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Sexual Violence Inside (and Because of) the Closet by Anthony Isom (#SVYALit Project)

We live in a fortunate time. Once upon a time, homosexuality was viewed as either a disease or else an abnormality; things have certainly been changing as hatred toward homosexuality, AKA anti-gay discrimination, may not be viewed as abnormal but certainly as backward or retrogressive. This is a good thing. As a young gay man affianced to the love of my life, I both represent and benefit from the steady march of time. 

There is a disturbing trend which marches alongside progress, however, this idea that stories in which gay characters are represented as paradigms of romantic behavior trump those stories which highlight the often painful journey toward acceptance of oneself with which most teens relate. Don’t get me wrong. I adore BOY MEETS BOY or OUT OF THE POCKET or ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE. I am all over the current swell of young adult titles relating the transgender experience, for example: FREAKBOY, BEAUTIFUL MUSIC FOR UGLY CHILDREN, I AM J, FAT ANGIE. Andrew Smith’s GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE is the first book I’ve ever read narrated by a bisexual character, and I think it a major literary achievement not to mention his best published work to date. Gay characters deserve diverse stories and experiences not simply because it is truly representative of our vast world but also because a singular story is always limited and boring. Everyone knows gay people are anything but limited and boring. Seriously.

What then is disturbing about this current trend of promoting gay “happily ever after” stories above stories of rape, incest, child molestation? Once again, gay characters deserve diverse stories and experiences. Thus as I watch the pendulum swing from fierce hatred, erasure, and mischaracterization of gay teens to the wealth of LGBTQ young adult literature our culture experiences I find myself asking, “What about all those gay teens who still have it hard?” I suppose I cannot help but go there because my native state is South Carolina, my native culture is African-American, my native religion Seventh-Day Adventism. Within all three portions of my youth, there is stiflingly little room for the gay man I’ve become. The gay seventeen-year-old who loved his best friend more than he himself could quite articulate nearly perished in the closet he helped society build for him to live inside.

Two books, separated by more than a decade, written about teenage boys and their forays into the greater meaning of their sexual selves truly dig into this topic of Sexual Violence in Young Adult Literature in dynamic ways. There is this bleak moment from Jim Grimsley’s DREAM BOY that takes place just before Nathan, our protagonist, is brutally raped by one of his boyfriend Roy’s best friends:

“Weariness. The hollow place in Nathan is echoing now, the inner wind is ripping him to rags, entering through the place where Dad tore him, the opening that Burke sees now, the wound that does not close. The dark attic fills with the sound that only Nathan can hear, the one note of the one song. He has knelt in this way before, there is nothing to do but let go again, with his head throbbing. It is as if he deserves it, as if both he and Burke understand that he is made for this use; Dad opened a hole in Nathan, and now anyone can use it. He opens his mouth, he makes a circle. Burke pushes inside.”

A great deal of abusive language occurs between Nathan and Roy throughout the book before Burke actually brutalizes Nathan. Like Nathan’s father, Roy often tells Nathan he cannot share their “secret”, that Nathan is not his boyfriend, and even a moment of jealousy occurs between the two boys as Nathan speaks briefly with a girl outside school because Roy has decided, that day, to ignore him entirely. This one poignant sentence sums up much of Nathan’s experience with Roy: “Roy will treat Nathan as he pleases, and Nathan expects the coldness. In the daylight Nathan will be invisible.”

And yet, throughout much of their relationship, Nathan first learns the truth of how he feels about what his father does to him. Another sentence from the book tells us “that what pleases him with Roy terrifies him with his father.” Both times I read this book I could not help but wonder whether Nathan would have felt half the things he did about Roy—the times he glimpsed his father’s rage in Roy’s discomfort, those moments he realized himself unequal compared to Roy—had his father never toyed with him as a child.

Nick Burd’s THE VAST FIELDS OF ORDINARY examines a different type of abusive relationship, one perhaps more akin to millennial experiences. The first time we see Dade Hamilton, our narrator, and Pablo Soto together in a scene, the same language which pervaded Nathan and Roy’s relationship exists here: “We don’t tell anybody about this.” “I already have a girlfriend. I don’t need another one.” This paragraph, taking place directly after Dade professes his love for Pablo (“I love you.”), forces knots in my stomach every time:

“I peered up at him to see his reaction. He’d screwed his face up into a look of disgust. He moved forward and grabbed me, pushed me against the wall, and raised his fist back behind his head. He was ready to punch me. I thought back to the first time he’d touched me, of all the times he touched me, of the way he pushed my face away whenever I tried to kiss him and how that didn’t stop me from trying over and over again.”

Two brief lines of dialogue later, we read this line: “He smacked me across the face. Hard.”

These books need not represent the brunt of LGBTQ youth experiences in this country. Let me be the first to say I am glad this isn’t the case. Yet with the swell of greater human rights, let us not forget how much work is still to be done. In every high school there aren’t just gay teens bursting out of the closet, many of them find themselves doing so due to or in line with abusive relationships because, despite Glee and Modern Family and LGBTQ-positive YA fiction, the reality of boyfriends or girlfriends is still underrepresented. Out of fear of being caught, both Pablo and Roy, each in his way, maintained sexual engagement with Dade and Nathan because it felt good and little understanding as to how to relate to their sexual partner outside of sex existed on their television screens during primetime or in the books they read (or didn’t). As we’ve learned with homosexuality in general, lack of representation breeds fear and encourages malcontent, most of all inside the person realizing how little of themselves they actually see on a daily basis.

Let us not make this same mistake with victims of sexual abuse who also happen to be gay.

Anthony L. Isom writes young adult and children’s fiction, serves as fiction editor for the East Jasmine Review (an online literary magazine), and volunteers regularly as both actor and stagehand at the local Croswell Opera House in downtown Adrian, Michigan. Currently, he is working feverishly toward joining his literary voice with the millions of others speaking to young people worldwide. “As is a tale, so is life; not how long it is, but how good it is is what matters.” 

This is the first in a series that Anthony is writing on the GLBTQ experience in #SVYALit.