YA fiction often has a complicated relationship with gay content. On the one hand, writers for young readers are often leery about presenting homosexuality. J.K. Rowling, for example, has famously said that Dumbledore was gay — but that revelation came at a Q&A with fans, not in the books themselves.
But while gay characters tend to be closeted or simply absent in YA, the gay experience is oddly and insistently prevalent. YA is, for obvious reasons, often focused on the process of growing up; it tends to be structured around the division between adults and children. And one of the main ways that the division between adult and child is explored, or dramatized, is by making more or less explicit parallels with the division between straight and gay.
In Harry Potter, for example, Harry’s move from childish oppression to magical power and fulfillment is accomplished through the discovery of a secret subculture living hidden in plain sight, recognizing one other through secret signs and rituals. In Twilight, similarly, the world of the vampires and werewolves is a metaphor for the passage to adulthood. But it’s also a queer closet which contains both pale, effeminate Edward’s refusal to have sex with Bella and hyper-masculine werewolf Jacob stripping his clothes off in front of Bella’s father. Even in the Hunger Games, the Capitol’s Roman wrongness is visible mostly through the effeminate styles and carriage of its inhabitants. Katniss’ too-quick adulthood in the games is also a too-quick introduction to decadence, partially defined (as decadence often is) through gay tropes.
The point here is not that these series are “really” gay. Rather, as critic Eve Sedgwick argued, the point is that the queer/straight division has huge cultural power and weight. YA books tend to be about marginalization, about identity formation, about the way that you can occupy one social category one day and another the next without feeling or even looking any different. With such themes, YA authors almost can’t help using queer tropes, or being used by them.
In this context, it’s interesting to look at an actual honest-to-God, openly queer YA novel. Nora Olsen’s Swans & Klons is set in a future where a plague has killed all the men. Women form pair bonds with each other, but reproduction is handled by the ruling doctors, who supervise the cloning of a few hundred established genotypes (or Jeepie Types.) Some of these clones are humans, who spend devote theirs lives to art or science or intellectual pursuits. Others are Klons, genetically manipulated to be a docile, strong, loyal servant class.
The novel focuses on two girls — Rubric and her girlfriend (schatzie) Salmon Jo. They’re both about to move out of the children’s dorms and onto their apprenticeships. They are, in other words, on the cusp of adulthood, with all its queer secrets.
There are a lot of those secrets. Virtually everything you first learn about the plague and men and Klons turns out to be a lie. (Spoilers coming up, if you care about that sort of thing.)
It turns out that the Klon are not genetically different from humans after all. They aren’t engineered to be happy servants. They just have a different tag put on their toes when they come out of the vats. They don’t lack human “intelligence and emotional development”. The “humans” are simply taught to think they do. Moreover, Klons are, again, drawn from the same genetically identical Jeepy Types as everyone else. There are Klons who look exactly like Rubric, who think in much the same way Rubric thinks, who have the same genetic aptitude for aesthetics that Rubric has. But Rubric gets to spend her life making art, while the Klons that look just like her toil in factories or clean up filth.
The drama in Olsen’s book, then, doesn’t come from elaborating differences, or even from bridging differences, as it does in Harry Potter, or Twilight, or The Hunger Games. Rather, the plot is propelled by the realization that differences, and for that matter similarities, are arbitrary. They’re not magic truths we understand when we become adults, but categories we impose. They may determine us, but we’re also responsible for them. To be an adult, or a child, or queer, or straight, isn’t as important as how we live in those categories, and, even more, how we make others live in them.
Rubric and Salmon Jo, horrified by their discovery, eventually free a Klon and escape from their city across the border into the wilderness. There they find that not all males have died. The Barbarous Ones (as they’ve been labeled) still bear male children, though the genetic plague causes those children to be mentally and physically deformed. Though these males will never, in some sense, become adults, the Barbarous Ones raise them with great affection and love,
Rubric finds the males repulsive; she argues that just as her own society has bought into the delusion that Klons are nonhuman, the Barbarous Ones “have just bought into a mass delusion that Cretinous Males are really glam.” Salmon Jo replies:
“Maybe every place has their own delusion. But I think the one here is better, kinder. You know how before we left home I said I didn’t know what human was? I know now. The Sons taught me what it means to be a human being. Even if they’re sick or not brainy, they’re just as human as us. I think they make you learn more about yourself, and that’s why the Barbarous Ones think they’re such an asset.”
It may seem odd for a lesbian novel to locate humanity paradigmatically in males, or for a Bildungsroman to find its most eloquent moral experience in perpetual childishness. But both choices are, I think, a measure of Olsen’s refusal of easy categories. Perhaps because her queer themes are more acknowledged and controlled, she’s able to tell a YA story that isn’t about growing up to know the truth of difference (“Vampires are real!” Magic is real!”) Instead, Swans & Klons urges its readers to define humaity as broadly and generousy as possible, so that it includes adults, and children, and everyone on the margins.