (good/bad, ignorant/enlightened) are reinforced. However, I would argue that the campy generic elements in Boy Meets Boy, like motorcycle-riding cheerleaders, make a designation of “contemporary realistic fiction” problematic, so the book might best be considered a form of magical realism: a genre that has played an important role in the emerging genre of LGBTQ literature (most notably in the work of Francesca Lia Block) in its attempts to disrupt normativity for readers.

  4. Boy Meets Boy is not the only gay adolescent novel to provide a depiction of a generally well-adjusted gay male protagonist, only to be subsequently dismissed as a work of fantasy. James Howe’s Totally Joe (2005), a contemporary realistic novel about a 12-year-old eighth grade boy who self-identifies as gay, has been referred to as “idealized” (Salvatore, 2005, p. 137) and labeled more science fiction/fantasy than contemporary realistic fiction (i.e. Liberty, 2005, n.p.). Editorial and reader reviews of this book suggest that because “[Joe] and his family accept his emerging sexuality rather easily” (Salvatore, 2005, p. 137), the novel feels unrealistic and is considered a “fantasy of acceptance” (Liberty, 2005, n.p.).

  5. The use of the word “lucky” to describe gay protagonists who are not rejected by family, friends, or society more generally automatically implies for readers that at best, the world is not as nice a place as one might like, or worse, that these characters do not deserve (they are not worthy) or do not earn (they are lazy) the regard they receive. Having the characters refer to themselves as “lucky” (when I would argue that they’ve earned it) essentially removes agency from the character and suggests to readers that gay people do not deserve respect, they cannot earn it, they are bestowed a boon (they are “lucky”) by those with authorial privilege.

  6. In this article I have sought to distinguish gay adolescent romance novels from examples of magical realism based on the role they give homophobia and on their use of masculine/feminine distinctions for gay characters. In future work, I intend to address a striking similarity between the genres: their focus on being part of a monogamous couple as the ultimate goal of most LGBTQ characters. In their reliance upon the heteronormative genre convention of the traditional coupling formula they show that each era “finds its own models for the familiar tale” (Mussell, 1984, p. 4). Individual romances may play with events within a particular book, but “the shape of the narrative is predictable, even when the outline of a specific plot seems to represent an innovation” (Mussell, 1984, p. 37). In this sense, even Boy Meets Boy molds gay males to fit into an “acceptable” heteronormative frame. This formulaic representation of love, desire, and consummation of desire reflects a domesticated, “female”-socialized orientation to sexual desire emblematic of reproductive futurism: it removes non-normative gay adolescents having various kinds of non-monogamous sex (in bathrooms, parks, streets, etc.) and places gay males safely inside a “female’s” sex and marriage scenario, securing the promise of a better tomorrow.

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Acknowledgements

I am indebted to John McAdoo and Drs. Brian Crisp, Kenneth Kidd, Jim King, Debbie Reese, and Lawrence R. Sipe, as well as my writing group at USF and the anonymous reviewers for their generous feedback, advice, and support. For CYP.

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Correspondence to Thomas Crisp.

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Thomas Crisp is assistant professor of childhood education and literacy studies at the University of South Florida—Sarasota/Manatee where he teaches courses in literacy, literary theory, and children’s and adolescent literature, media, and culture.

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Crisp, T. From Romance to Magical Realism: Limits and Possibilities in Gay Adolescent Fiction. Child Lit Educ 40, 333 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10583-009-9089-9

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Keywords

  • Young adult literature
  • Gay male sexual identity
  • Reproductive futurism
  • Heteronormativity
  • Homophobia