Coming-out stories don’t unfold in a vacuum, and nor do teens’ own lives. The best books integrate queer teens’ coming-of-age stories into the rich and varied spectrum of human experience.
A corollary of this rule is that a good coming-out novel knows its characters are more than their sexual or gender identity. Queer kids are more than just their designated letter of the alphabet, and their stories—coming out and otherwise—should reflect that. As the protagonist of Cris Beam’s I Am J puts it: “Being trans wasn’t special, and yet it was. It was just good and bad and interesting and…very human, like anything else.”
In YA lit, for example, young gay men are quite promiscuous, and their varied sexual encounters are described in detail. Robin Reardon’s books, for instance, feature hand jobs, oral sex, and phone sex, among other types, and the young men are depicted as finding the sex so pleasurable it’s almost spiritual. David Levithan and Alex Sanchez likewise portray passionate, excited, highly sexual men. However, the men in these books don’t always use protection, which is a worry in this era of increased knowledge about sexually transmitted diseases.
For young gay women, it’s not the same story at all in regard to passionate and varied sex. In novel after novel, whether by Nancy Garden, Jane Eagland, or Lili Wilkinson, the women are scared, hesitant, and shy when it comes to physical intimacy, sometimes even avoiding it. All this might suggest to readers that gay men sleep around and don’t care about the consequences, while young lesbians are frightened of and uncomfortable with sex. Is this really a message we want to pass on to the next generation, especially those who might just be coming out themselves?
As for bisexual young people, they’re often described as “experimenting” and as being willing to get involved with anything that moves. In literature, they also regularly cheat on their partners. This seems to say that bisexuality isn’t a real orientation and that bisexuals are so eager for sex that they don’t care who they sleep with or what impact they have on these people.
Meanwhile, transgender teens in literature scarcely seem interested in relationships or sex at all, because they’re generally so busy worrying about gender issues that they never appear to have anything else going on in their lives.