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Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit: GLBTQ YA and Issues of Faith, a guest post by Robert Bittner

Writing about spirituality is a really complex thing and includes myriad ways of looking at the world and at institutions that purport to nurture the spiritual lives of youth, since we’re getting specific. My own history within institutionalized Protestant Christianity left me feeling marginalized, especially due to my identity as a young gay man (though not out at the time, at least not to my youth group friends.) Institutionalized religion is—rather unfortunately, as far as I’m concerned—guilty of creating an environment of conflict and self-hatred within the LGBTQ community, and in my early teens, there was little support for queer Christians available. Now there are fantastic organizations available for teens to find a space of freedom and acceptance within Christian communities (Gay Christian Network is one very prominent example.) But I digress. This is supposed to be about books, after all!

When it comes to LGBTQ literature for youth (referred to as Queer YA from here on), there has been a history similar to that discussed briefly above in relation to queer individuals in the church. In early Queer YA, Christianity was treated as the enemy, often in the form of stereotypical preachers screaming about fire and brimstone, or in the form of conservative congregations refusing to allow queer individuals to attend Sunday morning services. More recently, queerness within Christianity has been dealt with through various takes on the degayification camp. These are camps in which young people are supposed to learn how to be straight again (The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Thinking Straight, Caught in the Crossfire.) The other consistent plot point throughout almost all YA with queer Christian themes is the engagement of a protagonist in debate with an anti-gay (often religious) character, during which biblical scriptures are tossed back and forth in an effort to prove that homosexuality is or is not okay in the eyes of God, Jehovah, or whatever omnipotent being is under scrutiny within the novel.

In an effort to understand more popular views on queer Christianity through YA publishing, I used the topic of Queer YA with Christian themes as the focal point for my MA thesis in Children’s Literature. I studied three books (though I wish I had been able to include more recent books, like Cameron Post and Caught in the Crossfire) in order to get a better understanding of trends within these books: Thinking Straight, The God Box, and Nothing Pink. These three novels featured gay male characters (at the time, I had to keep things simple, for brevity, but I wish I could have included more female protagonists), and had some element of Christianity that affected the protagonist’s identity as a queer individual. In the end, I was able to find two main types: Novels of abandonment and novels of reconciliation.

Novels of reconciliation are those in which the protagonist was able to find a way to make their queerness fit within the framework of Christianity, which novels of abandonment often rely on a rhetoric in which Christianity is a polar opposite to queer identity and the two can never be a part of one single identity construct. Both of these are interesting perspectives, of course, but the most damaging, I feel, is the one that does not allow, in any way, for queerness and Christianity to coexist, and the reason I feel this is harmful is because it makes Christianity the enemy, which, while often shown as such in the media, is not always the case, and also because queerness is then seen as superior simply because of its status as not Christian.

I believe the exclusion, or the either/or nature of the novel of abandonment creates an unhelpful dichotomy between those who are queer and those who are Christian (or, in some ways, spiritual in any sense of the word). Unfortunately, there are few novels with the subtlety to create an identity that is both queer and Christian. The conclusion I came to through my research was the need for novels in which teens are allowed to develop their own individual (queer) theologies.

Queer characters in YA literature exemplify the struggle of youth against social institutions, in this case, they transgress the boundaries of the conservative, American Protestant church.  Roberta Trites perhaps says it best in Disturbing the Universe: “The chief characteristic that distinguishes adolescent literature from children’s literature is the issue of how social power is deployed during the course of the narrative” (2). In Queer YA literature, the social powers are sometimes those of a political or religious nature that are deployed in such a way as to deny the character his or her ability to develop a sexual identity with which to be comfortable. Often, “a major developmental crisis can occur when gay and lesbian adolescents attempt to establish an identity in a society that devalues their sexual orientation” (Vare and Norton 190).

Family, socio-political ideology, Christian institutions and dogma, and current events all play very influential roles in the lives of queer teens as they attempt to create personal identities in a rapidly changing world. The difficulty for most queer youth is the expectation of conforming to the heteronormative assumptions displayed so prominently in much of daily life, in family relationship dynamics, in Christian dogma, and in ideologies of advertising and pop culture such as film, television, and music. Many teens become frustrated because of the ways in which they differ from the hegemonic expectations surrounding them. Nothing Pink, The God Box, and Thinking Straight show this clearly within their narratives and in the process each protagonist undergoes to accept a queer (Christian) identity through the erasure of heteronormative and religious boundaries.

All of the main characters display their transgression and reclamation of Christianity through an interrogation of scripture—what Patrick Cheng (2011) refers to as talking about, and talking to God—and with specific dogma set forth by churches and Christian ministries within the texts.  Each character confronts the “clobber passages” that right-wing conservatives (often under the guise of Christian proselytizing) use to claim homosexuality as morally reprehensible. What I would love to see more of in Queer YA with Christian sub-plots, is the ability of characters to reimagine their spirituality—their faith—in ways which incorporate gender and sexual identities, instead of feeling the need to abandon all religious and spiritual components of their identities as opposed to abandoning all faith and spirituality.

I hope this very brief look at issues related to spirituality and religion in Queer YA helps to broaden and enhance future readings of similar YA literature. I think there’s a lot of room for improvement even as there are more novels available now than were available in my youth.

Meet our Guest blogger:

Rob Bittner is a PhD candidate in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University, and he has a history of working with children’s and YA literature in various contexts, including his MA degree and various award committees through the American Library Association. I love queer lit and I especially love when it engages with topics that are “out of the ordinary.”

For more on Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit check out our series index/hub

Publisher’s Book Descriptions of Books Discussed

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth

When Cameron Post’s parents die suddenly in a car crash, her shocking first thought is relief. Relief they’ll never know that, hours earlier, she had been kissing a girl.

But that relief doesn’t last, and Cam is soon forced to move in with her conservative aunt Ruth and her well-intentioned but hopelessly old-fashioned grandmother. She knows that from this point on, her life will forever be different. Survival in Miles City, Montana, means blending in and leaving well enough alone (as her grandmother might say), and Cam becomes an expert at both.

Then Coley Taylor moves to town. Beautiful, pickup-driving Coley is a perfect cowgirl with the perfect boyfriend to match. She and Cam forge an unexpected and intense friendship–one that seems to leave room for something more to emerge. But just as that starts to seem like a real possibility, ultrareligious Aunt Ruth takes drastic action to “fix” her niece, bringing Cam face-to-face with the cost of denying her true self–even if she’s not exactly sure who that is.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a stunning and unforgettable literary debut about discovering who you are and finding the courage to live life according to your own rules.

Thinking Straight by Robin Reardon

When he is shipped off to Straight to God, an institution devoted to ”deprogramming” troubled teenagers, Taylor Adams learns valuable lessons in love, courage, rebellion, and betrayal in a place where piety is a mask for cruelty and the greatest crimes go.

Caught in the Crossfire by Alan Gibbons

Set in a northern town where right-wingers are determined to stir up hatred and racial prejudice, six teenagers’ lives are woven together by a series of shocking and tragic events. A British Muslim brother and sister, two Irish brothers who take different sides, and two lads out looking for trouble: all of them get caught in the crossfire. Inspired by the Oldham riots and the events of September 11th, this is a chilling account of current events in Britain, but written with humor and understanding.

The God Box by Alex Sanchez

How could I choose betwen my sexuality and my spirituality, two of the most important parts that made me whole?

High school senior Paul has dated Angie since middle school, and they’re good together. They have a lot of the same interests, like singing in their church choir and being active in Bible club. But when Manuel transfers to their school, Paul has to rethink his life. Manuel is the first openly gay teen anyone in their small town has ever met, and yet he says he’s also a committed Christian. Talking to Manuel makes Paul reconsider thoughts he has kept hidden, and listening to Manuel’s interpretation of Biblical passages on homosexuality causes Paul to reevaluate everything he believed. Manuel’s outspokenness triggers dramatic consequences at school, culminating in a terrifying situation that leads Paul to take a stand.

Lambda Literary Award-winning author Alex Sanchez tackles a subject ripped from the headlines in this exciting and thought-provoking exploration of what it means to be both religious and gay.

Out of the Closet and Onto the Shelves: A Tweetcap of Christie’s GLBTQ Presentation at TLA

Christie presented at TLA this past week with Peter Coyl from Dallas Public Library and David Levithan. Here’s a Tweetcap of their presentation.

#txla14 Come to room 202AB NOW to hear David Levithan, @mz_christie & @petercoyl discuss GLBT Lit pic.twitter.com/sCeWwpdrNP
— TeenLibrarianToolbox(@TLT16) April 10, 2014

First bk: BETTER NATE THAN EVER by Tim Federle#mglit Stonewall BkAward Boy wants to be in E T the musical. Funny bk, light accessible
— TeenLibrarianToolbox(@TLT16) April 10, 2014

FIVE SIX SEVEN NATE continues the story of Nate
— TeenLibrarianToolbox(@TLT16) April 10, 2014

Next bk: BRANDED BY THE PINK TRIANGLE by Ken Setterington. Looks at the Holocause& focuses on the persecution of GLBT during this time.
— TeenLibrarianToolbox(@TLT16) April 10, 2014

Next bk: FAT ANGIE by e. E. Charlton-Trujillo. Angie is dealing w/the loss of her sister. Grief, mental health issues, body issues, family
— TeenLibrarianToolbox(@TLT16) April 10, 2014

Next Bk: BEAUTIFUL MUSIC FOR UGLY CHILDREN by Kirsten Cronn-Mills. Transgender man. Radio show called the ugly children. Gabe/Elizabeth
— TeenLibrarianToolbox(@TLT16) April 10, 2014

Section in back of BEAUTIFUL MUSIC FOR UGLY CHILDREN on Trans Issues, great resources
— TeenLibrarianToolbox(@TLT16) April 10, 2014

Fluxxis doing really good books in GLBT issues @mz_christie says
— TeenLibrarianToolbox(@TLT16) April 10, 2014

Next bk: TWO BOYS KISSING by David Levithan. Narrated by “angels”/ghosts/Greek chorus that have died of AIDS who comment to characters
— TeenLibrarianToolbox(@TLT16) April 10, 2014

TWO BOYS KISSING based on part of two boys who for a short time held the Guinness World Record for kissing, they were making a statement
— TeenLibrarianToolbox(@TLT16) April 10, 2014

Next Bk: THE SUMMER PRINCE by AlayaDawn Johnson Set in futuristic Brazil, a Matriarchal society. Sexuality is fluid and accepted.
— TeenLibrarianToolbox(@TLT16) April 10, 2014

TWO BOYS KISSING: David said he really wanted to include the past and that sense of history.
— TeenLibrarianToolbox(@TLT16) April 10, 2014

Next Bk: RAPTURE PRACTICE by Aaron Hurtzler, based on his true story, very religious family, funny and heartbreaking
— TeenLibrarianToolbox(@TLT16) April 10, 2014

David Levithan: “Whenyou are living through the shitty parts, you have to find them funny & surreal to survive”
— TeenLibrarianToolbox(@TLT16) April 10, 2014

Next Bk: OPENLY STRAIGHT by Bill Koening. MC decides in new life to not be poster child for gay & hides it, big twist makes it interesting
— TeenLibrarianToolbox(@TLT16) April 10, 2014

David Levithan: talking about Glee, I just want Kurt to have 1 moment where he is not the gay one, it doesn’t have to define people
— TeenLibrarianToolbox(@TLT16) April 10, 2014

Next Bk: PROXY by Alex London, two guys but not a romance, one boy stands in proxy 4 the other & has to take punishments of the other
— TeenLibrarianToolbox(@TLT16) April 10, 2014

GUARDIAN coming out in May is sequel to PROXY
— TeenLibrarianToolbox(@TLT16) April 10, 2014

Next Bk: PANTOMIME by Laura Lam, important because (spoiler!) only yawith an intersex character
— TeenLibrarianToolbox(@TLT16) April 10, 2014

There were a few more Tweeted to me after this.

Next Bk: MARCO IMPOSSIBLE by Hannah MoskowitzMission Impossible hi jinks, funny, fast read, quirky character
— TeenLibrarianToolbox(@TLT16) April 10, 2014

Christie then went through and mentioned some GLBT lit in graphic novels

Next Bk: WONDERING SONS by Shimura Takako, graphic novel series, transgender issues, Japanese culture
— TeenLibrarianToolbox(@TLT16) April 10, 2014

New things coming in GN world: BATWOMAN series, coming back, lesbian
— TeenLibrarianToolbox(@TLT16) April 10, 2014

CONSTANTINE coming back, he is bisexual in the comics
— TeenLibrarianToolbox(@TLT16) April 10, 2014

YOUNG AVENGERS in Marvel has a gay couple, Marvel has lifted it’s ban on gay characters @mz_christie is saying
— TeenLibrarianToolbox(@TLT16) April 10, 2014

SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED and RETHINKING NORMAL are complimentary biographies on a couple transitioning, coming soon
— TeenLibrarianToolbox(@TLT16) April 10, 2014

David Levithan: books have to be both windows and mirrors, access points for all possible readers
— TeenLibrarianToolbox(@TLT16) April 10, 2014

Someone in the audience asked about GLBT lit for middle grades

Peter Coyl: not a lot of GLBT for MG, but it’s getting better and Rainbow List organizes by age
— TeenLibrarianToolbox(@TLT16) April 10, 2014

James Howe has also written some GLBT for MG readers
— TeenLibrarianToolbox(@TLT16) April 10, 2014

Someone asked about book challenges and David Levithan reminded us that we have to have the books that ALL kids need, not just the ones that make us feel safe in our jobs.

David Levithan: We can’t let the bkchallengers make the terms or frame the argument, we need to have the bkskids need
— TeenLibrarianToolbox(@TLT16) April 10, 2014

David Levithan: What’s the point of keeping urjob if you’re not going to do your job, don’t let bkchallengers make u forget why u r there
— TeenLibrarianToolbox(@TLT16) April 10, 2014

David Levithan: Every social change happens because people were brave to do it
— TeenLibrarianToolbox(@TLT16) April 10, 2014

Here is a look at some upcoming titles that were mentioned