Recently, the national news has been peppered with troubling stories involving the gay young adult community. In light of such events, I found this entry to Changing Lives, Changing Minds especially powerful. In this piece, author Angel D. Matos Caro reminds readers that literature can inspire the possibility of personal awakening amidst social and cultural resistance.
Angel D. Matos Caro is a graduate student currently working towards a Master’s in English education at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez Campus. In addition to teaching freshmen composition, his interests include the Bildungsroman, psychoanalytic and anthropological criticism, and young-adult literature. He is currently writing his thesis on the roles of social exclusion and sacrifice in the Victorian novel.
I discovered gay young adult (YA) literature in my senior year in high school. A classmate lent me a copy of an Alex Sanchez’s Rainbow Boys and assured me that it would forever change the way I viewed life. He was right: The novel not only helped me come to terms with my inhibited sexuality, but it also granted me the opportunity, for the first time in my life, to fully identify with the characters and issues in a literary text.
Moving from New Jersey to Puerto Rico at the age of eight was a drastic change in my life, for not only was I being fully incorporated into a Hispanic environment predominantly influenced by the Catholic faith, but also because I noticed that people had extremely narrow prescriptions for my role as a male in society. I recall my grandfather asking me questions every time that I visited him, such as ¿cuántas novias tú tienes? (How many girlfriends do you have?) I even recall classmates mocking my affinity for “feminine-oriented” hobbies such as reading, writing, and designing clothes for my stuffed animal collection. (The fact that I had a stuffed animal collection was more than enough needed to raise a few eyebrows.) Sanchez’s YA novels not only helped me deal with these social and cultural issues during my late adolescence, but they were ultimately the impetus for my increasing affinity towards, and intellectual interest in, the gay YA genre and literature in general.
While pursuing my bachelor’s degree in English, I was fortunate enough to have received training in the areas of literary study and criticism, but my concentration was in the areas of generative linguistics and applied language studies. However, after graduating, I was able to engage with literature for leisurely purposes rather than scholarly ones, and I took this opportunity to delve into gay YA fiction. Amongst the novels I read were Perry Moore’s Hero, David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy, and Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will be Useful to You. Through this journey I noticed how rapidly the genre of gay YA fiction was developing and how its authors were zooming out from the narrow focus on the coming out process to the wider range of issues that current gay teens encounter.
Despite the sense of inclusiveness and self-affirmation that these novels granted me, the absent narratives about the coming out process signaled a rift between my reality as a Puerto Rican gay male and those of the fictional characters portrayed in recent gay YA literature. As I returned to my collection of novels in order to understand this tension, the answer became apparent: the representation of the coming out process within the literature is influenced by social, cultural, and racial factors, such that the depiction of the turbulent relationship between certain socio-cultural backgrounds and homosexuality seems to be overshadowed by the ostensibly progressive perspectives of gay males portrayed in novels with white middle- or upper-class protagonists.
In due time, I realized that the genre of gay YA literature granted me a sense of emancipation and inclusion as a gay man, my multiple identities as a Puerto Rican male raised in a predominately Catholic environment greatly disrupted these feelings. More so, I became aware of the major influence literature has had in my life and, more importantly, of the social value that literature has within my diverse socio-cultural positions (as a gay man, as a Latino, as an English major, as a bilingual, as an American, and even as a middle-class Puerto Rican return migrant).
This personal awakening to the social value of literature has drastically altered my intellectual and personal affinities toward the study of English. My interests shifted from generative and applied linguistics to the representation of social tensions amongst sexual and cultural identities in YA literature, and more importantly, the role that social exclusion has in the literary coming-of-age process. Delving into this new area was not easy, especially considering that YA literature is viewed mostly as a tool to instill certain values and ideas amongst its readers. Though it is true that literature can contribute towards the development of these ideals, this utilitarian view is blind to the value of the social, cultural, and spiritual self-enrichment fostered by literary engagement, and it particularly undermines the humanistic and political nature inherent within the genre of contemporary gay literature. After all, this genre of literature not only shifted my ideological views of contemporary societies, but it also opened a floodgate of endless literary and academic possibilities. Although I am now critically analyzing what many deem to be “adult” literature, I will always recognize the literary and social value of gay YA fiction, and I will continue to honor it as a primary driving force of the way I view and approach life and academia today.