Queer YA in the Trump / Pence Era


Writing fiction has always been a political act. That’s especially true with young adult fiction, and even more so when we’re talking about young adult fiction focusing on LGBTQIA+ characters.

But right now, we’re living in a world where the U.S. just elected a president who doesn’t give a crap about queer folks. Not to mention a vice president who actively wants to abolish our rights and use so-called conversion therapy to “cure” kids who don’t fit the straight, cisgender mold.

And if that’s threatening to me ― an openly queer adult with full legal rights and a supportive family living in the liberal bastion that is Washington, D.C. ― it’s a thousand times more threatening to a closeted 13-year-old in Mike Pence’s home state of Indiana.

Like it or not, our books have never been more political than they are right now.

My newest book, Our Own Private Universe, just came out, but I wrote it well before the 2016 U.S. presidential election. It’s about a bisexual girl who goes on a church youth group mission trip to Mexico, where she makes it her goal to hook up with another girl for the first time. She gets a lot more than she bargained for when she meets a cute girl with a nose ring, a warm smile, and a carefully kept secret or two.

My book was inspired by Judy Blume’s classic YA Forever. That’s the one that might have been passed around from backpack to backpack in your middle school. It’s about a girl who falls in love and subsequently loses her virginity to a boy who named his penis Ralph (a plot point which is treated as a totally normal thing for him to have done, btw). Forever doesn’t hold back any of the messy details, whether about condoms, awkwardness, or heartbreak.

I loved Forever (I still do, to be honest). I’d always wished there were a book just like it, but about queer girls. Then it occurred to me ― well, I could always write one myself. So I sat down and started the first draft of the book that became Our Own Private Universe, complete with its own awkward hookup scenes (but there’s no Ralph in this one).

There’s politics behind all of that, of course. Forever was a deeply political book when it was first released in 1975, when most people seemed to think it went without question that teenagers shouldn’t be reading a book about sex. Even now, four decades later, it’s still controversial in many circles for YA books to include sex on the page, and queer sex even more so. Yet the characters in Our Own Private Universe don’t pause to consider whether their queerness or sexual desire is “right” or “wrong.” They feel what they feel, and they recognize those feelings as interesting, and fun, and worth exploring.

I didn’t see any of that as controversial, or political, when I was writing it. But because the publishing world moves slowly, even though I wrote draft after draft of Our Own Private Universe, I wrote them all while living safely in the Obama era. Not that everything was perfect for queer teens then, by any means ― but there was at least one branch of the U.S. government that wasn’t actively trying to make things worse for them. We can’t say that anymore.

What didn’t feel political just a couple of years ago feels very different in 2017.

So what will the Trump/Pence-era queer YA landscape look like? We don’t know yet. There’s more YA being published with LGBTQIA+ characters now than there’s ever been. We still need better representation of intersectionality, of course, but the diversity in terms of genre among the books published last year alone is incredible. From Anna-Marie McLemore’s beautiful magical realism story When the Moon Was Ours to Emily Skrutskie’s sea-monster sci-fi The Abyss Surrounds Us to Kiersten White’s historical And I Darken, LGBTQIA+ characters now show up in every kind of book there is.

And yet ― we’re living in a darker world now than we were just a few months ago. The events of the U.S. presidential campaign, and certainly the events since Trump and Pence took office earlier this month, cast a shadow over all our lives, and that’s particularly true for members of marginalized communities.

Our literature will reflect that new darkness in some way. It’s inevitable. There’s a lot to be said for the importance of escapism in times of fear, but even fantasies reflect the world in which they were written, from the 19th-century political allegories in The Wizard of Oz to the World War I imagery in Lord of the Rings to the emphasis on the dangers of sex in the Bush-era Twilight series.

I don’t know exactly how all of this will affect my own writing. All I know is, I can’t separate the creative, story-making part of my brain from the part that’s absolutely terrified of our new reality.

But I’m really glad I wrote Our Own Private Universe when I did. I’m glad I’ll be able to look back on it and remember how the world looked to me then. And I’m glad it’ll always be there to help me look toward a different future.

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About Author

Robin Talley

Robin Talley, author of Lies We Tell Ourselves (September 2014), What We Left Behind (October 2015), As I Descended (September 2016), and Our Own Private Universe (January 2017), grew up in Roanoke, Virginia. A Lambda Literary Fellow, Robin now lives in Washington, D.C., with her wife, plus an antisocial cat and a goofy hound dog. When Robin’s not writing, she’s often planning communication strategies at organizations fighting for equal rights and social justice. You can find her on the web at www.robintalley.com or on Twitter at @robin_talley.

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