Saturday, 23 October 2010

Saving lives with their stories

Which word provokes the most agonised soul-searching when I’m writing teen fiction? Which subject worries me the most?

Dan Savage (right) and his partner Terry
It’s not a swear-word, nothing to do with violence, drugs, crime, self-harming or lying. Just one little word, yet it provoked heated debate in my writing group. It’s one of the biggest themes of When I Was Joe, yet no reviewer has picked up on it.
The word is ‘gay’.
In When I Was Joe (spoiler alert) Ty’s friend Arron bullies him, by calling him ‘gay’ and ‘pretty boy’. Ty worries about his own sexuality, although he can never quite bear to articulate his doubts and concerns. When he is with girls he is relieved to discover that he is  -  as he thinks - definitely not gay – yet his thoughts invariably turn to Arron. Gay thoughts and feelings are perceived by Arron and Ty as something to fear and hate, something that can be bullied out of existence. Arron maintains control over Ty by labelling all sorts of things as gay - foreign languages, for example. To become a man, according to Arron, all things gay must be reviled and avoided.
Now, in writing this I was reasonably sure that I was accurately portraying the harsh world of many teenagers, and the confusion that many boys feel about their own innermost feelings and sensations as they change from boys to men. I worried, however, that in reflecting this I would make gay teens feel worse.
In Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery, which I've just about finished, there’s a boy who is different. The question of whether he might be gay is again a subject for negative speculation (you'll have to wait until the summer to find out if he is or not) In reflecting the homophobia that I believe often exists amongst teens, could I make things worse?
I honestly don’t know the answer, but  I hope that the books I write make readers think and reflect about these matters,  as I do when I write. In the meantime I am moved beyond measure by the It Gets Better project. What a simple and clever idea – in response to the suicides of several gay teenagers in the US, writer Dan Savage set up a website where people can reassure bullied teens that their lives will change, that things will improve. The hope is that their stories willprevent other suicides, will bring hope and solace to scared and isolated teens.
The site contains moving testimony from adult survivors of bullying. Some are gay, some are lesbian. Some are bisexual or transgendered. Others are heterosexual, but they have been bullied themselves or know that their words will help and inspire. Barack Obama has made a video, so has Hillary Clinton. Ben Cohen, the English rugby player is big, butch and beautiful – he’s not gay himself, but he’s very happy to have a gay following, and he’s made his video for them. Dan Savage and his partner Terry talk on their video about being bullied at school, and how their families came to accept them. It’s a website with incredible power and beauty. It could and should change and save lives.
I know how it feels to be bullied by the culture. When I was growing up, ‘spastic’ was a playground term of abuse, thrown around thoughtlessly and regularly. Every time I heard it it was as though a knife had sliced through me. My brother - my sweet, clever, friendly, earnest, brave brother -  suffers from cerebal palsy, and in those days people like him were called spastics. Today the phrase isn’t so common, but the bullying of the disabled is still part of the culture. There have been some horrendous cases reported recently of families with disabled members subject to abuse, some of which have culminated in murder or suicide.
And I’d go as far as to say that some of the actions of the current government in the name of saving money have institutionalised the bullying of disabled people. How can we reverse this? How can we create a society which accepts and supports every one of us?
It gets better. You have to believe it. And the more people who understand why it needs to get better, the better it will get.


  1. Tremendous blog entry Kez, in many respects. It's worth underlining how the abuses you mention affect not only the immediate victims, but also their families and friends.

    I hope you will write more about these themes, and you are definitely hired as my publicist.*

    *Other readers, in case it's not clear from the context, I am Keren's loving and admiring brother.

  2. Another very moving blog post, Keren. Thanks for highlighting this.

  3. What an amazing post Keren. I have linked it with the schedule for anti-bullying week taking place on the 15th to the 19th Novemeber.
    If you would like to take a look at my blog there is more info on there.
    Thanks for the great post again

  4. Fantastic and timely blog, Keren. My favourite t shirt slogan is 'Some people are gay -get over it.' Will be buying your book.

  5. Reading this brought to mind Helena Pielichaty's fabulous book Accidental Friends...

    Fantastic post, Keren. Fantastic comments too.

  6. I think the subject of broaching gay issues in books and media for boys is really difficult. Being gay is just a fact of life, something everyday that should be treated as such. Yet there is a perception that straight boys will be repelled by these kinds of themes.

    I'm still deciding whether to make the main character gay in my next horror book, but I don't want that to become the focus of the story. It's probably bad enough that I'm considering adding romantic themes to something like that, but gay love...

    Sigh, it shouldn't even be an issue, should it?

  7. Keren, you make my blog seem so trivial! Well, okay, it IS trivial, but this is a truly excellent post. Anything that helps alleviate the complete crapness of being a teenager (of any sexual orientation), especially under the crushing weight of being bullied, deserves to be spread around.

  8. Thanks so much, Keren. The campaign really moves me too. Did you come across Joel Burns, the Texan councilman, as well? That man is amazing.

    How about featuring a positive gay character in one of your next books, not necessarily as a lead, just someone who is dealing well with their sexuality and accepted by their peers? As well as a British Jewish teen, of course. But not necessarily the same person. :)

  9. Thanks everyone..especially Al..

    @Thomas I promise to be frivolous next time..

    @Valerie The problem with planting characters as positive role models is that they tend to turn into axe murderers...can't think why..

  10. @Nick Do it!
    @Luisa and Helena - Clearly I must read Accidental Friends.
    @Asamum and Karen - thanks - didn't know about anti-bullying week

  11. I do wonder if there will be a word, or words, for every generation. Is it simply inevitable that some people will seek to denigrate others by misusing language for their own ends? I'd like to think not, but suspect that there will always be a word used by bullies.

  12. Such an important theme, Keren. Empathy or the lack of it is at the centre of everything. Seeing people as 'other' is the out clause: it gives permission for vile acts of bullying or worse. There always will be bullies, which is why the majority have to keep saying that it's unacceptable. The It Gets Better Project sounds amazing. Thank you for telling us about it. I'm sure your readers will understand your intent in showing the pernicious side of homophobia. Brilliant post!

  13. Excellent post once again. This topic is something that has been on my mind a lot recently, you've added a little more food for thought. I've been watching the It Gets Better videos appearing and found it incredibly moving, I just hope the message gets through.

  14. I hate the way 'gay' is used as a term of abuse - inferring someone is lame or pathetic and yet I know that many of the kids using it are not homophobic. It's a complex issue, but I do know that when one of my daughter's friends came out, at their Christian school, no one batted an eyelid - though I suspect it's different if you're a lesbian. It's the same with disability, they wouldn't dream of picking on someone disabled - what we still have however, is casual racism - particularly against any white Eastern European ( who are all 'Polish')
    I don't know h ow you defeat this - it's like there has to be someone weaker, someone the pack can pick on and if you move them away from one target, they find themselves another....

  15. I have been shocked by how homophobic teenage (and younger) boys are. I wasn't aware of that when I was a teenager, but that may be purely an indication of how few teenage boys I talked to then. The labelling of 'things' as gay in When I Was Joe seemed an unpleasant, but very usual, part of children's lives. I have heard other children quite casually say phrases like "Oh that T-shirt is gay," as a description of a disliked piece of clothing. I hope that my boys aren't homophobic, but I am very aware that they have witnessed the bullying and abuse of others who are seen as 'gay'.