Joanne Stapley: About Gay YA

A Review of Seven Ways We Lie

I’m a children’s bookseller and a young adult (YA) book blogger. I am all about spreading the word on YA novels featuring characters who have mental illnesses, characters from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds, characters with disabilities, LGBTQ+ characters, and characters from other marginalised groups. As someone who is active in the online YA community, I often hear about new or soon to be published diverse YA novels, so when I discovered Seven Ways We Lie by Riley Redgate (Abrams Books), I knew it was huge.

This is the first YA novel I and everyone else I know has come across with a pansexual character.

Seven Ways We Lie isn’t about pansexuality specifically. It’s about seven teenagers, all of whom are guilty of one of the seven deadly sins; each with a secret. The actress who is full of hate and anger, the slacker who’s having family trouble, the drug dealer who’s hiding his sexuality, the popular girl who has casual sex but keeps guys at a distance, the overachiever who has serious self-esteem issues, the genius who knows something he shouldn’t and the lovely, perfect girl who’s suffering inside. When a school scandal rocks Paloma High, it sets in motion events that have these seven teenagers collide. What was secret becomes known. They must rely on each other if they’re all to stay afloat, but can you trust others with what you’ve kept hidden for so long?

Seven Ways We Lie is an amazing novel. It speaks to the humanness of us all, how we’re all multifaceted and complex creatures. It’s so easy to judge and stereotype people, but no-one – not the Queen Bee, not the “school slut”, not the drug dealer – is a cardboard cut-out. Already, just by giving three of the book’s characters – Juniper, Olivia and Lucas – those labels, you may have made assumptions about who they are and what they’re like, but you couldn’t be more wrong. Seven Ways We Lie shows us that no-one can be defined by a single aspect of their personality, and we never really know who someone is or what they’re going through. How you see someone isn’t necessarily who they are.

But it’s Lucas’ pansexuality that really made this book for me. But what is pansexuality? As defined by Oxford Dictionaries, a pansexual person is “Not limited in sexual choice with regard to biological sex, gender, or gender identity.” Pansexual people are attracted to all genders, where gender is a spectrum – not a binary – that includes male, female, intersex, and transgender (where transgender means a person who’s gender identity does not correspond to their biological sex, i.e transmen and women, gender fluid, gender queer and gender non-conforming people). Or as Lucas explains to another character, Claire:

‘”What did you–pansexual?”

 “It means I could be attracted to someone of any gender.”

“So you’re bi.”

“It’s not quite the same. I… so, basically, there’s not just male and female. Some people identify with other genders. And yep, now you look like I’m telling you that aliens have landed.”

“What are you talking about, other genders?”

“Well, gender’s something society made up. I don’t mean biological sex–that’s a different thing. But gender–so people think women are one way and men are this other way, but if you blend between the two, for example, then neither gender’s a good description, so–“

“Lucas.”

“–pansexuals can be attracted to any gender, a boy or a girl or somebody off the binary, which, I mean, you can read about this stuff–“‘  (P239)

Why is this book such a big deal? Because not that long ago, books featuring gay or lesbian characters weren’t published at all. As librarian Daisy Porter shows in A Brief History of Queer YA Fiction, it wasn’t until 1969 that the first YA novel about a gay teen was published. Yet over recent years, there’s been an increase  in the number of YA novels featuring gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex published. Malinda Lo, author of a number of bi and lesbian YA novels, wrote in 2013 of the slow and steady change in the number of LGBTQ+ YA novels published in the decade of 2003-2013 . There are still a lot of people who aren’t represented enough; we need more YA novels with transgender characters, intersex characters, and asexual/aromantic characters, but we’re heading in the right direction.

The increase in LGBTQ+ YA is a result of our more inclusive world. Same-sex couples can now legally get married in a number of countries. We have transgender actors and reality stars like Laverne Cox, Caitlyn Jenner and Jazz Jenner in the media. We’re becoming a society that is more accepting of other sexualities and genders, and our book industry is reflecting that. And this year, the first YA novel with a pansexual character has been published, and that’s worth celebrating.

It’s not just so that YA reflects our society that it’s so important that YA features LGBTQ+ characters, but for the LGBTQ+ teenagers reading them. Representation is so important, especially when you’re still trying to figure out who you are. I’ve heard of a number of people for whom seeing themselves within the pages of a book helped them realise who they are. And now, with Seven Ways We Lie, there could be teenagers out there who are finally – finally – seeing themselves; who may have never come across pansexuality before, but can now say, “This is me, this is who I am. I’m pansexual.” This makes Seven Ways We Lie absolutely groundbreaking.

And you couldn’t want a more fantastic character for these teens. Lucas is completely comfortable with his sexuality; he’s not questioning, he’s not confused and unsure – he’s pansexual. He’s figured out who he is and is completely confident in his sexuality. Lucas told his family long before the story started, and his friends from his previous school knew, too. He’s used to people not completely understanding and having to explain what pansexuality is, but previously, the people in his life have mostly accepted him.

But now Lucas is in a new school, a more conservative school. He’s been here for a year now, but he still hasn’t told anyone. He’s heard the homophobic slurs used in the locker room when someone makes a mistake. He’s heard people referring to something crap as being “gay”. He knows this isn’t a school whose students are likely to be as accepting as his old school. He knows that if there are any other people at the school who aren’t straight, they’re keeping quiet about it too. He knows if he wants to keep his friends – if he wants to continue to be liked by everyone, it’s better to keep quiet about it. This becomes apparent when someone starts a vicious rumour about a relationship between him and a male teacher. His friends turn on him; people talk about him behind his back; there are whispers and giggles and confrontations wherever he goes.

Lucas’ treatment isn’t unheard of. This is something that still happens . Homophobia and transphobia are still rife, and some LGBTQ+ people suffer worse. Same-sex couples may have the right to marry in several countries, but there are many more where homosexuality is illegal , and punishable by death in some . There are religious groups who are vocal against same-sex couples adopting children and there are those who think transgender reassignment surgery should be illegal. And very recently, there was the devastating homophobic mass-shooting in gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando.

I won’t spoil Lucas’ story, but there are some pleasant surprises along the way, ones that fill me with hope that we really can be and do better. Though Seven Ways We Lie is proof that society has come a long way in accepting LGBTQ+ people, while we’re all still fighting for their place in the world, while they’re being murdered and denied equality, there is still so much further we need to go.

If you’re interested in reading LGBTQ+ YA, check out the masterlist on Gay YA.

Joanne Stapley is a writer and book blogger using the written word to discuss topics she feels passionate about: feminism, body positivity, self-confidence, and diverse YA. You can find Joanne at Jo’s Scribbles, her book blog Once Upon a Bookcase or on Twitter @Jo_Scribbles.

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