Speaking Out: LGBTQ Youth Stand Up by editor Steve Berman is an excellent collection of thirteen short stories for and about LGBTQ teens and young adults. The anthology offers a diversity of life experiences and covers a spectrum of issues that LGBTQ youth face in living as out, from first crushes, falling in love and relationships, to forming supportive networks, standing up to homophobia and other discrimination, and planning for their future.
The distinguishing feature of this anthology that sets it apart from many books with similar queer young adult themes is that the stories are not focused on the experiences of coming out, but rather on LGBTQ youth experiences in living as out. In this respect the characters and their stories inspire such themes as courage and resilience in relation to their life situations, including standing up and speaking out in reaction to intolerance and homophobia. In his introduction, editor Steve Berman powerfully captures the purpose and underlying message of empowerment of this anthology:
“My hope is that by the time you set this book down, you’ll be encouraged to speak up, to speak out. In 1987, six gay activists in New York began promoting SILENCE = DEATH. But silence also means bullying and seclusion, inurement and loneliness.
Those of you who have come out, be heard. Those of you who know someone who is LGBT, let them be heard (and if you only suspect they are queer, listen harder). Those of you who are peering out from the closet, trust your voice. Be heard.”
Contributors to this collection are both new and prominent authors in the field of queer fiction and more specifically LGBTQ young adult literature. Each of the authors offers a brief introduction to their respective stories, whether as an anecdote of their own experiences as members of the LGBTQ community, or as the source(s) of inspiration for their stories. As a reader who often wonders about the story behind the story, I very much appreciated the author lead-ins to each of the contributions because they provided deeper insight into the stories and made the reading of this anthology a more intimate experience.
The anthology showcases a diversity of writing styles and variations on themes and the stories come together extremely well as their sequencing offers a fluid transition from one story to the next. With this, the compilation begins on quite a strong note with Lucky P by Rigoberto Gonzalez, the story of thirteen year-old Pedro who is bisexual and in love with his schoolmates Nemecio and Paloma. While Pedro’s parents have no issue with him being either gay or straight, they are somewhat perturbed by his bisexuality. Lucky P is one of my favourites in this anthology because, in addition to loving Pedro’s voice, the author taps into the heart of some of the realities of bisexuality while at the same time wrapping the overall story in the theme of first crush.
While all of the stories are written with strong protagonists, several of the stories best exemplify the theme of courage and resilience among LGBTQ youth. In Gutter Ball by Danielle Pignataro the main protagonist stands up to her homophobic classmates through, among others, a bowling match. In Alex Jeffers’ Captain of the World, the captain of the soccer team demonstrates quiet resolve and strength when he encounters both homophobia and racism. In Waiting to Show Her by Ann Tonsor Zeddies our protagonist Reggie deals with Christian fundamentalism and in Spark of Change by Dia Pannes a young lesbian, through her actions, bravely takes on her homophobic firefighter father who refuses to respond to a call when a lesbian couple’s home is set on fire.
Another prominent theme in this anthology is the importance of supportive relationships in the lives of LGBTQ youth, whether formed through romantic love or platonic friendship. Several of the stories highlight this theme including: Sam Cameron’s Day Student – the story of Matthew and Charlie who attend a prep school and must deal with Matthew’s fears when Charlie finds the means for them to live together in the school’s dorm; The Proximity of Seniors by L.A. Fields which features a heartwarming story of the lifelong friendship between a gay boy and his best friend who is lesbian; and Subtle Poison by Lucas J.W. Johnson – a powerful story that realistically portrays issues relating to substance abuse among youth within the overall story of a transsexual boy’s discovery that the support of family does not necessarily require blood relations.
The anthology ends on an equally high note with Sandra McDonald’s humorous account of family dynamics in All Gender U the story of a boy who wears girl’s clothing and wants to attend Dartmouth but in order to do so will need the help of a conservative aunt, an alumna of the university.
As with all anthologies I did have my personal favourites. In addition to Lucky P by Rigoberto Gonzalez, Steve Berman contributes the only speculative fiction piece to an otherwise contemporary fiction collection in Only Lost Boys Are Found an extremely moving and visually strong fantasy tale of a young man’s journey to find and save his closeted love. Forever Is Composed of Nows by Will Ludwigsen is another touching story of a gay man who returns to his high school to give a talk on his latest book and recalls how he survived the difficult years of bullying which he endured as a student some twenty years past. In The Trouble with Billy, Jeffrey Ricker has written an insightful story on the issue of bullying and its impacts by providing the perspective of all involved: Jaime the high school student who is continuously bullied and harassed in school; his best friend Sarah who tries to support him the best way she can; and finally the bully himself, Billy. Duet: A Story in Haibun by Charles Jensen is a wonderfully lyrical and poetic tale of two high school band musicians who are deeply in love and worried about their impending separation as they prepare to attend college.
The stories in this anthology truly resonated with me and I found them to be quite empowering even as an adult. While the protagonists in each of the stories experience intolerance and adversity, none are portrayed as victims. Each, in their own way, stands up, speaks out and fights back. Without diminishing the realities that LGBTQ youth face in the world, the stories are not only empowering but also offer hope to prospective queer and questioning young readers.
I immensely enjoyed this collection of short stories and the anthology will definitely make the list of my favourite books for 2011. I highly recommend Speaking Out to all readers – young or old, queer or straight.