Dr. Christian George Gregory is an Assistant Professor at Saint Anselm College, teaching courses for preservice teachers in methods, pedagogy, the graphic novel, and Young Adult Literature. He has written chapters on the history of both YAL and the graphic novel and published in English Journal, English Education, the Journal of LGBTQ Youth, and the International Journal of Dialogic Pedagogy. His research interests are diversifying the canon, dialogical theory, and queer studies.
The proliferation of QT*YAL titles in the past decade testifies the increased interest in queer narratives (Lo, 2011). Yet simultaneous with such progress has come notable pushback and restrictions. Book-banning and other forms of censorship have spread quickly across the nation in a partisan wild-fire.
For this post, I hope to remind teachers of the value of these stories, knowing that queer and trans* students will find their way to these stories whether teachers elect or not to include them in curriculum. As states, districts, and schools are often their own political eco-systems, I urge instructors to consider the variety of ways to introduce these books to their students: through curricular choices, self-select reads, excepts, or school, public, or personal libraries. Each of these stories I here highlight has immense formative value for queer and trans* youth. There stories are far more than reflective mirrors. They refract the multiplicity of identities like diamonds.
One scholarly note: For Halberstam (2018), trans* embraces the “unfolding categories of being organized around but not confined to forms of gender variance” and the asterisk refuses “to situated transition in relation to a destination, a final form, a specific shape, or an established configuration of desire and identity” (Halberstam, p.4). I use trans* to the variety of emergent identities and possibilities of more.
Biracial and Catholic, 14-year-old Aiden Navarro spends one week away at Boy scout camp in the summer before his entry into high school. At camp, Aiden confirms his strengths (knot-making or knowing all the campfire songs), and admits his challenges (archery). He also makes new friends, who appreciate his talents and humor, fights back against his bullies, and awakens to his attraction to his long-haired, football-playing friend Elias. Through this, Aiden finds inspiration in the courage and resilience of Christian Saints like St. Sebastian and Marvelverse icons, such as Jane Grey. Aiden’s caring top-knotted scout leader Tom provides an “orientation” lesson on how to find true north with his compass. When Aiden queries why there are two norths, a magnetic and true north, Tom responds, both as scout leader and queer mentor: “There is no ‘right’ north, really. This is all about figuring out how to get where you need to go. It’s not always straightforward” (p.203).
For LGBTQ+ students: Aiden’s complex intersectionality of identity (Filipino-American, Catholic, and gay) provides students the intersectional identities he navigates on a daily basis. Semi-autobiographical, Flamer depicts both ideations of suicide, its failed attempt, and the crucial message that “when you think the fire is out…you are wrong […] the fire isn’t done burning” (p.352; 358). Queer students have urged their parents to purchase copies, as noted by children’s book author Katey Howes in her tweet to Curato: “my 15 y.o. (proudly bi) daughter read FLAMER in an afternoon and demanded I buy her 3 more copies which she plans to “secretly deliver” to “friends who really need this book” So thank you. Seriously. Massive Thank yous” (Howes, 2020).
For Teachers: Flamer is one of the most contested banned books nationwide; it is a true-to-life queer BIPOC coming-of-age story. As such, it includes hate language, particularly among boys trying to regulate masculinity among themselves (Pascoe, 2007); it also depicts sexual anxiety, romantic fantasy, and a lights-out masturbation session among boys at camp. Nothing is explicit and all seems brutally authentic. This is a work that, even in writing about suicide, values queer life. This is a book that may truly save lives.
From ogbanje transgender Nigerian writer Akwaeke Emezi comes this allegorical fantasy of monsters and angels and how art may provide imagined strategies to respond to untruths and suppressive forces. Trans* protagonist Jam and her family reside in Lucille, where monsters have been bested by angels. Jam searches for this history, and knowing that anyone can forget what monsters look like, she retreats to a library of books. Meanwhile, her mother, Bitter, has finished a painting of hybrid creature, which, with a drop of Jam’s blood, comes to life as Pet with the single purpose to “hunt” everyday monsters, not yet known or seen. In the end, this indelible allegory concerns hunting sexual predators and unearthing the often hidden, unspoken crimes of child abuse.
For LGBTQ+ students: The details of Jam’s identity formation, her claim of being in the wrong body, her self-advocacy for hormone blockers and trans* health options, her parents loving support of this identity, functions as a timely counternarrative to today’s anti-trans* legislation. Further, the narrative follows the trans*-protagonist on a quest narrative for justice rather than a more common, valuable narratives of gender formation (See Gender Queer). By illustrating trans* lives as heroic, justice-seeking, and protective of children, Emezi engages in a speculative world-building where queer and trans* students can imagine themselves agents, activists, and heroes.
For Teachers: Provides examples of trans*-supportive families, networks, and alternative family structures. Trans*, queer, and non-binary characters populate this speculative town. As such, the fiction both reflects and imagines queer positive family groupings with the BIPOC community.
A memoir at the intersection of Blackness and queerness, Johnson recounts his middle-class upbringing in New Jersey. Their story encompasses a coming-of-age story that tackles various queer phobias (homophobia, femmephobia, transphobia) and how the extended Black family structure, imperfect as it is, finds space for support and acceptance. Johnson’s positionality is that of the queer friend, advocate, mentor, guide, and support. They are best friend, brother, mother, and chosen family, telling tales, citing cautionary facts and figures, and offering queer front-porch advise, seasoned with bon mots, clever comebacks. Johnson’s a hard-won coming-out story, as they write, “We see coming out stories all the time…what we don’t see is what led up to that moment. How many times a person tried to push past that barrier to get to that point” (p.237).
For LGBTQ+ students: Johnson’s memoir plumbs the depths of intersectionality. Whether it is code-switching between gendered language or between racial identity, Johnson often finds himself double-dutching between two fast ropes of identity: “it was me jumping between personas: the person I wanted to be on the inside versus the person society told me I had to be on the outside” (p.69).
For Teachers: Johnson’s work reminds educators of the “creativity of children” who may “not met the acceptable standard of gender performance” (p. 59) and who may not conform to strict binary ideas about manner and mannerism. This book addresses Johnson’s double marginalization in ways that other works may not address. They must content with queerness within their familial structure, blackness and queerness within their white, Catholic high school, and queerness within their historically Black university. Notably, a chapter on sexual assault and incest, which likely led to its ban from libraries, is complex, fascinating, and responsibly managed. Knowing that sexual coming-of-age is often delayed for queer folk, a “second adolescence” (p.274) lived later, Johnson provides what they never received: a chapter devoted to sexual education, including narrative, reflection, and data and stats on HIV transmission in Black queer communities.
A coming-of-age/coming out graphic novel regarding the complexity of identity. The work begins in shame, an act of masking, with paper and tape, a cartoon book project titled “Gender Queer” and ends, years later in a classroom, as Kobabe, teaching middle schoolers, considers whether and how to share eir pronouns the class. Those last words, “Next time, next time, I will come out” (p.238) illustrates the complexity facing queer and trans* teachers face. The breath of the narrative contains the confusion, elation, and stops and starts of gender queer identity construction.
For LGBTQ+ students: Most remarkable about this memoir is the authentically cloudy journey sense of self-discovery: of one’s body, sexuality, gender presentation, neurophilosopy, and identity. This work, exploratory, revelatory, provides non-binary and/or trans* students with language and thinking that can clarify the confusion of identity formation.
For Teachers: Kobabe’s work, one of the most contested in the book bans, is such a mirror into the internal anxieties facing non-binary, gender queer, and trans* people. Chapters, passages, sequences and page spreads may provide a helpful frame for classroom discussion. The constellation of family, friends, and most of all, books (fiction, fantasy, comics, and science theory) reinforce the value in reading and its heuristic effect on identity.
The Paradox of Shame, Pride and Joy
While some works address shame surrounding queer and trans* identities (Curato, 2020; Johnson, 2020; Kobabe, 2020), often the authors write a pathway out toward some self-affirmation. From the shame’s dull pain or confusion’s fog, pride seems to be the destination. Yet pride is not without its complications. As wonderful as pride is, it can be an armature against heteronormative, homophobic, and transphobic structures. One needs pride to combat these counter forces. Pride is a defense, a reclamation, an assertion of one’s value to non-queer folk. Pride is an antidote to shame.
Queer joy is another affect altogether; it can be an incredibly private expression, though often it expresses itself publicly. Yet public or private, queer joy serves its maker first and those with whom it is shared, second. Further, in its expression and presentation, queer joy, fountain-like, returns to its source. It need not, as pride so often does, combat shame; it often feels the result, at least in the moment, of a shame-free zone. Needless to say, queer joy is often shameless.
Shame. Pride. Joy. All such affects are embedded into today’s QT*YAL and seem reflective of the specific, paradoxical state in which we reside. Queer youth are experiencing pride, joy, and, shame all at once. Queer students are more visible, and, at the same time, more vulnerable (Paris and Cain Miller, 2023). Teachers and students today reside in pride and joy, while contending with the real toll psychologically from systemic homophobia and trans*phobia.
Let’s end in joy. In the works mentioned, one might tease out moments of transcendence, of joy: in the mastery of a basket weaving failure and exchange of jokes in summer camp in Flamer; in the trans*-heroic, self-knowing protagonist of Pet, and finding just the right floral pattern of self-presentation in Gender Queer. In All Boy’s Aren’t Blue, Johnson writes hopefully that their queer liberation would come by going away to college; but in truth, it came form the power of identifying with Beyoncé. It’s not that Johnson wanted be Beyoncé; as he writes, “I wanted to be me, in Virginia, and dance to her. I wanted to BE ME dancing to her” (p.231). Her power afforded theirs. Her passion, theirs. Her joy, theirs.
Johnson’s moment of queer joy came through their immersive experience of Beyoncé, a pleasure analogous to reading. Each reader’s connection to a character’s queer joy forges a parasocial relation – a friend, a mentor, a form of support. And queer youth need support. Sometimes it comes in the form of family. Sometimes friends. But it can also come from stories and characters to reflect and refract their own experience. In reading about another, queer youth find the space to be and to encounter and reflect on all the emotions that come with queer being. The landscape of queer joy is a most crucial part of queer affect. It is a space not visited often enough.