Tackling LGBTQ Hate, One YA Novel at a Time

Depending on where you live, coming out can still be a very scary thing.
graphic: open book lying behind an array of rainbow colors

Some years ago, Kenneth Logan struggled to come up with a reading list he felt comfortable assigning to high schoolers as part of a combined English and history unit on LGBTQ issues. His mind went immediately to James Baldwin, but in a class of students at all different reading levels, he wasn’t sure that everyone would be up to the challenge of a modern classic like Giovanni’s Room. Why wasn’t there another option? A book with well-drawn LGBTQ characters that dealt with sexuality sensitively and honestly, but in language accessible to less- experienced readers? “Maybe that’s the book you should write,” Logan’s co-teacher quipped.

book cover: True Letters from a Fictional Life (cartoon drawing of a Pez dispenser with an alligator head)

Fast forward about a decade and he’s done just that. Logan’s frank and moving True Letters from a Fictional Life, out this month from HarperCollins, is told from the perspective of James Liddell, a 17-year-old soccer star trying to make sense of the fact that though he likes hanging out with his girlfriend, Theresa, it’s his friend Tim Hawken who makes his heart race. As a star athlete who spends his weekends partying with a close-knit group of fellow runners and soccer players, James doesn’t feel like he has much in common with the one gay kid in their rural Vermont high school, a guy who wears flashy clothes and gossips with the girls. Is that what it means to like boys? Can he go on dates with a boyfriend and still be one of the guys? How can he hope to explain all of this to his little brother?

Unsure of how to express what he is feeling to friends and family, James channels his swirling emotions into a drawer full of letters he never plans to send. It’s when they get stolen and mailed to their never-really-intended recipients that things really get complicated.

A harrowing yet often funny story about the power of friendship, Logan’s answer to his own conundrum now joins a growing list of LGBTQ young-adult titles in a genre buoyed by the recent rise in popularity of YA lit in general (thanks to blockbuster series like Twilight and The Hunger Games) and a broader trend toward greater acceptance of (not to mention legal rights for) the LGBTQ community. A survey conducted by author Malinda Lo found that in 2014, mainstream publishers released 47 LGBTQ YA books, a 59% increase from the 29 that were published in 2013. Back in 2000, there were only 5.

Of course, for every such sign of progress, there are also painful reminders that, depending on where you live, coming out can still be a very scary thing. Even before the recent massacre that killed 49 at the LGBTQ nightclub Pulse in Orlando, an FBI study found that the LGBTQ population is more likely to be the target of hate crimes than any other group. At a recent panel on LGBTQ YA held in Steinhardt’s Constantine Georgiou Library, Logan and fellow authors spoke about the urgent need for young people both gay and straight to encounter diverse, three-dimensional LGBTQ characters early and often. Reading has been shown to encourage empathy, and empathy is our best hope for countering hate.

Logan is now a PhD candidate studying literacy at Steinhardt, where he’s working on a dissertation about reading comprehension among middle school students. This Pride Month NYU Stories talked with him about his debut novel, the evolution of LGBTQ YA, and how to get teenagers to read what’s best for them—even if it requires some trickery.  

—Eileen Reynolds

photo: Kenneth Logan sitting on a stoop

Was True Letters from a Fictional Life inspired by your own experiences, either as a teenager yourself or as a high school teacher?
I think that the book really boils down to a story about a kid who has a bunch of really, really good friends. I have been unbelievably fortunate in that sense, and part of the book came from my own experience in high school and college.

There was also another seed for the story: I was driving on north on 91 in Vermont, up to where I used to live, and I was listening to Terry Gross interview Doris Kearns Goodwin, who had just written Team of Rivals. Goodwin was talking about how Abraham Lincoln wrote letters and stuffed them into a desk drawer, and I thought, “Oh! That’s a good idea for a novel.” I began keeping notes, and when I stopped teaching in 2010, I finally had time to tackle it for real.

Why is it important for LGBTQ youth—especially those growing up in small towns like the one where your book is set—to see themselves reflected in literature?
There was a really interesting Gallup poll recently that found that in a sample of 58,000 Americans, only about 3.8% of the surveyed population identified as gay or lesbian. That’s way less than Americans estimate when you ask them—people tend to guess that it’s something like 25%, which is totally unrealistic. I think these figures have consequences for the way that we deal with LGBTQ kids in the classroom. Depending on where they live, they really may not be encountering that many people—certainly not that many kids, but also not that many adults—in their lives who are also gay. It's super lonely, even today. In a place like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Minneapolis, you might have a kid who knows a ton of gay people and can walk down the street like, “Oh yeah, there is a community here.” That’s not the case if you’re growing up in a rural place, or even in the suburbs, where nobody gets out of their car and everything sort of looks the same. I grew up in suburban New Jersey and I honestly cannot think of a gay person I met before I was about 17. I definitely think that books are a great place for kids to meet LGBTQ characters. There are of course also TV shows like Glee, but with a book you can really get inside a character's head. With TV, you're watching at somebody else's pace—you can’t just go back to the beginning of the chapter or slow down when you want to digest things.

LGBTQ characters certainly appear more in all kinds of media than they did, say, 15 years ago. Do you think that’s made it easier for teens to come out?
Yes, popular culture definitely plays a really big role in redefining the LGBTQ community. And in sports, guys like Jason Collins, Robbie Rogers, Michael Sam, Tom Daley, Gus Kenworthy—it’s just enormous that they made such courageous decisions to come out and give young athletes a role model.

When you know that vulnerable, impressionable young people may be reading your book for guidance, how do you balance that sense of responsibility with the desire to just tell a good story?
I think there's a real danger in stories that just try to make political points. They're not that much fun to read, right? Still, with my book, there were a couple of issues I worried about readers misconstruing. One is that there’s a character in the book, Aaron, who seems to fulfill a lot of gay stereotypes, and it’s possible someone might accuse me of calling part of the community up for ridicule. But I hope people can recognize that this story is being told by a 17-year-old boy, who is maybe not always the most reliable narrator. The other thing is that there’s a lot of drinking in the book, and people may think I’m glamorizing that. There are definitely consequences to these kids drinking, but I didn't want it to become a finger-wagging thing.

Partly that’s just realistic—many teenagers drink.
Yes, and in studies that have compared LGBTQ kids who come from supportive families versus LGBTQ kids who come from families who are not supportive or outright reject them, the rate of drug abuse is something like three times as high. So yes, a gay high schooler knocking back beers at a party where his friends are wanting to hang out with girls is realistic.

There’s some pretty significant anti-gay violence in the book, too. Why did you choose to make that part of the story?
It's a reality. It's something that I think a lot of kids fear, and there is reason to fear. It's not necessarily an accurate perception that any kid who comes out is automatically going to get gay-bashed, but it definitely still crosses my mind when I'm walking down the street with whoever I'm dating. I've had moments where I think, “Oh, here we go.” I don't think my straight friends think about that. There’s a part at the end of the story where James’s little brother asks if something bad could happen again, and the answer unfortunately is yes. In American culture and sometimes even among educators, there’s this idea that if you let kids be themselves, everything will be fine—the goodness will just come out of them. That’s just not true. If you put a group of unsupervised kids alone in a room, bad stuff sometimes happens.

Teenagers aren’t always the most open-minded about books recommended to them by adults. Which books do you find work well for high school classes?
I like teaching The Catcher in the Rye, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Camus’s The Plague, and Shakespeare, because there are so many different angles you can approach it from. I also had a sports literature class for a while that was really fun—kind of a bait-and-switch for reluctant readers, who thought they were taking a sports class and then found out they had to read long books and write papers. I definitely had kids who resisted whatever I assigned, and found that one of the ways to increase their motivation was to give them choices about what to read. I had much more success when I said “You have six books to choose from” than when I said “Everyone has to read XYZ.” On the other hand, when you look back on high school, one of the things I think most people realize is that you don’t always know what you like until somebody makes you try it.

A Nielsen survey found that 80% of young adult titles are bought by adults. Why do you think some adults are attracted to the genre? Should they, as others have argued, be ashamed?
YA books read really quickly—they’re like candy in that way. And I think there’s something about seeing your old life mirrored back to you 20 or 25 years later—there’s a pleasure in that, and maybe you learn something from it. Your first crushes and stuff like that linger, they’re defining moments in people’s lives, and it can be helpful to look back. I don’t think that I’m going to argue, though, that adults who prefer Salman Rushdie, Marilynne Robinson, or Marlon James should drop those and be reading my book or another YA book—to me they’re not really in the same league. But at the same time I don't think YA poses any threat to great literature, and I don't think there is any harm in adults reading it. In reading it I think they will learn something about their own children, or about the students they teach, or about themselves.