Ending Happily

Note from The Make It Safe Project team: Nancy passed away shortly after writing this post. We thank her for taking the time to write this and for all the difference she has made in the lives of queer and trans youth. 

by Nancy Garden, author of Annie on My Mind

Back when I was growing up, there were no Gay-Straight Alliances, and the only people who knew the “other” meaning of the word gay were gay people and people in the arts. I sensed that I was different from other girls, but it wasn’t until I was in high school and read a magazine article about gay men that I began to realize what that difference was–and why I was falling in love with a girl in my school. Then a gay boy, a fellow apprentice at the summer theater where I worked, told me about the word gay, and we spent many hours talking about our loves and our lives.

I’d already hunted in those days for books that might help me understand what I was, but the only ones I found at first were cheap paperbacks with lurid covers and sad endings: the lesbian character usually committed suicide, was sent to a mental institution, or died in a car crash. I learned later that in order to get gay books published back then, writers had to imply or state that gay people were sick or evil and destined for tragedy.

Eventually, though, I found a helpful, old novel, The Well of Loneliness by English author Radclyffe Hall.  It was honest both about what being gay actually was, and about the terrible harm that homophobia did to gay people.  It, too, ended sadly, but with a heartfelt plea for justice and understanding.  That made me vow to write a gay book someday that would end happily and would show that we aren’t sick, evil monsters. It took me many years, but I finally wrote Annie on My Mind.

Today’s world for LGBTQ people is very different from the world in which I grew up. But despite GSAs, organizations like GLSEN, The Trevor Project, It Gets Better, and excellent online projects like this one, it’s still far from perfect. Most of us who write for and about LGBTQ kids, get letters from young readers that make today’s remaining prejudices and barriers very clear. Those letters also say things like “Your books show me other kids go through what I’m going through,” and “Your books show me it’s okay to be who I really am.”

Books are important for all kids, but they’re especially important for LGBTQ kids, who still, even in this rapidly improving world, often feel isolated and misunderstood. That’s why books centered on LGBTQ characters are so important.  Sure, most people enjoy reading about folks who are different from themselves, but also enjoy encountering fictional characters with whom they can identify directly–characters who share their backgrounds and dreams, their problems and fears, their struggles, and their triumphs over adversity.  For LGBTQ kids, even in today’s world, books through which they meet people like themselves can be–and sometimes are–lifesaving.

By the way, remember that gay apprentice from long ago?  He’s still one of my closest friends–and the girl I fell in love with way back then is now my legal spouse!

Filling the Gap

by Malinda Lo, author of Ash

When Amelia asked me to blog about why it’s important to have LGBT-related books for young adults available in schools, I knew I had hundreds of answers. They come to me regularly in my email from readers around the world.


Here’s one: “You gave me someone to connect to, someone who made me feel normal. These attractions I have for girls are not some weird abnormality. … Thank you for the hope and courage you’ve given me and these wonderful characters and stories I can relate to.”

And another: “I read Ash without realizing that it was a lesbian book, but I quite enjoyed it, and then I waited for Huntress to hit the shelves. The books made me feel more comfortable, and I actually came out to my mother after I read Huntress. So. Thank you.”

And one more: “Ash is a character that I feel that I can connect to since I have also been exploring my feelings and my sexuality in the search for my own path, and her strength really makes me feel that I can also choose a life not so easily influenced by the desires of others.”

When I was a teen, I don’t remember reading any books that included gay characters who were normal; who didn’t have to fight for their rights to be who they were. I do believe that if I had had access to LGBT stories when I was a teen, my own coming-out experience would have been much easier. But when I wrote Ash, I didn’t write it to fill the gap in school libraries; I wrote it to fill the gap inside me. I was showing myself that love is love, and being gay is okay. I’m so glad that my books can do that for other readers now, too.

Making It Safe by Making It Easy

by Sara Ryan, author of Empress of the World

I was lucky to grow up in a progressive college town. There was a great women’s bookstore where I could stock up on Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For, Diane diMassa’s Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist, and the triangle pins and freedom rings that proclaimed my queerness to whomever understood those particular codes, whenever I was brave enough to wear them.

But even going into the women’s bookstore required a certain amount of bravery. By walking in, I was acknowledging my interest in the stories and — ahem — “lifestyle accessories” on offer. In a sense, I had to already be out before I could find the stories that might have helped me come out.

What if I’d been able to just walk into my school library and find those stories?

I wrote Empress of the World, which is about two girls who fall in love at a summer gifted and talented program, in part because I knew how few queer love stories had been published for teens. Empress was first published in 2001.

Ten years later, in 2011, author Malinda Lo analyzed the young adult books that had been published that year and concluded that less than one percent had queer content.So — obviously — we still need a lot more queer stories.

And the easier it is to find queer stories — for queer kids and straight kids and kids who have no idea yet what their sexuality might be — the more likely it is that readers will feel like it’s okay to be who they are, and that they’ll be inspired to write stories of their own.

That’s why I’m so glad the Make It Safe Project exists.

I Know, Son

by Anonymous

Thanksgiving, 2010

“Hey, Mom- there’s something I need to tell you.”

She knows what I’m going to say, and she begins to tear up.

“I’m gay.”

There’s a pause, then she runs forward and grabs me, holding me close.“I know, son. I know. I love you.”

It wasn’t easy. In fact, it was terrifying. Extremely terrifying. I remember it all in vivid detail: my heart beating rapidly, the sense of fear running through my blood. But I somehow said it, because I needed to say it. I said it because I needed to be honest, because I needed to be free.

I don’t know exactly what gave me the confidence to come out as gay. In October of last year, I asked one of my best friends (a lesbian): “Uh… How do you come out?” That was my odd little line, the only thing I could manage to say. But I was able to say it, and looking back I am so glad I did. She took me in, comforted me, and then helped me through my difficulties. And she helped me in one other way, which was the most helpful thing she could ever do: She founded our school’s Gay-Straight Alliance.

At first, I was not a part of the GSA. But even without being a member, the GSA was able to guide me through my confusion. The group’s presence was comforting to me. Knowing that there were people who supported me and accepted me, people who were trying to help create a safe and accepting school environment for me and other LGBT kids was an incredible help. Their confidence and support gave me the willpower to come out to my parents. I realized how valuable the GSA was a little later than I would have liked. I attended a few sporadic meetings, and after a few weeks I just stared attending them all.

Just a few weeks ago, the GSA organized our school’s Day of Silence. I arrived at school early that day, expecting to find the normal chaos of a Friday morning. Instead I found utter silence. And it wasn’t just the thirty or so GSA kids… it was everyone. Even teachers taught their classes in silence. I knew the GSA was great, but I didn’t know it was that great. Day of Silence not only showed how much of an impact the club has made on the school and how important that impact is, but it also showed me how welcome I am in our community.