“Realistic:” How Queer Kids Don’t Get Happy Endings


The world of Young Adult fiction is a dazzling array of any plot combination you can think of. It’s brilliant and varied, and I love being a part of something that’s constantly changing and growing. There are thousands and thousands of books with picture perfect happy endings, and there are thousands of books that end tragically, and there are thousands of fluff books and books that make you think and books that inspire and books that make you smile and books that tear your heart out, and…really, you want it, you got it in YA, and that world is growing every day.

So, I write lesbian young adult books. That’s what I do, and I love doing it–I’m a lesbian myself, and all I want to do in this life (besides love my wife fiercely and make pretty shit and sparkle. SPARKLING IS IMPORTANT.) is write the lesbian books I didn’t have when I was growing up. I want to write them for an up and coming generation that I believe, with every bit of my heart, will change the world. I’ve talked a lot about why I write what I write–I have lots of reasons.

One reason is that there’s not much gay YA. There are some with queer secondary characters, some gay books, VERY few lesbian books and very few bi books. This is obviously distressing to me as a queer author, and a young adult author, something that I am actively changing by writing queer YA. But it’s not the MOST distressing part.

To me, one of the greatest alarming and disappointing aspects of current gay YA is that they end “realistically.”

What does that mean? “Realistic?” It’s actually not the greatest word choice, but it’s used so often in talking about these books that I’m saying it here. “Realistic,” according to Ye Olde Dictionary means “interested in, concerned with, or based on what is real or practical.”

So, let’s throw out the gay YA that has secondary queer characters. I’m talking, right now, about the gay YA that has MAIN queer characters.

Most gay YA with gay main characters ends with the main character not getting the boy or girl s/he has been thinking about/wanting/in a relationship with. The relationship ends badly. The boy/girl turns out to be straight or “just experimenting” or falls in love with someone else. Things don’t work out.

Let me say that again. Because it needs to be emphasized: Most gay YA with gay main characters ends with the relationship not working out.

These books are lauded, over and over repeated forever, as “realistic.” “The relationship was so realistic!” “The ending was perfectly realistic.” Realistic is used so often in reviews of gay YA that I notice when it’s NOT used.

Almost all gay YA ends with the relationship going south.

It’s alarming and it’s frustrating. But, more to the point, has no one else noticed this? There are shockingly few gay YA, so if you’ve read one, you’ve probably gone on to read many. Was there ever a point where you stepped back and said: Huh. This ends the same as the other ones I’ve read. That’s…odd. I think that the relationship-not-working-out thing is even more obvious, because if you compare it to the amount of straight YA books that contain happy endings, it’s actually one of the saddest things in all of young adult literature. In YA that contains straight romances, thousands and thousands more end happily than those that don’t. But in the world of gay YA, the number of those that end “unhappily,” (ie, “realistically”) is staggeringly larger than those that end happily.

WHY?

Is it because it’s harder to be gay than straight? Obviously, in a world that’s still alarmingly homophobic, no one’s contesting that. But what about in a book where magic happens? So people can fly and petunias can grow out of your ears, but it’s absolutely impossible for a gay person to get a happily ever after with their sweetheart? I’m going to say it because it needs to be said: THAT MAKES NO SENSE WHATSOEVER AND IS, IN FACT, FULL OF RIDICULOUS.

Is it because the author wanted the novel to be “realistic?” I can’t say what an author may or may not have been thinking when it came to trying to make their novel realistic–obviously, every author wants their novel to be BELIEVABLE, no matter what it contains, but why does “a realistic ending” happen consistently, across the board? (Also, “believable” and “realistic” are not the same thing.) As a gay woman married to the most amazing lady on the face of this planet, I’m living proof that gay people can get their happily ever after, too. Almost all of my gay friends are in unconditionally loving relationships that are every bit as awesome as my straight friends. The argument that “gay people trying to find The One” have it harder than their straight counterparts works SOMETIMES, but NOT EVERY TIME.

Perhaps all of this wouldn’t be so noticeable if there weren’t other relationships in these gay YA novels. Almost every single time, in a gay YA novel where the gay relationship ends “realistically,” the straight relationship ENDS WELL. Again, let me say that one more time: the gay couple breaks up, and the straight couple stays together.

Again: WHY?

And, perhaps more pressingly: what is that saying to the gay kids reading these books?

“Straight people have it easier, will always have it easier.”

“Straight people always find the love of their lives–you won’t, or it will be REALLY fucking difficult.”

“Not only will it be REALLY fucking difficult, IT WILL PROBABLY END BADLY!”

By the way, what the storylines of “gay people not ending up together, straight people totally end up together” are reinforcing are things that are NOT true.

So why do these storylines always end up in gay YA books?

I don’t think that a “realistic” ending is necessarily bad. I love tearjerker books, too, and obviously, there is a place for books with realistic endings in this world. That’s not what I’m pointing out here. I’m pointing out that almost all gay YA follows this pattern, while straight YA books absolutely do NOT.

Obviously, there are many, many, many more straight books than gay YA books, and it could be argued that the different plotlines and endings of straight books are so varied because there ARE so many more than gay YA books. But I don’t think it’s a valid argument. If you took a broad swatch of straight YA books, you would STILL end up with many more “happily ever afters” than “unhappily ever afters.”

If you read five random gay YA books, it could be almost guaranteed that you would get four to five unhappy relationship endings.

To ask “WHY” eighty billion times is purposeless. The books that are already out can’t be changed, I don’t know the authors’ motivations, don’t know what the publishers asked of them…it’s an alarming thing that is consistent across the board, and it’s frustrating, but this is not a purposeless post to simply point out a fact.

As a YA author, I am putting out novels that are believable AND realistic. Because I’m sick and tired of “realistic” meaning “obviously this isn’t going to work out, they’re GAY.” FUCK that realistic. MY realistic means “a gay relationship has just as much of a shot as a straight one.”

If you’re a YA author writing/working on a novel that contains gay characters, I ask that you consider how that relationship ends. Are all of the straight ones awesome with true-love-cartoon-hearts, and the gay relationships end with amicable shaking-of-hands-of-course-it-couldn’t-work-this-is-probably-for-the-best? If so, you might want to rethink this. It’s been done. Often. And people ARE going to start noticing.

If you’re a YA author who has written the “realistic” gay ending book, I’m not pointing fingers. I’m not frustrated at any individual person or book. It takes a fuckload of courage to write and publish a gay YA book, I am not discounting your story, your journey, your struggle one little bit. Your wrote the story that was in your heart to write. I can understand that. And, very obviously, there is room in the world for some gay YA not ending happily. Or yes–even ending “realistically.”

But almost constantly ending “realistically?” That’s been done to death, now. What all of these books, consistently ending the way they do, tell gay kids, stacked one on top of the other? That’s kind of crap.

And it really, really, really needs to change, going forward.

~*~

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20 Responses to “Realistic:” How Queer Kids Don’t Get Happy Endings

  1. Katharine Tarkulich says:

    Huzzah! :-) You are a proponent of “twue love” in all it’s forms.

    I sometimes feel like the longer we spend on just the negative, the longer that negative stays around. Yes, we need writing and art that addresses all the pain and ugliness in our lives, but we also need writing and art that provides hope and shows that humans can change for the better and grow and be happy. If we only ever read or see depressing stuff, then we will become mired in that frame of mind and our own lives can dim and become gray. Your solution is to bring the rainbow and sparkles in, and I love you for it. :-)

  2. Interesting. I haven’t read a lot of gay YA, but yes, what I have read does fit that mold. :P

    So, question for you: My next novel is adult, but all but two chapters take place the summer the main characters are 13. One thread is that the protagonist realizes he has a crush on his best friend. It goes nowhere, not because the friend realizes and isn’t interested, but because as a result of the main plot, it’s pretty clear the friend is a jerk and the protagonist has more sense than that (no, that wasn’t a spoiler). That sounds like it fits your gripe. But the two present-day chapters, 20 years after that summer, show the protagonist happily married. Does that offset the ending of the teen summer part in your mind? I’m just curious – I hadn’t really thought of that aspect when I was writing the book, but you make a good point.

    • Sarah says:

      Hi Jennie! Thanks for your comment. :)

      I would never presume to vet another person’s writing based on a small description, but if I was the one writing the book, I would personally change that part. Obviously, a thirteen year old probably isn’t going to find a happily ever after right then and there–that’s way too young–but if you change it to ANYTHING else other than “it’s absolutely, definitely not going to work out,” it will be unexpected, and not follow along with all of the well traced grooves in that literature. Just my two cents. :)

      • Thanks, Sarah. Yeah, that was a vast oversimplification of a fairly complex story. :) I’ll be curious to see what your reaction is if you read the published version when it comes out in a few months.

        The book is part of a series and changing how things play out would undermine the character’s entire foundation going forward, but the short story in my collection that features him (at a later point) has been praised for how unstereotypical he and his past experiences are. I’m comfortable that even though that first crush doesn’t end well, he’s still not your typical character.

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  4. James Femmer says:

    Sarah,

    I love your posts, first of all. And I too have shared your frustration. I am also so tired of the ‘they die at the end’ trope. ‘Brokeback Mountain’ is a beautifully tragic story, but we can only have so many of those.

    I remember crying like a baby when I read ‘The Last Herald Mage’ by Mercedes Lackey. Even though the ending of the third book wasn’t too bad, it still wasn’t altogether happy. I can accept that, but when it’s the only thing out there, it perpetuates the negativity.

    That said, I don’t know how well my book will rate on your scale. ;) There is a reason why the relationship can’t work in the traditional sense – BUT, the way the characters are shaping up, I wouldn’t be surprised if they come up with a solution. We’ll know at the end. Right now it’s enough of a challenge to just get them to meet across universes.

    Keep writing your beautiful, sparkly stories. You help make the world a more beautiful place. <3

    James

    • Sarah says:

      Thank you so much~ <3

      I cried during The Last Herald Mage, too. :)

      *laughing* I don’t have a scale, I have a frustration. ;D And I happen to think that if there are universes in the way, THAT IS A VALID REASON. If it’s because “you’re gay, IT CAN’T WORK OUT,” that’s where said frustration comes in. ;D

      Awww, I will. <3 You, too, sir. *LOVE*!

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  6. If you haven’t already, everyone read “The Price of Salt” by Patricia Highsmith. Written in the 50s, it has a stunningly, shockingly, last-minute happy ending. That’s a spoiler, but I promise it’s worth it to read the book. The women pay a HIGH price for their happy ending though–one that falls into another common trope of lesbian (and/or sexually fulfilled women in general)tragic fates–but still. A happy(ish) ending for lesbians! In the 1950s!

  7. DJ Young says:

    Interesting post – and I admit I’ve not read much YA fiction either (gay or otherwise), though the few I have did have a happy ending for the gay characters involved. While it was certainly a nice change of pace, I couldn’t help but find some of those endings ‘unrealistic’ myself (even if believable), a case in point, ‘Annie on My Mind.’ It works because of the romance of the characters, what they go through, but young romances (gay or straight) rarely work out for the long term – not that that has to be the point. The main idea of the protagonists not dying, being incarcerated, kicked out onto the streets or forever separated or otherwise punished by society is a powerful one. In ‘Annie on My Mind’ the protagonists are given something we rarely see: hope.

    While it is good to hear of people having ‘happy endings’ in fiction (or real life), it has not been my experience (nor of anyone I know, really – gay or straight). I don’t say that as a trigger for any particular response: there are too many variables. It simply doesn’t exist for everyone. From a global perspective, misery, injustice and lovelessness are far more common realities. Hope, as it can be written down, is something that we see people fight for and, on occasion, die for. The desire for change, betterment and what a community or a person would do for it becomes the symbol. Why, if true, does so much (young) LGBT fiction seem less about hope and more about hopelessness? How many of the writers are LGBT themselves? If we’re looking at straight writers composing depressing stories about or featuring gay youth, why is their perspective so skewed? I’m sure there’s too many answers to that. Do you know how many of the YA stories you’ve read are written by straight authors?

    Adult gay fiction, I find, really isn’t much different than what you’ve reported for YA fiction – how often do we see the ‘happy’ or ‘realistic’ or ‘believable’ ending? In fact, I find so many of the happy endings in adult (lesbian) fiction to be highly unrealistic (even if they are ‘believable’) and therefore, in their own way, more disappointing. I think the only genre where you will find an exclusive number of happy endings is in (straight) romance fiction! In general literary terms, straight couples really don’t wind up much better half the time. Looking at our times, too – the global economy, the backslide into fundamentalist/dystopian-thinking – popular culture embraces the negative and the lack of ‘happy endings’ shows for everyone.

    The best thing is, naturally, to take action – write the stories you want to read and support the authors who take up the cause of trying to imagine things a little better than they ever are. I think hope still works.

    Thanks for your thought-provoking piece. :-)

  8. Jess Rosen says:

    I haven’t read many gay YA books, but i think you make an excellent point. I did read one with a happy ending, though. It’s called Hero by Perry Moore. If you haven’t read it, it was a really beautiful book and i remember thinking how brave the author was to write something that i previously had never seen before in the YA section. Hopefully in the future, the “realistic” trend won’t continue and we’ll see some more happy endings.

  9. Thanks for writing this — I didn’t realize the problem was so bad. When I started looking for queer stories, I got my recommendations from people who explicitly favored happy endings (*adds Hero by Perry Moore to the list*), so I guess I’m sheltered.

  10. Denny says:

    Beautiful and my sentiments exactly.

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  12. Hushicho says:

    Well-said and totally correct. Especially vexing in fantasy worlds where they don’t give it enough actual thought as to why it should be like that in a world that is not this one; they just assume that because it’s here, so should it be there, and they write it that way. That is called lazy, from my perspective! And sadly it’s not just YA literature, but all ages — many readers are desperate to see any queer representation in stories, and so they’ll latch onto any of it…and promptly be disappointed by the message of discouragement and pessimism that their straight counterparts don’t get.

    Bravo, and I hope more people will read this and think about it! It is, more often than not, bad writing…not ‘realistic’ by any means. Because that is a subjective term anyway, and it’s not realistic in a context if a writer isn’t consistent with that context.

  13. So a friend of mine who just finished betaing my MS for me just sent me a link to this post, I LOVE IT! (I know this post is over a year old but still, love it.) I’m straight and married. Last year after attending a LGBT meeting with SCBWI, I felt compelled to write a lesbian romance about a girl in the rural south, falling in love for the first time. It has a happy ending. And I’m extremely proud of my story. I believe in my story. I believe queer or not will enjoy my story because we all fall in love the same (giddy feelings, swept off our feet and total emersion in the other person,) I’ve gotten quite a bit of interest from well known agents but so far, no offers. I feared it was because of my “TOO HAPPY” ending, but now I have faith and a reason to fight for my happy ending. Thank you.

  14. Shira says:

    I kind of want to make out with this post.
    I was that child who internalized the “we can’t have happily ever afters” trope. I’ve been recovering from it all my life. When we got married, I felt like I’d left the pages of the script. It was amazing and, while very very human and flawed, continues to be amazing.

    I’m currently in the middle of writing lesbian young adult novel #3 (the first one was published a few weeks ago; The Second Mango–it’s fantasy with a dragon) and they all have happy endings. (I’d say “oh noes, spoilers!” but as a queer person myself I often won’t even touch queer lit unless I’m reassured we’re not all going to die in a fire.)

    • Sarah says:

      Thank you so much, Shira–I appreciate that. :)

      I’ve heard amazing things about your work–if you’d like to, we’d love to have you on Muse Rising in a guest post talking about how awesome your book is. Send me an email at sarah.e.diemer@gmail.com if’n that sounds happy to you!

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