David Levithan on LGBTQ fiction for young adults

From Saturday Morning, 8:33 am on 13 August 2016

"I wanted [the 2003 novel] Boy Meets Boy just to be a dippy, happy, romantic comedy about two boys falling for each other and having some difficulty but ending up together. That shouldn’t have been radical, but at the time it was extremely radical" - David Levithan.

David Levithan

David Levithan. Photo: supplied.

New York writer David Levithan has been leading the way in LGBTQ young adult fiction since his first book Boy Meets Boy 13 years ago.

He talks with Kim Hill about the Orlando shooting, Donald Trump and the ‘Q’ in LGBTQ.

David Levithan is a guest at the WORD Christchurch writers festival.

David Levithan on the Orlando shooting:

Murdering that many people is always a ‘hate’ crime. In this case it was very specifically aimed at a certain identity.

One of the most harrowing things about the [Orlando] shooting was that we thought we were getting all of these rights and respect and making social change, then somebody comes in and shoots us while we’re dancing.

I think part of progress is constantly being aware of the backlash and constantly being aware that things could turn at any moment.

David Levithan on the US political landscape:

Looking at Trump and his rhetoric, looking at some of the things directed at Hillary Clinton, you see that social change is not ever absolute. It is always, if you’re lucky, a majority-rule type of thing. So you always have to be vigilant. The pendulum could swing back and you could be the minority again. You always – always – have to fight to maintain your rights.

[Trump] taps into a vein of bigotry and hate that has always been prevalent in America. And he is articulating it very openly. It is resonating with some people but it is repelling more people, and hopefully that will continue to be the case until November.

[Trump] is all over the place [on homosexual rights]. He says he is ‘the best friend that a gay has ever had’ but then he is opposed to equality. He is wrong about so many other things that it almost doesn’t matter. If he’s racist and sexist, his position on gay rights doesn’t matter because he’s just wrong.

David Levithan on social change:

Social change happens by people sharing their stories and by the ‘other’ not being quite as scary and other when you know people with an identity that you didn’t know before.

If you look at where [LGBTQ rights] is now versus where we were when Obama took office, there is massive change and massive progress – not just in legislation, but in the way that Americans see each other. I think change can occur, but it is a miracle with the system we have.

David Levithan on coming out:

I think it is becoming more and more normal. There is still the moment of revelation. Hopefully it will become less of a big deal as time goes by. I think heterosexuality will always be the norm against which everybody else is measured, but eventually, hopefully, that won’t matter.

David Levithan on the Q in LGBTQ:

‘Q’ can mean ‘queer’, it can mean ‘questioning’, depending on who you ask. A lot of times it is LGBTQ+.

It is because there are lots of identities that are queer – whether it’s intersex, asexuality or other things on the spectrum of sexuality that identify as queer but don’t quite fit into the label of ‘LGBTQ’.

A lot of (especially) teenagers now identify as queer because they don’t want to label themselves and have an identity labelled by who they are in love with or who they want to be with.

['Queer'] a good label to say “Hey, I’m not the norm. I don’t believe that it has be ‘man and woman’, but I don’t want to be defined by ‘man and man’ or ‘woman and woman’”.

David Levithan on the evolution of LGBTQ young adult literature:

My day job is as an editor of YA novels so I was very aware of the history of young adult literature, especially involving LGBTQ teens. There’s always a curve – it starts in misery and death. In the ‘60s and ‘70s there were a number of books here in America where, if a kid came out, his boyfriend died or – strangely, three times – his dog died. What an interesting message to send to the teen readers.

Eventually by the ‘80s and ‘90s – with some very notable exceptions – it was still pretty miserable. If you came out you’d be in misery and then maybe you’d find somebody else to be miserable with you. The book would end with the two miserable people finding each other and being outcasts together.

I wanted Boy Meets Boy to rewrite that plot. I wanted it just to be a dippy, happy, romantic comedy about two boys falling for each other, and having some difficulty but ending up together. That shouldn’t have been radical, but at the time it was extremely radical because we’d never seen that in YA literature.

The good news is that there have been since a number of amazing young queer writers who’ve written a variety of voices. It isn’t just the miserable story anymore. We don’t have to do that plot where it’s just grim and dire and being gay is a problem rather than something that is just part of who you are that can be a very happy part.

I hear a lot from kids who have queer friends or queer family members who are like ‘Oh, I finally get what they’re going through a little bit more because of your books’. It makes [both queer people and their friends and family] feel less alone and that’s a really powerful thing to hear.

David Levithan’s books include Boy Meets Boy, How They Met, Every Day, Two Boys Kissing, Will Grayson, Will Grayson (with John Green), and You Know Me Well (with Nina LaCour).