Friday, 14 August 2015

LGBT themes in contemporary YA

I recently reread that classic YA novel The Catcher in the Rye-- one of my own adolescent favourites -- for the first time since the 1980s.  According to The Guardian, it ranks as the 72nd best novel of all time.  Robert McCrum's excellent short piece on the "defining novel of teenage angst and alienation" happens to mention that "by 1981, it was the second most taught book in the United States." Certainly it was on the required reading list of my small town Texas high school -- despite the drinking, smoking, sex and profanity that made the book so infamous.  A friend who observed me reading the book wondered if I found it "dated" in 2015.  The truth is that its 1949 New York City setting was already "historical" when I was reading the book in 1981. The way that Holden spoke, the particular slangy language he favoured, was already unrecognisable to a 1980s teenager. But the eternal, durable qualities of the book -- mostly the poignant, hilarious, distinctive voice of Holden Caulfield -- were pretty much intact in 2015, and not much diminished since my first reading experience.  The only aspect of my rereading that I found really quite different was my awareness of an undercurrent of homosexuality running through the book.

Towards the end of the book, Holden spends the night with one of his former teachers -- a Mr. Antonlini, who is presented is a heavy drinker recently married to an older woman "lousy with dough".  Holden wakes up on the couch to discover that Mr. Antonlini is "sort of petting me or patting me on the goddamn head".  Holden bolts from the apartment in a complete panic, even though it is the middle of the night.  Although he acknowledges that he might have misinterpreted the situation -- thus, making it grey area for the reader's interpretation as well -- he also comments that "when something perverty like that happens, I start sweating like a bastard.  That kind of stuff has happened to me about twenty times since I was a kid.  I can't stand it." (p. 174)

My intention is neither to prove or disprove Holden's possible homosexuality -- although this blog post makes a really plausible case for the former, if you are interested -- but rather to point that how very much the world has changed since The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951 . . . or even since I first read the novel in 1981.  Did I pick up on Holden's "protest too much" diatribe against all things "perverty" as ambivalence when I first read the book?  It's doubtful.  At the time, one of my best friends was a lesbian -- not that we even had a word for it, much less realised that her unhappiness might have something to do with repressed sexuality.  I thought she was a "punk" -- mostly because she favoured safety pins as a fashion accessory and was the only person I knew who listened to The Sex Pistols and the Dead Kennedys.  She was the first person I knew who self-harmed, and we didn't have a word for that, either.

The present generation of 13-25 year olds live in an entirely different world when it comes to LGBT rights and self-expression.  June, 26, 2015 was the landmark date on which the United States Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex marriage cannot be prohibited by a state.  Considering that homosexual activity was illegal during 1951, and indeed not technically legal in all states until June 26, 2003, a mere 12 years in a nation's history are the entire formative years of a present-day 25 year-old.  What might seem a gradual softening of attitude to a 45 year-old or a 70 year-old is just the way it has always been to someone who is currently 15 years-old.  No surprise then that the current generation of adolescents are entirely more comfortable with, and approving of, LGBT rights than previous generations.  This is certainly reflected in YA fiction.

One of the reasons that Holden's discomfort with "perverty" behavior so jarred is that I read The Catcher in the Rye just after completing a reading list of contemporary realistic fiction.  In I'll Give You the Sun, the male protagonist falls in love for the first time -- and has his feelings returned, although the baseball player that he falls for must battle some homophobic attitudes in the sports world.  In Grasshopper Jungle and This Is Not a Love Story, the main characters experience their sexuality as a bisexual spectrum.  Although having sexual feeling for both sexes is not presented as unproblematic, it is definitely presented as something entirely normal and typical.  In Me Being Me is Exactly as Insane as You Being You, the protagonist's father has come out as gay -- which has precipitated the parents' divorce.  Although the young male narrator has some discomfort with this change in his life, as I said in my review of this book, the discomfort is more to do with change in general than his father's homosexuality in specific.  Recently I read Holly Black's new fantasy novel The Darkest Part of the Forest in which a faerie prince is rescued by a teenage girl, but then falls in love with her older brother.  Yes, the author delights in subverting all of the usual fairy tale conventions, but she is also reflecting a world in which this outcome is seen as equally possible.

Some aspects of adolescence haven't changed all that much in the last 65 years  -- hopefully, adolescents will always be more innocent and idealistic than their life-bruised elders -- but when it comes to sexuality, it is a braver, more permissive world out there.

Visit TRAC's website to see the complete list of YA Classics and Hot for Summer contemporary fiction.


  1. Interesting post! That petting scene shocked me as a teen not due to homosexuality but due to pedophilia. I had friends who came out as gay in high school and gay teachers (this was NYC) so that part wasn't too strange. Like you, I felt the book sounded dated in the 1980s, but I liked it better as an adult. I'd like to see more books in which homosexuality is not portrayed as risky or deviant. Gender fluidity is the theme for teens today.

  2. I can honestly say that when I read Catcher in the Rye in high school, it never crossed my mind that Holden was gay. And I don't remember questioning the "petting/patting" scene much at all. I probably thought his teacher had had too much to drink. I'm starting to think I was a prolific, eclectic, but not discerning reader!