Boy Meets Boy And Girl: Bi-ing Into Young Adult Fiction

something like summer
Vada Voices

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Sorry for that pun. Really.

Last week, Nick Gomez wrote about biphobia and it got me thinking.  Like a lot of gay people, I came out first as bi. To me this was never a lie, but an easing in – or out. If I had to admit that I fancied boys, I needed to have the “normal” or “correct” drive as well. Plus it helped my girlfriend deal with it.

I’m not ashamed of many things. Liking the Spice Girls? Proud. Hipster glasses last year? In my stride. But using bisexuality like an old sock? Not good.

I’ve previously talked about why we need to read fiction. James Baldwin, one of the writers I recommended, once said: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” So much YES to this. But as someone who reads quite a lot but has never looked for bi fiction, I’ve never found it. Or anything like it. In life and in art, we rarely allow bisexuality to exist.

Loads of people read young adult (YA) novels. Books aimed at teenagers, normally about finding yourself… family problems… the first kiss… the first, hilariously badly written, sexual encounter… They’re easy to read and are a good way of working through emotions you don’t understand.

Gays are kind of under-represented in mainstream YA fiction.  Yeah, gay Dumbledore, safely outed in an interview, off the page. But no boy-on-boy or girl-on-girl action in Hogwarts.  And where are the bi kids?

There is a good niche stock of gay and lesbian YA and children’s fiction around.  I know it helps a lot of people coming out. So let’s look at how bisexuality appears in two of these books. You tell me if it’s bona.

Jay Bell’s gay YA novels are quite popular. He’s self-published and won a Lambda award last year. When I discovered him at the young and wondrous age of seventeen (*cough* twenty-three), I was amazed by his honest portrayal of a range of emotions. Some of the boys and men are unbelievably stereotyped – like in real life – and some of them really aren’t. Bell’s characters never stop trying to find themselves.

Something Like Summer (2011-2014) is a series of books about Ben, a proud and dainty seventeen year-old, who slowly falls in love with a straight-acting Abercrombie and Fitch type called Tim. Tim is closeted until university. He has a lot of sex with women. Realistically, he begins by saying that sex with Ben doesn’t compromise his straightness, then “admit[s] to being bi”, and finally comes out as gay.

“I had a girlfriend once”, says one character, “and I enjoyed sex with her. But once I discovered guys, I never looked back.” “Then why don’t we call ourselves bisexual?” Tim asks. Being gay or straight is “easier,” comes the reply. There we are: lots of complex desires but you might as well pick a side. You know you like one really, in the end. And that is how we make a gay identity. Bisexuality just equals confusion or indecisiveness.

That’s true for some people. But I can’t help noticing that there are no bisexual characters in these books. Ben and Tim meet gay men, lesbians, and some very confused straights on their travels, but never an openly bisexual character. That would have helped. It would have put that bit into perspective, and reminded us that bisexuality really does exist.

Did you read Lisa Harrison’s review of Ash by Malinda Lo (2010)? Ash is written for younger readers, and is a beautiful lesbian retelling of Cinderella (Cinders/Ash, geddit?). Ash enters the fairy world where she learns that magic is a misunderstood difference (hello, allegory). She is courted by Prince Charming, but prefers the king’s huntress, Kaisa. It’s not really a love triangle because her romance with the prince is down to a curse (“It’s not real!”). In the end Ash kisses Kaisa and it feels like home.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Ash  and want all children to read it. But it is not really queer. Ash is never “really” attracted to the man. He represents tradition and convention. She loves the outcast, the new character, the woman. It might look like a girl-boy-girl triangle but it isn’t.

Jay Bell and Malinda Lo are not biphobic. Both of them are doing great things with their fiction. All I’m saying is this. Wouldn’t it be nice if  there was a young adult novel where the protagonist falls in love with a boy and a girl, but sees them as individuals, not in terms of what’s in their pants? Where – gasp – horror – sexuality isn’t even mentioned? Perhaps we can look past the gay/straight binary altogether. And, who knows? One day it might all get queerer still.