Welcome Chris O’Guinn to the blog. Readers chose his novel, Fearless as a 2014 LGBT Book Gem.
It’s quite an honor to have my book, Fearless, be counted among the Hidden Gems on this list. I am very grateful to Brandon for giving me the chance to introduce people to this story. Of everything I have written, this one is closest to me personally. And given the reaction of my wonderful readers, it seems to be striking a chord with people all over the world.
One of the most common and most interesting questions I get is, “Why do you write gay YA?” I like this question because the answer is so layered. It gets at the core of what I really want to accomplish with my books.
First, there is the draw of the young adult genre itself. Being a teenager is a strange thing in the modern world. You’re no longer a child. There are expectations placed upon you. You have responsibilities. And yet, at the same time, you don’t have the freedom and independence that you gain as an adult. You are at this point in your life where you have all these major events going on—first love, first job, thinking about college, thinking about career—and lots of drama that comes along with it. And as anyone knows, drama is what makes a story interesting.
So that’s the attraction to young adult fiction. But why gay young adult fiction?
Fearless has three characters who are shown in the text to be gay and one who was bisexual, but he never admitted it. However, with a minimal alteration, Fearless could have been written with an all straight cast. So why make so many characters gay? The answer has to do with the deeper reason for why I am in this genre: we need to have many more books with gay characters that will resonate with young adult readers of all orientations.
I don’t think most straight people truly understand how much it can mean to a young gay/lesbian/bisexual/questioning person (or even an older gay/lesbian/bisexual/questioning person) to see alternate orientations in the books they read. For all the incredible progress our society is making, the mentality is that it is fine to represent heterosexual characters to teens, but it is unnecessary, or worse, dangerous and perverse, to expose young people to non-heterosexual characters. This invisibility is a neon sign telling GLBQ youths that there is something wrong with them.
And that needs to stop. That needs to stop right now.
I’m bisexual, and male bisexuals are rarer than unicorns in media. When a really quality representation of bisexuality shows up, I get very excited. I feel like I am no longer invisible. Believe me, I’m older than dirt and I’ve had plenty of time to accept who I am and find others like myself. Yet it still excites me when my existence is validated by being portrayed as a normal part of the world. Imagine how thrilling it is for a young person looking for role models, acceptance, and validation to feel that inclusion?
Recently, a friend and fan of my work said this about my books, “I love that his voice in the YA world is not the same as every other voice, and that his books cannot be predicted based on the ones that preceded them.” This was perhaps the greatest compliment of the many nice things people have said about my books because it is an acknowledgment of my Secret Scheme.
Well, not so secret as I am telling y’all about it.
It might seem peculiar to write stories with gay characters that are not about them being gay. But there is a key difference in a story that has gay characters and one that is about gay characters. Stories with straight characters aren’t about their heterosexuality, are they? Outside of the romance genre, you can (generally speaking), change the orientation of the main character without changing the plot. What significant plot point would have had to be changed if, say, Harry Potter had been gay?
That is one of the cornerstones of what I am trying to do with my gay YA fiction. I want to show that we can have compelling stories which have characters who happen to be gay, and which acknowledge the special challenges a gay youth may encounter, but which are not primarily about the character being gay. Contrary to the thinking of the anti-gay crowd, the LGBT community does have other things going on that don’t have anything to do with our orientation.
I was very conscious of this when I wrote Fearless. For the longest time I wanted to write a story about a gay character that wasn’t about the struggles with their orientation. In this modern world, it’s becoming apparent that a lot of our gay youth are finding acceptance among their peers—which is marvelous. So I wanted to write about a character that was grappling with problems that had nothing to do with his being gay.
Justin’s story isn’t about his learning to accept his sexuality or finding the courage to come out. In fact, I wanted to avoid him coming out altogether, but since the story is about him finding the courage to be himself, it naturally follows that he wasn’t out to anyone as the story begins. There was just no way to make the character make sense if he wasn’t originally closeted.
However, Justin wasn’t just in the closet; he was hiding under the bed, hiding his whole self, not just his sexuality. He had been betrayed, lied to, and hurt so many times that he had decided to simply be invisible. Justin decision to not come out wasn’t because he feared losing his friends. He didn’t have any friends to lose. His problem was that coming out would involve becoming visible and he didn’t want that at all.
That is why I minimized that part of the story. By design, revealing his orientation to Liam did not create any drama. It was addressed and set aside as a non-issue. That wasn’t the focus of the story and I didn’t want to get off track. Out another way, his being gay is no more significant to who he is than the fact that he is tall or clumsy or blond. It was just a part of who he is.
Fearless is the story of learning that the only thing worse than fear is regret. It’s a really important life lesson that I really wish I had learned when I was a teenager. Through Justin’s evolution from cynical outsider to accepted member of the swim team, I try to show how we all make assumptions about the people around us and how wrong they can be. This comes from my personal experience. It’s so easy to think you know everything about a person from a glance, from an overheard conversation, and it’s usually wrong. People are more complex than that—usually.
I really believe Fearless is the sort of story that will resonate with people regardless of their orientation. I think the themes of fear of rejection, loneliness and eventually triumph (and loss) are things with which anyone can identify.
And that brings us back to why I am writing gay YA fiction. I am doing it because I want to put out there the sort of books that I wish had existed when I was growing up, books that celebrate diversity. That is why I am very proud to bring out Arrival, a science fiction series with gay and straight (and racially diverse) heroes. Young LGBT adults should be able to find themselves in all types of genres: fantasy, mystery, horror, science fiction, romance and everything else, not just “gay books.” There is no reason we can’t have epic, popular stories telling nearly any type of tale, where the main characters aren’t all straight.
Similarly, we shouldn’t need a dividing wall where gay teens only read gay stories and straight teens only read straight stories. Gay and straight people are more alike than different. And we should be able to write stories exploring themes to which we can all relate while still representing a rainbow of characters.
I’ve been writing since I was fifteen, not that those stories will ever be allowed out of the dark hole I buried them in. I focused primarily on the Fantasy genre for the first two decades, occasionally diverting into modern fiction. In 2010, I embarked on a self-publishing career, focusing on the young adult novel genre. When I’m not writing, I am contributing to TheBacklot.com, a gay entertainment website.