Being "Weird," Being "Different" and Finding Hope <3
One of the best things about being an author is getting to meet and talk with kids who've read your book. Last night, I was invited to speak to a library book club in Colchester, Vermont. In addition, a reporter from Vermont Public Radio was there to record the meeting for a series they're doing on books that have been nominated for a book award in Vermont. (It's a little like the Inky Awards.)
We gathered around a conference table in a tiny room (that tray has ice-cream cups on it!) and the kids started asking me questions about the story. In addition, the librarian asked them questions. One was, "Who was your favorite character?"
My favorite answer was from a girl, who said, "My favorite character was Ran, because he's weird. But he's also cool. Sometimes people tell me I'm weird. But they say that's also what makes me special." She smiled to herself, and I could see she felt proud. Inside, I thought how great that was, and how different things are for these kids, than they were when I was young. And how glad that makes me.
Another boy asked me why I made Holden "different." He was probably about nine years old, and I had a feeling this may have been the first time he'd seen a gay character in a book. I told him that I based Holden on my brother, who was also gay. He made this shocked expression, and looked around the room.
The other kids didn't seem to react at all. We've come a long way. I explained that when I was growing up in the 1970's and 80's, it was really hard to be a gay teen. Then I said, for a lot of kids, it's STILL really hard. There were some knowing nods. We've come a long way, but not far enough.
"I don't think kids who are gay should feel like they're 'different'," I said. He nodded thoughtfully, his big glasses slipping on his face, as if to say, "me either." But we all seemed to silently acknowledge that most still probably do.
Later, I wished I'd said more. It's hard, sometimes, when you don't have time to really think carefully before answering a question. It's even harder when you are nervous, and knowing you're being recorded for a radio show! So driving home last night, I kept wondering about my answers and if they were OK, but in particular this one kept bugging me. How far have we come to accept "different" people? How long will we keep using that term? How long will we continue to need labels like gay, straight, bi, etc.?
My son said to me recently, "We're all on the spectrum, Mom. As soon as people lighten up about it, we won't need labels. You can be attracted to anyone and it won't be an issue. We're just human."
I hope he's right.
But for now, we do still have an awful long journey to reach true acceptance. I still have teachers and librarians tell me that they can't have See You At Harry's in their schools because the content (gay character) is too controversial. Sometimes it gets labeled as young adult instead of middle grade, even though my publisher has categorized it as the latter. And while it's not always clear why this decision gets made, sometimes the reason is listed because the book has "mature content." Since there are plenty of middle grade books about death, do we assume the reference is homosexuality? I don't know. It's confusing. It's frustrating. And it makes me sad to think so.
But last night, the kids at the meeting gave me so much hope. They reminded me how far we've come, and that even though we still have a long way to go, I'm confident we'll get there. And that makes me very happy.