Gay is Good: Positive Depictions of Gay Relationships in Contemporary Young Adult Fiction

Sexuality has been one of the most contested paradigms of the socio-political scenario of the world. The dominant ideology of the societies all around the world saw heterosexuality as the only ‘normal’ way of existence up until recently. The deviant sexual orientations hardly had any acceptance in the civil society. Homosexuality, no doubt, has been there from time immemorial, but acknowledging it as ‘normal’ is largely a move starting in the late twentieth century. Peter Barry, in Beginning Theory, locates the beginning of Queer studies only in the 1990s. Over the centuries, same sex relationships received different types of reactions from the common masses and the legislative bodies. For a long time it was seen as a sin and an unnatural practice of particularly twisted minds that needed to be punished. Homosexuality was seen as something that could be ‘turned off’, something that could be corrected by taking proper measures such as a good beating of the offender. It was discouraged through making gruesome examples of gay people for others to see, as so vividly portrayed in Ang Lee’s Academy Award winning movie, Brokeback Mountain. Oscar Wilde is one of the most popular examples among the victims of homophobia in the nineteenth century.

Judith Butler, in her Undoing Gender, draws parallels between feminism and queer study. She posits that since feminism has always fought against “false forms of universalism that serve a tacit or explicit cultural imperialism”, it ought to serve as enough of a common alliance “since phobic violence against bodies” is a part of anti-homophobic movements too (Butler 9). Though homosexuality and gay relationships have gained more support than ever before in the twenty-first century, their depiction in the texts have hardly found any easy, positive representation. Despite ‘gay’ being naturalized, they are usually marginalized and ridiculed. This paper will look at the depiction of gay relationships in two recent bestsellers, Don’t Let Me Go by J.H Trumble and Hushed by Kelley York, in an attempt to portray the breaking of Althuser’s notion of hegemonic discourses within the framework of the patriarchal ideological structures that marginalize, silence and in effect socially censor non-hegemonic discourses that are disruptive of the practices that serve their own interests. Don’t Let Me Go and Hushed were chosen on the basis of their popularity and high ratings in the popular social networking site for book lovers, Goodreads. The books are radical in the foregrounding of the gay relationships over the heterosexual ones in terms of their focus and the positive depictions thereof. This paper intends to provide a possible critical analysis of the texts and look closer into the ways they subvert the hegemonic societal norms related to heterosexuality and present the possibility of an alternative utopia in homosexuality for those who have a deviant sexual orientation.

Goodreads describes Don’t Let Me Go as a “witty, beautifully written novel that is both a sweet story of love and long-distance relationships, and timely discourse about bullying, bigotry, and hate in high schools”. Nate Schaper, the protagonist, finds the love of his life in Adam Jefferies. The story is about how Nate negotiates his relationship with Adam between the physical distance and the anti gay sentiment from a large part of the hegemonic, orthodox Christian community. Distraught after having sent Adam to New York in what was supposed to be an unselfish move to let Adam follow his Broadway dreams, Nate decides to drop all act, quit hiding and wear a t-shirt Adam had given him, sporting “Closets are for brooms, not people”, to school (Trumble 15). He is asked to turn his shirt inside out because a teacher found it “inappropriate for school” (Trumble 46). Aggravated, Nate decides to replicate the move with different shirts with similar slogans every day. All hell breaks loose when he starts his blog “I’m queer. Get over it.” to raise awareness. What started out as a strategy to miss Adam less turns into an unofficial struggle against discrimination and rejection. Using the same blog, he starts the trend of ‘T-shirt Tuesdays’ where he encourages people to wear their shirts inside out every Tuesday to show their support to the way of life that is absolutely normal but in deviance from the common ideas of kinship formations that the society and religion foreground. The move attracts anger and support in equal amounts and puts Nate in the centre of a major controversy. The struggle is for recognition and self-respect. According to Butler, “if the schemes of recognition [that] are available to us are those that ‘undo’ the person by conferring recognition, then recognition becomes a site of power by which the human is differentially produced”. She argues that our decision to be recognized in the society or be ignored is all influenced by the social norms. If an individual’s choice is to stay quiet about one’s way of life, it follows that the survival of the individual is dependent upon the society not knowing about the same. It might also mean that the deviant choices are in conflict with the interests of the dominant power structures of the society.

If I am someone who cannot be without doing, then the conditions of my doing are, in part, the conditions of my existence. If my doing is dependent on what is done by norms, then the possibility of my persistence as an ‘I’ depends upon my being able to do something with what is done with me (Butler 3).

Don’t Let Me Go portrays the angst, the insecurity and the danger of being in chase for one’s separate identity that does not conform to the dominant ideology. Nate, throughout the novel, faces a series of rejections and threats for his sexual orientation which was neither his choice nor within his power to change. He is physically abused, publicly humiliated, repeatedly told to change his “lifestyle” and warned of hell by religious fanatics protesting outside his school building. The depiction of hate arising from ignorance and inflexibility is stark and disturbing. At the end of it, though, all the relationships depicted in the book, homosexual and heterosexual, alike burn down to the recognizable, sanitized social concept of ‘Family’. According to Butler, “recent emphasis on the gay marriages tend to be illegitimate, and abject those sexual arrangements that do not comply with the marriage norm in either its existing or its revisable form” (Butler 5). In such situations, a critical question arises about how to oppose homophobia in the society without it becoming necessary to turn to marriage as a necessary boon for gays. What if a gay couple does not want to conform to another social bondage but still be legally and culturally recognized? There is always an attempt to organize sexuality in the reproductive relations for the benefit of the society. All social norms are after all, in one way or the other, created with the consideration of smooth working of the society and not with the view of the happiness of individual personhood.

Hushed by Kelley York was released as a Young Adult novel and it, unlike Don’t Let Me Go, successfully experiments with an ending which does not end in marriage and parenthood, albeit a bitter-sweet one. A work by a lesbian writer passionate for dark fiction, it is actually meant to be a psychological thriller. This paper explores the depiction of homosexuality within the text in the protagonist’s relationship with his savior. Archer, the protagonist, is an eighteen year old kid who creates a hit list to rid himself of the guilt he has lived with since he was just a kid, having failed to protect his best friend Vivian as her brother’s friends raped her and her brother laughed away. He had never been able to forgive himself and he went to great lengths to protect Vivian. To be there for her and tolerate every sort of nuisance she dished out. Trapped between his mixed but very strong feelings of guilt and love, Archer loses his capacity to take it anymore and resorts to killing as a cathartic exercise. Vivian sees his weakness and does everything to manipulate him. She repeatedly replicates her relationship with bullies who abuse her knowing that it tortured Archer to see her in pain. She watches Archer’s mental conflict as he tries to give her all the protection he was capable of, all the time in agony of desire for her. Archer lets Vivian control his life until he meets Evan. Evan quickly becomes the beacon of Archer’s life, his hope for redemption. Evan knows Archer’s secrets. He protects him from the police investigations, provides alibis for him, and by all of this leads him to sanity. His presence allows Archer to see clearly and realize how problematic his justification for the murders were, and how grossly Vivian used his feelings for her. For the first time Archer starts to realize that the sweet, innocent Vivian he once knew was lost, was nothing more than a memory he idealized and desperately clung on to in order to avoid the reality he did not want to face.

The text effectively subverts the hegemonic ideals of the heterosexual relationships. In Vivian’s subtle manipulation of Archer’s sense of guilt and responsibility, there lies the questioning of the whole concept that necessitates the presence of the figure of the knight in shining armor where there is a damsel in distress. Therein lies a sinister reminder that in being classified as weak, people can actually be capable of using the same to damage. That sometimes ‘weak’ are the people from whom one would need a protection. Vivian heartlessly uses Archer for her gains, even going to the extent of planning to kill Evan, almost succeeding in destroying Archer forever. In the process of depiction of Archer’s relationship with Evan, York goes an extra mile in actually privileging homosexual relationships over the idealized heterosexual ones. Archer’s relationship with Vivian shows many parallels with Evan’s relationship with Archer. York presents homosexuality as a healthier option that saves Archer. Evan’s protection for Archer has healthy boundaries. Evan promises all the support Archer would require. Evan refuses to go down the same road that Archer did with Vivian and flatly declares, “I’ll tell them the truth [the truth] in a heartbeat if you won’t buckle down and get help. I don’t care if they charge me for lying to the police.” Archer does not even hesitate to accept Evan’s terms, for he was broken after hearing Vivian confess her manipulative strategies and did not care what happened to him anymore. Evan’s presence, though, dispels all doubts and as he brushes Archer’s hair back in gratitude, “that simple touch was all it took to confirm he was making the right choice” (York 64).

The two texts and their positive reception clearly indicate the abatement of the homophobic discourses in the society. It points towards the broadening of horizons that promotes a society that recognizes the pros and cons of every ideology that is circulated by the power structures. It makes way for a more egalitarian society that recognizes every individual’s right to lead a fulfilling life with the partner of his or her choice. As Butler points out, “changes at the level of kinship demand a social reconsideration of the social conditions under which humans are born and reared, opening up new territory for social and psychological analysis as well as sites of their convergence” (Butler 14). Such a change is massive and has to be slow. It is, therefore, not surprising that there is still a lot of scope for change to make things even better, that there is a need to sort out differences and eliminate confusions like that which exists between the concept of kinship and marriage as commonly perceived.

There is therefore a need to broaden the ambit of our personal understanding of sexuality and the ways in which it is manifested in the society. According to Pierre Macherey “we must examine the nature of [the] shadow” in and around a text for this can be “the pillar of an explanation or the pretext for an interpretation”(Macherey 215). The silence of a work is “not a temporary silence that could be finally abolished”. The necessity of silence must be distinguished for “in its every particle the work manifests, uncovers, what it cannot say” (Macherey 217). This applies as much to creative texts as the social contexts within which they are received.

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Bibliography –

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory. New Delhi: Viva Books Private Limited, 2011. Print.
Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender. New York and London: Routledge, 2004. Print.
Goodreads Author. “Don’t Let Me Go.” 27 December 2011. Web. 6 April 2013. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/11718466-don-t-let-me-go.
Macherey, Pierre. “The Text Says What it Does Not Say.” Literature in the Modern World. Ed Dennis Walder. Oxford: =OUP, 1990. Print.
Trumble, J.H. Don’t Let Me Go. Kensington Publishing Corporation, 2011. Print.
York, Kelley. Hushed. Entangled Publishing, 2011. Print.

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Arpita Roy is a second year English Honors student at Kamala Nehru college affiliated to the University of Delhi. She is a member of the college creative writing society ‘Expressions’. She likes writing short stories and has presented and published a few papers on social issues, like censorship and commodification of women, over the previous year. She may be contacted at arpitaroy923@gmail.com.

Goodreads Author. “Don’t Let Me Go.” 27 December 2011. Web. 6 April 2013. http://www.goodreads.com/book/

show/11718466-don-t-let-me-go.

Macherey, Pierre. “The Text Says What it Does Not Say.” Literature in the Modern World. Ed Dennis Walder. Oxford:

OUP, 1990. Print.

Trumble, J.H. Don’t Let Me Go. Kensington Publishing Corporation, 2011. Print.

York, Kelley. Hushed. Entangled Publishing, 2011. Print.

Arpita Roy is a second year English Honors student at Kamala Nehru college affiliated to the University of Delhi. She is a member of the college creative writing society ‘Expressions’. She likes writing short stories and has presented and published a few papers on social issues, like censorship and commodification of women, over the previous year. She may be contacted at arpitaroy923@gmail.com.

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