I recently finished reading Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe and I cried reading the last two pages. I’m sure a lot of people could say that, whether they identify as queer or not. I also experienced a second wave of emotions concerning the state of queer representation and literature in YA several days after reading it. Aristotle & Dante isn’t the first young queer novel I’ve cried while reading the ending – The Song of Achilles involved sobbing for at least fifteen pages – but it is one that after reading and crying over I felt bad about crying over it.
A week or two before I read Aristotle & Dante I read a Publishers’ Weekly article describing the current state and trends of Young Adult literature, including LGBT novels that fall under the YA umbrella. It mentioned Aristotle & Dante as a touchstone title in queer YA much in the same way Speak is talked about in relation to YA in general – it created the subsection itself. It was so popular a rush of people moved to follow in Aristotle & Dante’s footsteps over the next seven years.
In doing so, apparently YA has moved past Aristotle & Dante – a story that involves a character repressing their own queerness for the majority of the book. Current queer YA has characters who are out and proud, characters who have same-sex or trans or genderqueer partners, characters whose queerness is a character trait, not a plot point. This is great for YA, great for the young adults reading novels where it’s a completely normal part of life to be queer, and it’s great that there are more books in existence with queer characters in general.
Part of me is despairing, though. Do the writers and editors and publishers of YA really think we’re past Aristotle & Dante? Are the storylines and struggles they encounter something we, the people writing and reading YA, are never going to read again? Are you telling me, as a queer person, that doubting my sexuality, being in denial, being afraid to tell people, being concerned about how I present in public, is no longer a relevant story? How much has really changed in those seven years?
Aristotle & Dante won several awards, at least two specifically because of the queer content and portrayals, and I don’t think the fact that it’s set in the 1980s is the reason it received them. It might be very different to be a high schooler these days, but I don’t think that much has changed in the seven years since the publishing of Aristotle & Dante. I know there’s been some change in the eleven years since I was in high school, but not that much.
It was just Pride Month, so I have seen many wonderful pride messages and celebrations – some sincere ones from queer friends and various queer content creators, and some not so sincere ones made by corporations. Pride Month isn’t all year long, though, and the wide world is not as queer friendly as a pride parade or pride festival. Once we [by “we” I mean queer people and I] start home, away from the festival, the world at large surrounds us again, implicitly and explicitly whispering hate into our ears.
In my social media bubble and my liberal workplace bubble everything is fine, but news stories are still happening that convince people to stay closeted, to fear for their lives. Which means yes, they still need to read stories where even if you’re closeted and fearing for your life – you can still fall in love and be loved by a significant other and your family.
There’s a scene in the second half of Aristotle and Dante that sticks with me in relation to the bad news we hear today. The two main characters are too young to be fired from their jobs for being gay, and they aren’t discriminated against while they plan a family through adoption – the news stories I see often and fear will affect my life. Instead, Dante kisses another boy and gets beaten up for it. This same thing happens now, too. I actually saw a recent news item that a lesbian couple was beaten up on public transportation for not kissing.
I’m absolutely thrilled that there are more YA novels in the world with queer characters whose story isn’t dominated by their orientation, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want stories where a character’s orientation is extremely relevant to their story. Gender identity and sexual orientation are as integral to a character as whether they have a single parent household or siblings or a part time job or an emotional support cat who refuses to cuddle with them.
I want both. And I don’t think it’s just my bisexuality talking.