Queer speculative fiction is a topic near and dear to my heart. I believe it’s important for science fiction and fantasy (hereafter SFF) of all varieties to explore queer themes, but it becomes especially vital in fiction aimed at a younger audience. Queer YA helps combat heteronormativity. It breaks down the idea that anything other than cisgendered heterosexuality is abnormal.
General fiction often does this with coming out stories, which rejig the central paradigm by showing us a shift in both the protagonist’s self perception and their relationships with their peers. Queer SFF has its fair share of coming out stories, but I find it most interesting when it gives us a sphere where no paradigm shift is necessary. Secondary world and futuristic settings needn’t subscribe to common 21st century attitudes; they can take us to worlds where nobody ever needs to come out and/or stress over their gender identity because that sort of thing is no more noteworthy than, say, liking peas but not carrots, or choosing to go brunette. People can be themselves, straight up, without worrying how others will react to them (at least where their gender and sexuality are concerned).
But that’s all just so much pseudo-academic twaddle. Let’s talk about some awesome LGBTQ YA SFF (just to slam you with acronyms), plus a couple of adult titles oozing with crossover appeal.
I can’t imagine a discussion of queer YA SFF that doesn’t mention Francesca Lia Block. She burst onto the scene in 1989 with Weetzie Bat, a dizzying whirl of a book in which no one is terribly concerned about anyone else’s sexuality (though they recognize that people outside of their found family often feel differently), and has continued to explore queer themes ever since. They leap to the forefront in Baby Be-Bop, a prequel to Weetzie Bat that centres on a coming out story.
While we’ve established that every-sexuality-is-normal stories hold a special place in my heart, I still thrill to a good coming out narrative. Dirk, Weetzie’s long time BFF, doesn’t just come to terms with his sexuality; he also explores his desire for acceptance in all areas of his life, and he does so by journeying through stories (with a little magical help, of course). It’s gorgeous, deeply affecting stuff, and like all the best prequels, it means all the more if you’ve already read the first few Weetzie Bat books. It’s an origin story; a look at how someone confident in and happy with their sexuality got started on that path.
I fear I had a bit more trouble uncovering a queer-focused every-sexuality-is-normal YA novel I love enough to recommend. YA novels with queer protagonists are far more common than they once were, but I haven’t had the good fortune to stumble upon many that fit my parameters. Lucky for me, there are plenty of qualifying adult fantasies with crossover appeal for the YA set. My favourite of these is The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner, a fantasy of manners in which almost everyone, including the young protagonist, is unconflictedly pansexual. Girls make moon eyes at girls, boys hit on boys, and society doesn’t bat an eye. Some of the characters’ exploits may be a tad too sexy for those at the younger end of the YA spectrum, and the book needs a trigger warning for sexual violence, but I don’t hesitate to recommend it to YA readers who want more queer fiction in their life.
Santa Olivia by Jacqueline Carey is another notable adult title I can’t resist recommending, for all that it drifts away from the every-sexuality-is-normal mode once again. This near future dystopia follows a teenage girl born without fear. This stands her in good stead as she sets out to take down the bastards who’ve oppressed her people--and when she falls madly in love with another. Their love story provides an intense and emotional subplot.
Back in the realm of books marketed as YA, it’s become increasingly easy to find novels that promote a queer worldview, even if their protagonists are not themselves explicitly queer. Flora Segunda by Ysabeau S. Wilce is one of my favourites. Flora, our fearless hero, inhabits an alternate version of 19th century California in which men and women alike wear kilts and makeup and nobody worries overmuch about labels. While the queerness is less overt in the novel and its sequel (I’m a bad fan who hasn’t yet read the third book), it comes across much more strongly in the related short stories Wilce has published for the adult market.
And finally, we have my favourite YA novel of all: Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore. I’ve heard folks accuse Cashore of promoting "an aggressively liberal agenda" with this one; since I’m sure the criticism relates, in large part, to her treatment of sexuality, that’s just fine by me. While heteronormativity is still prevalent in wider society, it’s barely an issue for the protagonist. Bitterblue is fascinated with successful romantic relationships of all sorts, and she makes no distinction between her queer friends’ love lives and those of her hetero friends. When she questions a new acquaintance about his romantic past, she makes no assumption as to whether he’s had boyfriends or a girlfriends. And best of all, it’s a complete nonissue when she learns her own love interest is bisexual.
Of course, I’ve barely scratched the surface. There’s tons going on in the realm of queer YA speculative fiction. Many popular YA authors, including Malinda Lo and Cassandra Clare, make a point of queering up their books. YA editors like Amanda Rutter of Strange Chemistry are actively seeking queer stories, especially those of the every-sexuality-is-normal variety. And many SFF books marketed to an adult audience have crossover appeal for young adults.
Which queer YA speculative fiction titles do you recommend?
Thank you, Memory,for such great recommendations! Any of you read these books? What about others, like Memory asked?