February is LGBT History Month here in the UK. In my opinion, this means a few things.
First of all, we can start by looking back and considering what lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people have accomplished in the past, how they have been treated, and what their circumstances have been like in different times and places.
That leads to us thinking about what has changed for LGBT people and where we are now. In some cases, we can marvel at the progress we've made, while in others, we realise how much work there is still to be done.
And that then makes us think about where we want to go in the future and what we need to do. What do LGBT people have to fight for next and how do we want to change our current situations?
So February is a great time for us to reflect, take stock, and make plans for action.
This can range across many different fields: we might think about same-sex marriage, for example, or about anti-gay laws in certain countries, or we might be more concerned with the high rates of teen suicide, or with ensuring that schools and workplaces are LGBT-friendly, or with a whole host of other topics.
What I'm thinking about during this particular LGBT History Month is how LGBT sexualities are portrayed in young adult literature. I'm frequently interested in what messages we send to young readers through literature, and I think LGBT literature in particular can be quite a problematic area in this regard.
In YA lit, for example, young gay men are quite promiscuous, and their varied sexual encounters are described in detail. Robin Reardon's books, for instance, feature hand jobs, oral sex, and phone sex, among other types, and the young men are depicted as finding the sex so pleasurable it's almost spiritual. David Levithan and Alex Sanchez likewise portray passionate, excited, highly sexual men. However, the men in these books don't always use protection, which is a worry in this era of increased knowledge about sexually transmitted diseases.
For young gay women, it's not the same story at all in regard to passionate and varied sex. In novel after novel, whether by Nancy Garden, Jane Eagland, or Lili Wilkinson, the women are scared, hesitant, and shy when it comes to physical intimacy, sometimes even avoiding it. All this might suggest to readers that gay men sleep around and don't care about the consequences, while young lesbians are frightened of and uncomfortable with sex. Is this really a message we want to pass on to the next generation, especially those who might just be coming out themselves?
As for bisexual young people, they're often described as "experimenting" and as being willing to get involved with anything that moves. In literature, they also regularly cheat on their partners. This seems to say that bisexuality isn't a real orientation and that bisexuals are so eager for sex that they don't care who they sleep with or what impact they have on these people.
Meanwhile, transgender teens in literature scarcely seem interested in relationships or sex at all, because they're generally so busy worrying about gender issues that they never appear to have anything else going on in their lives.
All of the above is just a tiny snippet of the kinds of things we might want to consider during LGBT History Month. How are LGBT people depicted in various types of media? What does that tell us about society? What messages does that send to readers/viewers? What can we do about it?
If you want to hear more about this, I'm giving a free talk that's open to the public at the University of East Anglia at 7 pm on 12 February in Arts 2.02. Come celebrate LGBT history month with us, as we look at where we are today and think about how to change things for the future.