May 6, 2011

Diversity in YA / Why should I read LGBT Lit? I'm straight! (Guest Post by Cris Beam)

Hey, Why should I read LGBT Lit? I'm straight!

For this blog, I was asked to write about what LGBT literature has to offer straight readers. I thought about the question for a week: it’s a big one. First, I figured, you have to tease out the T: a lot of transpeople are straight, so they don’t quite fit the question as it’s asked, and the T is always getting tangled up in the LGB, or added on like an afterthought, so I thought I’d better do some defining and differentiating which is always a messy business. And then there are the Bs, who can sometimes look S, depending on which chapter you’re reading, except of course they’re not, and the Ls and the Gs are often so many literary worlds apart, you can’t really discuss them in the same sentence.

I can’t even define LGBT literature. Is it about the author or the content? Are vampire books gay? Fashion magazines? Shakespeare’s sonnet # 20?

And in the midst of all this splicing and dicing, I realized the question wasn’t about the L,G, B or T at all. It was about the I. Not the I as in Intersex, which is often added to the acronym, but the I as in Me. Like, Why would I read LGBT literature if, ostensibly, it doesn’t have to do with me?

To that I answer, why do we read at all? The best literature of any kind both expands us out of our comfort zone and connects us with the human experience. Think of the last book you read: the main characters did not live your precise and imperfect life. To read that book, you’d have to write it. But if you liked the last book you read, it’s likely the characters connected you to something beyond yourself—to an idea or a place you’d never been before. And likely, you felt an emotional or intellectual resonance with someone who was not you. It’s why we read; books show us the ways that we’re human.

I Am JThe book I finished last night was Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin. The story, set in both Seoul and a small Korean village, is about an older woman who disappears from a train station and the family who goes searching for her. I’ve never been to Korea; I’ve never lost my mother on a train; I don’t have any sisters or older brothers; and there aren’t any LGBT characters or themes in this book, not even a trace. If my criteria for reading were to select books based on my life experience, my bookshelves would be pretty bare—and I would have missed this book, which spoke to me deeply. The criteria for choosing your books, in other words, can be their content—if you wish to learn about a certain topic or see a certain part of your own world reflected—but it should also simply be about quality. Read a book because it moves you, because it’s written well, because of that certain slant of light.

So I guess another answer to the “Why should I read GLBT lit?” is “Because it’s good.” I’m always surprised by the apologist nature to the starred reviews for a book with minority characters. After all, we don’t see “Don’t worry if you’re not a white middle class straight guy like the protagonist of this new novel; you’ll still connect to the book.” But reviews of anything outside the perceived center often carry a pleading quality to them. Like, “This book is an important addition to the gay canon, but even straight readers will find something to love.”

So I wonder what would happen if we shifted the center, shifted the cultural stronghold of that perceived generic straight guy sitting around and judging if all manners of literature resonate with him. I don’t even know who he is, anyway, just like I don’t really know what GLBT literature is. It’s all just words on a page, written for all of us to learn about, and connect, with one another.

Cris Beam is the author of I Am J (Little, Brown 2011) and Transparent: Love, Family and Living the T with Transgender Teenagers (Harcourt, 2007)

Diversity in YA Fiction is a website and book tour founded by two young adult authors, Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon, to celebrate diverse stories in YA.

DIYA is a positive, friendly gathering of readers and writers who want to see diversity in their fiction. We come from all walks of life and backgrounds, and we hope that you do, too. We encourage an attitude of openness and curiosity, and we welcome questions and discussion. Most of all, we can’t wait to have fun sharing some great books with you!

Diversity in YA Fiction will be going on tour in US! Check the schedule HERE!

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US only / Ends May 14th.


  1. This is a beautiful, beautiful post.

  2. Fantastic guest post! I love reading LGBT-- because I can relate to a lot of it and I do like relating to the characters in books, but I also love to see (straight or otherwise) readers reading LGBT. There's something in every character, I think, that everyone can relate to. :)


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