By Rowana Miller
As diversity becomes more and more of a priority in YA fiction, I’ve been delighted to witness the emergence of a new generation of gay characters in the books I read. There are queer protagonists, parents, teachers, mentors, and friends. And that’s exactly how it should be — queer characters interspersed with straight ones, just like in real life.
However, I’ve also noticed that some contemporary YA authors are incorporating queerness into their writing in a less realistic way, forming a trend that I’ll call “plot twist: I’m gay!” The protagonist, who the reader has been led to believe is straight, is hiding a Frightening Secret. We don’t get even a hint of what that secret is; all we know is that the character occasionally thinks, “Oh no. I really hope my Frightening Secret doesn’t get out!” Then, when the action gets a bit slow during the second half of the novel, something happens so that the secret is revealed — he’s gay! — which forces the action to pick back up again.
In this context, queerness is used as a plot device rather than as a feature of the character’s identity. This tactic is damaging in a few ways. Most obviously, it’s not accurate. A character’s queerness can’t be considered just another Frightening Secret because it’s so deeply woven into daily life. If a character is in touch with her queerness to the extent of dating someone of the same sex, she is unlikely to be suppressing her identity so much that she never thinks about it. As the reader, we are invited into the character’s mindset; if the character is a guy who considers girls pretty but never thinks about another guy’s attractiveness, we’re going to be blindsided by a later revelation that the character is gay.
That confusion is another reason why “plot twist: I’m gay!” doesn’t work. When an unexpecting reader encounters a certain character development that makes the full story click into place, it’s a great feeling. It’s as if the author whipped the rug out from under us but then we fell onto a very comfortable mattress. Unfortunately, “plot twist: I’m gay!” doesn’t work like that. The abrupt reveal of a straight-seeming character’s queerness makes less sense, not more, and it lowers the quality of one’s experience reading the book.
Rather than organic character development, this random introduction of queerness seems like it gets added into a second or third draft–maybe after the editor suggests that the author incorporate more diverse identities. It’s like when we only know a character is Hispanic because his mother calls him “mi hijo” or when an Indian character wears a bindi for a few pages and then takes it off and we never see any other element of her culture. This is most likely an honest mistake. Many authors are struggling to incorporate queerness without making it the center of attention in their novels. But that’s where these authors are falling off the tightrope. They can’t decide whether or not to treat queerness casually or dramatically, and in trying to do both, they achieve neither.
And that’s really why the “plot twist: I’m gay!” trope doesn’t work: it’s insulting. It implies that queerness is something that can be inserted into a novel to liven it up when it’s getting dull or to pump up the diversity factor, rather than an element of identity that intersects with other character traits to create a more complex individual with a unique worldview. The white male protagonist will have a different understanding of privilege if he’s bisexual. He can definitely still have sexist or racist beliefs, but queer sexism has a different flavor of entitlement than straight sexism. The lesbian who has a difficult relationship with her parents will often have a different kind of relationship with them than a straight character; the lesbian wonders if her parents are rejecting her for what she can’t control about herself, whereas the straight girl knows that her parents are rejecting her for the decisions that she makes. These are subtle differences, maybe, but they’re important ones. It’s not enough for a character to be queer. A character needs to be queer in a way that reflects queer readers’ experiences with queerness, and reducing a gay identity to a plot device is unrealistic to the point of becoming cheap.
However, I still think that this trope has the potential to go somewhere positive. Some queer people really do suppress their queerness so deeply that they try their hardest not to think about it, and may even succeed in hiding it from themselves. But if a character is in this stage for the first two-thirds of the novel, the end goal should probably be self-acceptance rather than becoming a gay icon or staging a public coming-out. People’s mindsets don’t tend to develop at this rapid pace in the real world. Likewise, if the end goal of a novel is that the character comes out, the character can begin her journey with denial but should then undergo a gradual and internal transition into self-acceptance as the novel progresses. The key here is that the character’s queerness evolves not as the plot develops, but as the character develops.
Read more from Rowana Miller on YA literature here: https://www.rowanamiller.com/blog