The Lesbian YA Files: The Classics
by Emily O’Beirne
One of the all-important phases of coming out as a teen is schooling yourself about lesbianism by consuming as many gay lady-related pop cultural artefacts as humanly possible. And for those discovering their girl-on-girl feelings in this technological age, at your Googling fingertips are You Tube compilations of entire lesbian TV storylines, online femslash fanfic epics, and websites like After Ellen pointing you in the right direction if your gaydar missed any lesbian celebs along the way. However, for those who did their coming out pre-internet, the pop culture educational pickings were slimmer, and it was between the pages of books that offered one of the few places to get a glimpse at lesbian culture. Sadly, though, one of the literary areas where pickings were slimmest was the world of young adult fiction.
It seems a little unfortunate; given this is the age when many girls do their whole ‘I think I like girls’ awakening. Of course, there were plenty of adult lesbian books out there for teens to get their mitts on, but there’s just something to be said for the confused fourteen-year-old having a few teen fiction baby steps before hitting up The Well of Loneliness for the lesbian experience, don’t you think? So, in those pre-internet days, when the rare book featuring lesbian teens made its way into the world, these volumes tended to be well-thumbed and loved, whatever the quality. Because these books did enough by merely existing, by letting young gay women know there were other young gay women in the world.
And even today, when there are so many ways to access lesbian popular culture, young adult fiction continues to be part of the process by which young gay women first gain a sense of collective identity. And thankfully, this body of work is finally growing every year—as does the quality and diversity. In this series, The Lesbian YA files, I’ll be exploring some of the themes and genres I have noticed emerging in the lesbian young adult landscape. But first, I thought we’d better visit what I’d consider some of the ‘classics’ of the YA lesbian fiction genre.
In 2013 some Australian researchers found that in terms of periods when humans had the best quality of life, 1978 remains the year to beat in the satisfaction stakes. And it was also happens to be the year that the quality of reading life improved for teenage lesbians everywhere. Because it was the year when not one but two young adult fiction books featuring lesbian themes and characters appeared on shelves. And given that lesbian teens had only existed in the written YA word for two years, and in only one book (Rosa Guy’s Ruby) at this point, we can consider that a banner year.
The first of these books, Sandra Scoppettone’s Happy Endings are all Alike, is a doozy, too. I didn’t actually read this book until my twenties, when I found it on a flatmate’s bookshelf. And I’ll tell you right now I’m glad about that, because this tale might have had the lesbian mini-me running for the heterosexual hills in my teens. Set against a backdrop of American seventies suburbia, where be-flared teenagers qualify every statement with ‘gazinga’, and everyone likes to ‘rap’ a lot (and not in the P Diddy sense), Happy Endings tells the story of Peggy and Jaret, who are already lovers at the beginning of the novel. And as people in the town slowly find out about their relationship, one of the girls becomes victim of a hate crime. Misery and awfulness ensues. With a rather endearing seventies feminist bent, this novel is an oddly fascinating time capsule, but perhaps was not a very reassuring starter teen fiction despite the promised ending.
Deborah Hautzig’s Hey, Dollface, published that same year, is probably less lesbian and more lesbian subtext. Think Rizzoli and Isles over Calzona. In fact, so much so that when I discovered this book on my older sister’s bookshelf some time during my very early teens I devoured it without even really noticing this lesbian content (I read it again years later and now attribute the earlier miss to a horrifyingly late-blooming gaydar, though). This story is about two private school misfits who become the best of friends. Then, after a few lesbionic daydreams and some awkward bedtime fumblings, they begin to wonder if maybe they’ve bonded a little too much. While through the lens of today’s teenage experience this book and its characters are terrifyingly naïve, Hautzig was the first YA writer to explore that confusing terrain that often accompanies the combination of intimate bffs with nascent lesbianism. This would go on to be a theme in so many lesbian YA books later (although not for decades), earning Hey, Dollface its place as a groundbreaking ‘lesbian’ classic.
These novels appeared in the decade preceding the publication of Annie on my Mind. However, it is Nancy Garden’s sweet tale of first lesbian love that is largely considered the lesbian YA classic. Despite a little moral outrage and an occasional book burning around its publication, this story about two girls who make firm friends and then find themselves falling in love became the first truly mainstream lesbian YA fiction, and has been steadily reprinted since its first publication.
As an avid adolescent reader, I innocently picked this book at my local library in my mid-teens up as part of my usual fortnightly maxed-out book allowance. When I got home and discovered what it was actually about, I read it with the hunger of a girl finally getting the opportunity to recognise herself in a story. And then I read it over again. I came to this book much later than its publication year, but I can imagine this book it was a sorely needed story in many young lesbians lives in 1982 because it still was in mine all those years later. For decades Annie stood largely alone in telling teenage lesbians that coming out could be confusing and difficult, but also ultimately okay. Annie possessed everything an on-the-brink-of-lesbian teenage girl needed. It told us lesbians existed, that two girls can and do fall in love, and that happiness was possible. And it was all told with an innocence and with that sense of awe tinged with fear that comes with having those first serious feelings for someone you don’t even know if you are supposed to be having feelings for, and finding out it might just be reciprocated.
Sadly, following Annie, the lesbian YA genre remained practically non-existent. Things slowly began to pick up in the nineties and finally, by the 2000s what was a trickle became a steady flow. And while it will never be extensive enough, the body of work that counts as lesbian YA fiction grows all the time. It is not just the fact that there are more books, but that there is an increasing variety in stories about young lesbian lives. We can now read everything from classic coming out tales in contemporary teen life to high school dramas about girls faking being lesbians to fit in to dystopian universes with lesbian heroines.
And over the next few months, the YA Files will be looking at some of the themes and genres that have emerged in this ever-growing genre, starting next month when I look at the contemporary takes on the classic coming out novel. Until then, what was your first lesbian read as a teenager? Did you find a tattered copy of one of these classics in your library, or was it straight to The Well of Loneliness? Or were you lucky enough to come of age when a whole lot of lesbian fictional characters were coming out with you?
Emily O’Beirne writes books for young lesbians, and she also reads as many of them as humanly possible. You can find out more about her and her writing at http://www.emilyobeirne.com.