Queer Young Adult Books Help Me Reimagine My Past
When I was a teen, safety felt like a fiction. Now, fiction is letting me imagine a safer past, and a better future
I spent my childhood hiding. The only way to be safe was to lie about what I really was: gay. But even though I was so careful to cover up everything about myself, I was never safe. Not from my classmates. Not from my family. Not from the Christian church.
Now, like any other traumatized person, I am left to reckon with all the time I lost. It’s overwhelming trying to figure out how I might do this because I did not just lose a few weeks, I lost years of the most pivotal developmental period in a human’s life. One of the only ways I have found to combat this loss is reading novels about young queer people. These novels let me feel like I’m doing adolescence over in a world that is controlled and safer.
I am 21 years old and a junior in college, yet I am only now experiencing things straight people experienced years ago: going on casual dates, holding hands with someone in public, hooking up with people at parties, dressing in a way that actually feels like me. The freedom I feel is dizzying, intoxicating even. I am drunk on the way these details about my life feel so normal they’re almost boring.
However, underneath all that is anger and anxiety.
Anger at all the people who were able to experience the kind of teenage milestones I’ll never have, like a date to the prom. The kind who brings you a corsage and maybe gets a hotel room for the night so you can awkwardly try to figure out how to have sex. Awkwardness is one of those things I wish I could experience without feeling like I’m too old for it. Surely I would still dislike feeling awkward if I was fifteen, but at least it would feel age-appropriate.
Anxiety because no matter what I do, I feel like I’m still behind. And maybe I am. Most of my peers are either in or have had serious relationships, yet the most significant relationship I’ve ever had was someone who used me for sex for a few months. So much of my life feels like I’m chasing after a clock set to a different time zone.
This story is not one that is exclusive to me. It is a shared experience between most of the queer people in my life.
High school is a frequent topic of conversation between me and my queer friends in university. The ways it shaped us. How we worked ourselves to exhaustion every day because we knew if we ever wanted to have a semblance of a life, we had to leave our hometowns. What we did to find small bright lights in all the hurt.
We are all, in way or another, still trying to recover. One of the ways we do this is by reclaiming lost time through external experiences: whether this be our dating or social lives. And we aren’t alone in the instinct to find a way to live out experiences we weren’t afforded. Pride proms — an event that allows LGBTQ+ people to relive their high school prom — are especially popular on college campuses and are just one example of how queer adults can safely and joyfully relive their youths.
I found a lot of happiness and peace in recreating as many external experiences for myself as possible, but I was still left questioning how I could reclaim the interior experiences of my youth.
Because how could someone ever possibly recover the moments where everyone else grew up?
I found the solution in reimagining my youth.
Reimagining my past is one of the healthiest ways I have found to mourn the time that I lost and a part of me still feels like I’m missing. It allows me to learn about queer relationships and queer joy, along with allowing me to think through and process my past trauma.
The most effective way to do this, I’ve discovered, is reading young adult literature centered on queer narrators and experiences. Reaching for these books is something I’ve instinctually done for so long that it was only recently I realized why.
I was sitting on the couch of a woman who I went on a few dates with even though I almost immediately knew it wasn’t going to work out. It’s not my place to speculate, but if I was going to I would guess she had recently figured out she was queer. I’m partially placing these speculations in the way it seemed she didn’t really know what she wanted from me and the way she treated our dates almost like a novelty. Mostly, it was the way she softly said, “I’ve been reading a lot of gay YA recently.”
The way she said it, it almost sounded like she was telling me a secret.
In that moment, I saw in her the thing in me that felt angry and anxious. She was confused, maybe a little lost, and had no idea who to turn for. She, like me, was trying desperately to grow up. Which is maybe also the reason why she even asked me back to her place.
She sounded like she was saying something extremely personal because she was. She had reimagined really vulnerable parts of herself in the pages that she now confessed to me just by letting me know she’d been reading queer YA. Maybe she wouldn’t have even said it if we hadn’t been smoking weed for a few minutes.
But, also maybe she wasn’t saying any of those things. Maybe I was unfairly projecting on someone I barely knew.
Either way I came to a realization: reading queer YA has changed my adult life.
Reading Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz was one of the most hopeful things I have ever done. In Aristotle and Dante, I saw every gay relationship I almost had as a teenager. The one difference being that Aristotle and Dante were brave enough to do the thing I wasn’t: tell the other how they feel. When I read this book, I saw my Latinx community and I saw how I, as a gay person, could fit into it. I was finally able to see my past through a new lens, one of possibility.
Reading Carry On by Rainbow Rowell was one of the most joyful things I have ever done. It is a story full of quips, dragons, magic, friendship, and love. But, more than that, it is a story about gay teenagers who are happy and who choose to be open about who they are. Happiness is not something I would ever be able to have when I was sixteen. I thought I was going to carry my secret for the rest of my life. I had this recurring dream where I would die and years later someone would discover my journal, and only then would people know. Just consuming media about children who were able to experience joy in the years I experienced deep isolation and depression was revolutionary.
Reading The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth was one of the hardest things I have ever done. Cameron’s white suburban/rural life is far from anything I have ever known, but her experience at God’s Promise (a gay conversion camp) hit directly on very traumatic experiences of my own that left me with heaviness and hatred I am still working every day to unlearn. Watching Cameron navigate the same feelings I have felt — feelings I still struggle to talk about — not only gave me framework to understand the way my trauma has affected me, but the belief that I can emerge on the other side alive and hopeful.
I am 21 years old and I don’t have to hide anymore, but the years that I hid will stay with me forever. I have spent an uncountable number of hours wondering why I can’t just move. Why I feel stuck at the age of fifteen. Why I still have nightmares about conversion therapy or about everyone in my life abandoning me.
When I read YA I don’t have to wonder. Instead, I can finally close the chapter on mourning and move onto a happy and healthy adulthood.