It’s not often we do guest posts for people who aren’t authors. But today’s guest post, from Vee Signorelli and Kathleen Willard, is one I am so excited to share. If those names don’t sound familiar to you, maybe their blog does. These two ladies — teenagers — run GayYA.org. This is an incredible resource of book reviews, book lists, and discussions about all things relating to LGBTQIA+ in YA, and it’s one that I turn to regularly. If it’s not on your reading radar already, it should be.
Let me reiterate that the two minds behind this site, as well as its Tumblr and Twitter accounts, are teenagers. Their work and their insight into YA is keen and thoughtful, and I had to ask them to come talk about why they started the site, what they offer up on the site, books that have impacted them, and more.
One night in May of 2011, Jessica Verday announced to the internet why she’d pulled out of the anthology Wicked Pretty Things: one of the editors said they would not include her piece unless she changed her m/m pairing to an m/f one. The internet exploded. A #YesGayYA hashtag formed on Twitter. Hundreds of blog posts went up. People came out of the woodwork to talk about similar experiences, and to promote LGBT YA. My older sister and I were both scrolling through our Twitter feeds the night of this announcement. We ushered each other over to read stories of characters being “straightened” by publishers/editors/agents who didn’t think they would sell, or someone explaining why they needed LGBT YA. We both saw the same thing: tons of people calling out for representation, with no way to reach publishers, agents, and editors, and nothing to connect them to each other. To this day, we don’t know who said it. But it was announced, “someone really needs to make a website on all of this stuff.” We looked at each other over the top of our computer screens.
We realized there was a huge demand for representation of the people, and no one organizing to talk about it past some hashtags on Twitter. We were only sixteen and twelve at the time, but it wasn’t even really a question in our minds: we knew how to do websites, and we knew social media.
We both identified as straight at the time (ha ha), and we really knew nothing about the LGBTQ community. To be honest, we were probably the least qualified people to do the job. But, we had the time and the passion and the knowledge of websites to be able to do it. We made many mistakes: calling a pairing of two bisexual guys “gay” when it should’ve been M/M, using “gay” as an umbrella term for the entire LGBTQIA+ community, and generally just being the most clueless people in the world. It was a learning curve, but once we realized we were not the ones who needed to do the speaking, we got out of the way.
We got some great posts on our site, and many wonderful and rich conversations going. We both enjoyed it, and put a good amount of time into it. But there was only so much effort two presumably straight teens could put into something like this— we were convinced that all LGBT lit was dreary and full of angst, and the words “the problem is, it’s just not good” were muttered frequently. We had no over-arcing vision for the site, and were really getting nothing out of it, except getting to talk to some authors who we were convinced wrote solely angst. So after about two years, we abandoned our site. It was partially due to issues at home, but the site had started to drag on us. If it had been something we were still incredibly passionate about, I don’t think we would’ve let it go.
It didn’t really look like it would ever get going again, especially after my sister headed off to college.
Then, this past winter when I turned sixteen, I went through a process of figuring out my own identity. It was an extremely hard time for me, as I had never heard of either non-binary genders or pansexuality and it took me a long time to realize that they fit me. During this time, I found such solace in books. Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-Mills really opened up the door to self discovery, because Gabe, the MC was trans and happy. I had the same thing with The Realm of Possibility by David Levithan which made me feel like however I identified would be accepted. And Far From You by Tess Sharpe, which made me feel OK about my attraction to girls. Eventually, I figured out what my identity was through tumblr (non-binary and pansexual), but I got the humanity and the ability to discard shame from books. I remember the first time I held in my hands a book that had me in it (which was Brooklyn, Burning by Steve Brezenoff)– a book that had a happy ending. Every time I was told that people like me didn’t exist, every time I started to believe that I would never be happy, I had something physical to cling to that proved to me I really was here, that I had a chance at a good life.
But I also ran into a lot of difficulty: because most people don’t even know people like me exist, I can count on one hand the books that have non-binary people in them. And I had the resources to be able to find them. I understood more than ever the importance of not only queer YA, but the service I had an opportunity to provide through GayYA.org.
I realized that there were a lot of teens out there like me, looking for themselves in books. And I realized I had a chance to really help them out. So, this March, I decided to start it back up. For the first time since we began, I had a vision and purpose.
I never “figured out” that I was gay, as so many people do later in life. I knew from the beginning. I thought girls were the bomb. I had a substantial crush on Daphne from Scooby Doo. I also thought that something was horribly wrong with me–that I was wrong, and needed to be fixed–because I did not know that queer people existed.
Representation is pretty important to me.
I don’t know exactly when I figured out that there is a word for what I am, but it hit me somewhere around age nine, watching Willow and Tara become a couple in Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
At age eleven, I came out to my parents, and while they were really surprised, they also really didn’t care who I fell in love with as long as I was happy. The notion that Gay is OK grew and grew in my mind; it cautiously morphed into pride, then bloomed into lesbian feminist rants, and the rest is history.
Flash forward six years and picture an angst-ridden teen riding the bus with a cup of coffee in her hand, wearing enough black clothing and red lipstick and false confidence to be mistaken for a widow spider, while simultaneously searching her person for her bus pass. That’s me.
I have known Vee and Maria, the founders of Gay YA, for years and years; I witnessed the growth of Maria’s first fansite, an homage to Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely Series, and the birth of Gay YA.
Early this spring, Vee decided to singlehandedly reboot Gay YA after a dormant period. One day, as I was presumably sipping on tea and V was working on Gay YA’s Tumblr, she said, “What have I done?! I have so much to do!” And I said, “I can do that for you if you want.” She handed me the laptop. This happened several times with several tasks over a period of several months.
In early summer, I said: “Have I become your co-conspirator?”
And she said: “Yeah, if you wanna be.”
Helping to run Gay YA started out as a cool hobby to promote something very close to my heart; it has become something much bigger and a little bit scary. After running our social media and receiving positive feedback, I realized that I have stumbled backwards into the opportunity to support–even help?!–queer youth just like me, who are looking for themselves on the page.
Very frequently, my parents will ask me with a twinge of hope in their voices if I’ve ever rethought getting into this– they still think I’m a straight girl. “No,” I respond with a smile. “Not at all.”
Although my workload is huge and overwhelming and growing every day, re-booting this site has lead to some of the most amazing experiences in my life. I live in Minnesota, which is secretly one of the coolest states in the country (especially in a literary sense). I’ve gotten to meet some of my favorite authors, usually through events at the Loft Literary Center, or Addendum Books. Though it still terrifies me to go up and squeak at them, I now have something I can say. We’ve even gotten to interview some of our favorite authors (like Francesca Lia Block!!).
And we’ve been able to make a difference for teens and adults looking for representation. The last few years have been HUGE for queer YA books— the representation is out there! It’s just hard to find. And we have been able to collect a thorough knowledge of all the titles, and are able to recommend exactly what people are looking for. We’re far from becoming the exhaustive resource that I have my eye set on, but we’re getting closer by the day.
In the last few months, we have been spectators to the site’s explosion (in a good way). There has been an influx of posts, followers, questions, and general publicity to the point that that between the two of us, it is a daily struggle to keep everything running smoothly. Part of the struggle is financial: we each contribute 2-10 hours to the site on any given day (in addition to keeping up with a high school education), for which we are not paid. For me, this is in addition to a part-time job; for Vee, it means giving up having a job at all. Our operating costs add up to approximately $100/month, which is a LOT when you’re taking from one part-time job and a $40 allowance.
I recently added a donation button to the site– anything is greatly appreciated: 50 cents to $50.
Although something like 50 cents seems like nothing, it really helps us a lot.
We have a number of new things happening with our site. We are currently are accepting (until the end of October) applications to become a regular contributor to our site.
We’re also looking to gather a small group of dedicated volunteers to help us with some small but essential tasks, so we can continue tackling the big picture things. We’re completely strung out with everything we’ve got going on now, because it all just sort of happened, and had no grasp on the amount of work it would all take. We have a lot of cool project ideas running around our heads, but no time to enact them, because of all the day-to-day emergencies we have to keep up with. Volunteer help is essential to keeping this community and project moving forward. See here for more information!
I’ve had the opportunity of working with Nita Tyndall on GayYA’s Masterlist Project. We’ve made a wiki and are cultivating a three pronged project to help people looking for queer YA find exactly what they’re looking for. It’s entirely community driven, and we’d love it if you joined us!
We just started up our first book club, and we’re reading Pantomime by Laura Lam. Check out the schedule and how you can participate!
We also have continual opportunities for authors, teens, and everyone else. And if you have an idea for something you’d like to work on with us, or have a question, comments, or anything else, my email is always open at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We’re really looking forward to expanding this website in new and awesome ways, and we hope that you’ll join us!