Once again, Anna Cook from Future Feminist Librarian-Activist (which, like its tumblr counterpart, is amazing) has agreed to read and discuss a lesbian book with me. Last time it was Annie On My Mind by Nancy Garden, this time it’s Hello, Groin by Beth Goobie. We discussed it by email this time, which means it’s less back-and-forth and more long diatribes, but I’ve taken Anna’s lead and colour-coded it for you. I’ve marked all the spoilers so that you have to highlight to read them, but fair warning, this was a pretty spoiler-heavy discussion, so it might seem a little fragmented. To read it without highlighting for spoilers, check out Anna’s post. This was lots of fun, and we plan to do it again, plus I’m reading another teen lesbian book with Rie of Friend of Dorothy Wilde this month! If you want to do something similar with me, just send me an email  at danikaellis@gmail.com!

Danika: I guess to start off with, we could talk about the handling of teen sexuality in AOMM vs HG. HG [spoiler starts here, highlight to read] doesn’t actually have any lesbian sex scenes (spoiler!)[spoiler ends here], but it does have a lot of sexuality in it. I found it really interesting that Dylan is not a virgin. Neither is Joc, of course. And sex is a frequent topic of conversation and speculation. It seemed really true to the reality of teenagers at this point in
time. What did you think?

Anna: Wow, so there’s a lot to unpack in your opening comment, and I’d love to tackle it all eventually! [spoilers] I was very struck by the fact that, despite the frank acknowledgment of sexuality in HG there was no lesbian sex (I was so disappointed!). The (mostly implied) sex is hetero sex, and masturbation, neither of which are demonized but both of which are not a substitute for same-sex love scenes, and I thought it was an interesting choice for Goobie to back away from being sexually explicit in that instance when she had not with other aspects of sex and the fact that teenagers can be sexual beings, and that this isn’t divorced from other aspects of who they are in the world. [end spoilers]

In fact, I felt in a lot of ways that Dylan (our narrator) is a lot more uncomfortable about her same-sex desires than Liza was in AOMM. She acknowledges her discomfort directly in the book, quite early on, in chapter five when she addresses the reader and says, “The main question here, I suppose, would be, What was the big deal? Most people didn’t go into a major funk over sexual orientation anymore–a lot of lesbians and gays were out these days.”  And yet, for Dylan, it’s not so much a question of sexual desire but social identity: “I just didn’t click with them,” she says, “They were all really different than me–besides our hormones we had nothing in common.”

To me, that’s a pretty major shift away from understanding your sexuality in terms of specific, personal desires and specific relationships in AOMM towards understanding sexual orientation as a form of group belonging in HG. And, ironically, the greater visibility of the LGBT community in Dylan’s life means that she has a much stronger sense of what it “means” to be queer. Therefore, because she can’t see herself as part of that community, this becomes a roadblock to her acknowledging, and feeling comfortable with, her desire for Joc. In AOMM, nearly the opposite is true: it is [spoilers] the lives of the lesbian teachers (embodied in their home and relationship) [end spoilers] that help Annie and Liza see that being together is possible. It’s a dawning awareness that takes place almost in isolation from their peers.

[spoilers] What do you make of the lack of relational lesbian sex scenes in the book, and the fact that Dylan’s dawning awareness of her desire for Joc is depicted primarily in terms of solitary sex and her internal physical reactions, rather than exploration as a couple?  And (major spoiler!) I was particularly struck by Dylan’s desire to slow things down with Joc when they finally got together, rather than dive in and get to know her very willing partner on that level.  What are your thoughts? [end spoilers]

Danika: Interesting. You know, I’ve never really considered [spoilers] how there is no explicit lesbian sex [end spoilers] in HG. It seemed to fit with the models of lesbian teen books I’ve read before, like Empress of the World and Bermudez Triangle (correct me if I’m wrong; it’s been a while since I’ve read them). [spoilers] But you’re right: why shouldn’t these teen lesbian books include lesbian sex? After all, AOMM did (even if it was a little “off screen”), so you would think by this time we’d be more frank. When I think about it, though, I don’t know if I’ve read any teen lesbian books with actual lesbian sex scenes, even any that are comparable to AOMM. [end spoilers]

I think the scenes of masturbation and talk about hetero sex was pretty explicit in HG. You’d be hard-pressed to find a reader who didn’t catch on that Dylan was masturbating. It’s kind of an ongoing theme at some point.

Hmm, that’s a good point. HG offers a sort of double-edged sword of queer visibility. Dylan knows what being a lesbian is, and she even personally knows lesbians. She doesn’t think they have miserable lives. But that idea of a queer community, which can be life-saving when coming out, can also seem too exclusive. If you don’t fit in in the queer community, can you really be queer? Can you be queer in a straight community? And that’s been an ongoing issue with queer activism: the “extremist” queer people want to create our own community, our own world, or at least radically reconstruct dominant society; the “moderate” queer people want to tweak dominant culture to allow us to assimilate. Even within lesbians I’ve met I’ve heard both “Why can’t I just sleep with girls without having it define me?” and “I love the lesbian community”. I think it’s really important to have both, to have a place for queers who feel displaced in straight/cis society to be around people they can relate to, as well as accommodating queer people who just want to fit into dominant society. Unfortunately, in Dylan’s case, the community was too small to really be inclusive, and the straight/cis world wasn’t going out of its way to be queer-positive.

I think we see this positive aspect of queer community/role models in AOMM and the downside in HG. I mean, if [spoilers] the teachers in AOMM had been people that Liza didn’t like, or didn’t relate to [end spoilers], would that have made it even harder for her and Annie? It’s hard that queerness has these two elements: the queer culture, with a rich history and literature and activism and entertainment and social scene, but it’s also something that is so very personal and individual, and has to do with the most private parts of ourselves.

My first instinct to respond to [spoilers] the lack of lesbian sex in HG [end spoiler] is that it doesn’t fit the storyline. HG is about Dylan coming to grips with her sexuality and sexual orientation, with her desire and what that means for her identity. [spoilers] Getting together with Joc was really almost secondary to that. It was the final step in that journey, in that arc. The story of Joc and Dylan as a couple isn’t really included in HG. I don’t feel like you could really have them have sex after years of repressed desire and then fade to black, because it would leave too many questions. And answering those questions would require a whole other book! [end spoilers]

That’s my first instinct, but I know that it’s really easy to dismiss these sorts of questions by saying “That’s what the story demanded”, so I’d like to look more closely at it. [spoilers] I really quite liked Dylan’s insistence that they move slowly. I thought the “I’m in love with this finger” line was absolutely adorable. I feel like them having sex right then would be too fast, because they had only just acknowledged their feeling for each other, their sexual orientation, and Joc hadn’t even come out to her mom yet! It would have been too many emotional experiences at once for them. [end spoilers]

I think it’s exactly what you touch on: the “dawning” of her sexuality. The title alone implies that Dylan is only beginning to know herself. I think that the book was working up to this point, to this careful introduction to sexuality. [spoilers] I guess it also is in contrast to Dylan’s previous sexual encounters. She’s forced herself to have sex before, because she felt like that’s what she’s supposed to do. She’d been pressured to have sex with her boyfriend the whole book. I think maybe Dylan negotiating with Joc about sex shows her new understanding of her sexuality, her ability to not repress her desire, but also not repress her better judgment. I’m not totally satisfied by that answer, though. What do you think? Was she afraid of backlash about have lesbian sex in it? She already addressed drinking, drugs (briefly), partying, homosexuality, queer desire, teen sex, and female masturbation. It doesn’t seem likely that she thought lesbian sex was going too far. Do you have any theories? [end spoilers]

Anna: I like your analysis of the two-edged sword of queer “communities.” In my own life,I can think of examples where the HG model has been in operation as well as examples where the AOMM experience has been really helpful.  Particularly in smaller populations (I’m thinking particularly of the insular spaces of teenage peer culture, so often segregated in schools), the “queer” community, in my experience, tends to be dominated by — as you put it — “extremist” personalities. And if you don’t see yourself mirrored in those personalities, it’s hard to see how your life is going to improve by identifying with them. Coming out, in those cases, seems ripe for being rejected by both the dominant culture (for being queer) and the queer community for not being the “right” kind of queer. As someone with more fluid sexual attractions, for example, I was timid about voicing my same-sex desires for many years because I perceived the potential for rejection by the lesbian girls I knew for not being lesbian enough, and I really didn’t see myself reflected in the lives of the few bi women I met at college. So I sympathize with Dylan’s struggles to name her desires openly, even though she knows inside herself where her attractions lie.

As someone in my late twenties, too, when reading YA literature I wonder what role my adult expectations play [spoilers] in the sense that there’s not “enough” sex in HG? And whether, as you say, having Dylan approach her relationship with Joc as something special, more intimate, and therefore something to approach slowly and cautiously, might be a legitimate reflection of age rather than prudishness on the part of the author? When I was Dylan’s age, would I have wanted to go from zero to sixty in a sexual relationship? I suspect with the right person, yes, given my personality :).  But I also think it’s legitimate for an author to write characters who are slower to feel sure about how they want to express their sexuality in relationships, even when they know it’s a relationship they want to be in, and be sexually active in, eventually.  An example of a similar “taking it slow” approach that is nonetheless sex-positive (and more sexually explicit) is the novel This Is All by Aiden Chambers, although I think that novel had other issues. However, the (hetero) couple at the center of the story were both very purposeful about choosing the time and place to be sexually intimate for the first time, yet also joyful in the moment as well. I rather wish HG had gotten to that point. In part because, from a political and cultural perspective, there’s such a persistent stereotype that lesbian relationships are more romantic than physical. Clearly, Dylan and Joc are both highly physical, highly sexual beings. But the fact that this grinds to a halt when the girls come together in bed was frustrating to me.

Have you read other books by Goobie and if so, how does the treatment of sexuality compare? Going back to our last conversation and the example of David Levithan, he writes romantic stories with explicit sex and without explicit sex, and I enjoy them both, so perhaps it is unfair to place the burden of expectation that this ONE novel do everything at once! [end spoilers] I know that, as you pointed out, YA authors often have to tread a very careful line between exploring issues that they feel are relevant to teenage lives and also not being too heavy-handed with the Real Life Issues stuff. [spoilers] Likewise, the balance between including stuff about sex without being so controversial that young people can’t get their hands on the books! [end spoilers]

Of course, resourceful kids (with access to a good library!) can get around this by going straight for adult lesbian literature, if they know where to look. It’s interesting to me that, with the emphasis on the library book display, that Dylan did not reference more lesbian-themed literature, or at least didn’t seem to see books as a resource the same way that Liza did in AOMM.  I know, as a teenager, that novels like Fingersmith (to give one example) were a wonderfully safe and private way to explore same-sex desire and sexual arousal. Do you have any thoughts about the role of books in HG, particularly since we discussed this as such an important element of AOMM?

Danika: Yes, again, that idea of having a shared culture is amazing when you identify with that culture, and alienating when you don’t. The queer community, like the feminist community, still has a while to go to actually be as inclusive as they claim to be. Luckily, I think that a lot of girls (not so much guys) in high school now are feeling more comfortable coming out as queer, especially as an unlabelled queer. I think, in some situations, at least, we’re seeing more acceptance of people being true to themselves without necessarily claiming a title. A lot of teens are now saying that they don’t feel the need to label their desire. [spoilers] Speaking of, I found it a little disconcerting that Joc uses the word “bi-curious” to describe herself, and then has her mother label her “lesbian”, and Dylan thinks that label will take a while to get used to… but that’s not Joc’s label. I mean, I think that since Joc has been attracted o Dylan for years now,

she’s probably more towards bisexual than “bi-curious”, but there’s no reason to think she’s gay.

When I first read this book, I was in my late teens, and I don’t remember thinking that it lacked sex. I really liked how it handled their sexuality. But now that you mention it, I hadn’t considered how their sexuality ends when they’re in bed together. That is problematic. I keep coming back to not knowing how it could be fit into the story, though. Dylan wants to wait until they’re both more comfortable with each other, with the idea. I know that when I first realized I was attracted to girls, I didn’t immediately want to have sex with them. It was a slow process of wanting to kiss them but not anything else, and then maybe a little bit further, but not “all the way”, etc. I know when my girlfriend first started realizing she liked girls, she was first just puzzled about why she wanted to write girls poetry. And then actually doing anything with girls was a whole other process. I think I thought I was going to pass out the first time I held a girl’s hand. It’s overwhelming to begin with. (Or maybe that’s just me…) I think that Dylan and Joc would have waiting at least a month or two before having sex, which is a perfectly valid thing to do in any relationship, and I don’t know if you could really fast forward a month to the sex scene and then fade out. At the point we end the book on, Dylan and Joc are still adjusting to switching from “best friend” mode to “girlfriends” mode.

I’ve only read one other book by Beth Goobie, and that was Something Girl, which was about parental violence, so it didn’t include any sex. I’m fairly sure that this is Goobie’s only queer book, but I could be wrong. [end spoilers]

On of the reasons I really like HG was the literature subplot (there’s even Harry Potter references!), just like I liked AOMM for that. I really like how the idea of censorship got woven into how Dylan feels like her sexual orientation is censored, but also just teen sexuality. The display really seemed to let her work through her own feeling about sexuality and censorship. There was also the reoccurring Egyptian Book of the Dead theme, which I liked, and it also let her work through her feelings. The scene with “I have not eaten my heart? […] No heaven for you then, eh Dyllie?” was haunting. I thought that was very effective.

Again, it’s funny how I never noticed that before. Dylan sort of sees Foxfire as a representation of lesbians, but it’s not explicit, and she never seeks out other books. Are there no others at the library? The librarian doesn’t seem like the type that wouldn’t stock queer books. Was Dylan not aware of them? She volunteers at the library; she should be pretty familiar with the material. How odd. I guess that Dylan really doesn’t see the books as a resource, which, now that you mention it, seems odd. She likes the library, she seems to enjoy books (she talks reverently about a shelf of books near the beginning of HG), but we don’t see her reading anything that isn’t assigned, and she never seeks out lesbian books. I think that might have been an oversight on the part of the author, because it seems like something Dylan would do, or would at least consider doing.

On another note, though, I kind of wonder about it being a sort of curse of plenty. In AOMM, it was fairly easy to know which lesbian books to read, because there weren’t very many! You could conceivably set out to read all of them in your lifetime. Now, though, there are enough lesbian books that it can be overwhelming to know where to start. I don’t think that would’ve stopped Dylan, though, so I really think that was an oversight.

Have you read Beth Goobie’s explanation of writing HG? It’s really interesting and encouraging: http://www.orcabook.com/client/client_pages/hellogroin.cfm

Anna: Thanks for the link to Goobie’s comments. I was particularly struck by the comment that some have criticized her book for being “surrealistically positive,” since I read it as much more of a mixed bag.  Perhaps what people were reacting to is the fact that, while teenage sexuality — and coming to grips with one’s sexual desires — is central to the story, same-sex attractions aren’t presented as a problem, something to be overcome and/or something that is going to damage the character.  Until very recently, I think, literature with gay or lesbian characters presented those characters as somehow inherently tragic and wounded, whether those wounds were the result of being internally disordered somehow OR whether those wounds came as a result of living in a hostile culture. [spoilers] AOMM tries not to do this, but Liza’s public acknowledgement of her relationship with Annie, and the discovery of the teachers’ lesbian relationship, is still dramatic and painful for people. [end spoilers]

In HG, the issue isn’t so much homosexuality but teenage sexuality. Homosexuality, as you say, isn’t being censored — teenage sexuality is being censored.  And I think that’s an interesting angle. In some ways, I agree with Goobie that this is the direction we’ve moved in — people are more willing to think about the diversity of sexual orientation, but they’re still very, very uncomfortable with teenage sexuality.

On the other hand, the recent flurry of suicides by queer students who have experienced bullying here in the US (in part because of their perceived or actual sexual orientation and/or gender expression) belie somewhat the rosy picture that Goobie’s adolescent informants painted.  I’m skeptical that the (mostly straight) students she interviewed or otherwise talked with really understand what it means to be a non-conforming teenager and all of the internal and external pressures non-straight teenagers might face to just conform already! Another example of this disconnect would be the wide-spread perception that college campuses are generally lgbt-friendly, whereas the 2010 CampusPride survey of queer faculty and students indicated an enduring pattern of harassment and hostile climate that has pushed over a third of the individuals surveyed to seriously consider leaving their place of employment/studies.

Returning to the book-and-library theme, as a librarian I was so pleased that the school librarian in HG was seen as such a supportive character! She comes across as a real advocate for the students, even if she couldn’t overrule the school administrators about Dylan’s book display.  But, as you say, the book theme doesn’t develop as much as it could, and it does seem strange the Dylan doesn’t seek out information in the library or in books that might help her make sense of her desires. Certainly, in the face of a local queer community I didn’t feel I could connect with, literature and online networks were where I was able to piece together a broader context for my own sexuality (though not until college and post-college, so perhaps I’m placing too much expectation on a high school student to have herself sorted out!).

The commentary from Goobie that you linked was interesting in that it was similar to some of the commentary in the back of my copy of AOMM, which contained an 25th anniversary interview with Nancy Garden.  It is interesting to me that Garden wrote the book very much out of her own personal experience — writing, perhaps, for the teenager she herself was.  Whereas Goobie seems to have taken a more distanced approach, interviewing teenagers and writing a story that is not so clearly connected to her own personal feelings (from the brief commentary you linked to, one gets no sense of her own orientation.  It’s not like I don’t think only queer people can write books with queer characters and/or protagonists, but I wonder how that effects the stories they tell and their narrative priorities. Do you have any thoughts about this?

Danika: It is odd that people thought it was fairytale-ish, considering how hard Dylan fought against her sexuality to begin with. [spoilers] I think what they were criticizing, though, was the way the parents and other students dealt with Dylan and Joc coming out. In AOMM, even if we don’t see any disowning by the parents, Liza and Annie still face huge consequences as a direct consequence of being outed, and so do their mentors. Joc and Dylan don’t see this, other than with Joc’s brother. [end spoilers]

It is a very interesting direction to take, because in some ways, while HG is a “teen lesbian book”, it’s not about being a lesbian. It’s about being a sexual being, and it’s just that differing sexual orientations tend to be the times when we really critically look at sexuality. So the lesbian theme, though it can be seen as the major theme of the book, can also be seen as secondary to the theme of teen sexuality, and that lesbianism was just the easiest way to confront sexuality.

Aah, but you have to be very careful about that. It’s clear that definitely, a whole of teens face incredible pressure and harassment for their perceived sexual orientation. Many queer kids are disowned by their parents, a disproportionate amount commit suicide: you can’t deny that it is still nowhere near being an accepting or even safe environment for queer teens in North America as a whole. But, the cases that you are talking about are from the United States. The thing I noticed about Goobie’s commentary about HG which I really appreciated was that she was careful to set it in a very specific location and was telling a very specific story. Dylan’s story isn’t supposed to universal, it’s supposed to represent the reality for teens from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. She didn’t interview students from all over NA, or Canada, or even Saskatchewan, but just that specific city. And that’s how students responded. So she shaped her story around what these teens represented their lives as, the stories they told, the experiences they had. She wasn’t trying to impose her own idea of what growing up queer looks like, partly, I suspect, because she didn’t. I fully agree that queer youth face a huge amount of difficulties coming out or even just appearing queer (regardless of whether it’s true), and those stories need to be told, but we don’t need that to be the only story told. I don’t think we have a lack of stories about how hard it is to be queer. I don’t think it’s a hugely underrepresented narrative, to be told that coming out means losing your friends and family. It is true in some cases, and it’s a story that deserves to be told, but it’s not every queer youth’s story, and even if it is, it’s not necessarily something you want to hear reinforced over and over. It can be heartening to read a positive portrayal of coming out, even if it’s not something to relate to.

I can attest that these students were not necessarily making it up; there’s definitely a chance that that’s just what being lesbian/gay looked like in their school. When I came out as bi, there were at least half a dozen other girls in my (small) high school who I knew also were out as bi, and those were just the ones I knew of. When I came out as gay (standard disclaimer: coming out as bi was a transitional thing for me, but it’s definitely not transitional for all or even most people), I knew of at least one other lesbian in my high school, and she was fairly popular. I was very out, and no one gave me a hard time. I never faced any harassment at all, my parents were okay with it, my friends were okay with it… I had an even easier time of it than Dylan did. (I lived on Vancouver Island in British Columbia; it’s a pretty hippie place.) I think we have to be careful not to generalize people’s experiences with being queer. Just because it’s a positive story doesn’t mean it’s unrealistic.

Yes, I definitely think that Dylan [spoilers] and Joc [end spoilers] not exploring more in the library or even online is a bit of a plot problem. It seems unrealistic. [spoilers] Joc mentions in passing that she got the term “bi-curious” from “the net” [end spoilers] (do teens actually say “the net”? Don’t we all say intertubes now?), but that’s as far as it goes.

I would suspect that Goobie doesn’t identify as queer, yes. I think that’s why she did the interviews; to get more of a context to what real teens’ experiences with queerness look like. I’m always happy to see more queer books, no matter what the sexual orientation or gender identification of the author is, but I do think that it’s important that queer people are able to tell their own stories. It’s fine if straight, cisgendered people are also telling queer stories, just as long as they aren’t creating the dominant narrative, because you do definitely get a more nuanced view of queerness when you live it.

Anna: I was thinking about Goobie’s non-queer identity yesterday, after I wrote you, and also about the fact that she is an established author of young adult literature, which in some ways has its own very specific conventions. If I remember, Nancy Garden wrote AOMM very early in her career — and wasn’t it her first novel for young people? Whereas Goobie set out to write a YA novel. And I think this does something to change the tenor of the book.  Especially since it’s in a contemporary real-life setting, then it’s really hard not to read everything she writes into the novel as some sort of object-lesson.  In part because that’s how real-life teen literature is often reviewed — on the adult perception of whether or not it’s “appropriate” and something young people can relate to.  And there’s this expectation that it will have some sort of moral value. It’s very difficult to write teen fiction that is accepted as a story without some sort of message.

The issue of depicting sex falls into this category. If you’re writing science fiction, fantasy, even historical fiction or magical realism — your teenagers can be sexually active and there isn’t the expectation that you will write in stuff about safe sex, for example. Or about waiting until marriage, etc. The teenagers are just characters within these other universes. Whereas, in YA fiction in the contemporary world, there’s the expectation that it will somehow interact with all of the expectations surrounding management of teen sexuality, risk, etc., that goes on in the world around us. It’s no longer acceptable for it to be just a work of fiction.

I know from talking to my queer friends, for example, science fiction and fantasy authors like Tanith Lee and Ursula LeGuin were often where they found stories about characters and relationship models they could somehow relate to. I still remember vividly my first exposure to the modern, queer concept of polyamory being through the ElfQuest graphic novels series that my brother and I used to read (checked out from, bless them, our local library!) … the elves in that series were straight, bi, gay, and existed in a network of group marriages. It offered me a different model for intimate relationships that I could think about, but not be threatened by, because it was so clearly fantasy.  It makes me wonder how large a role genre fiction plays in the queer community in positing alternative ways of being, and whether — in the end — genre fiction (not to mention the proliferation of fan fiction and slash narratives that queer mainstream television and fiction storylines) ends up being more powerful in some ways in connecting teens with their sexual selves than even the best real-world YA fiction.

And I think I’ll leave it there — feel free to add any last thoughts and I’m looking forward to doing this again at the end of October.

Danika: I think that’s probably a good place to end. I don’t think I have anything more to add. Thanks for doing this with me!

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