Adolescent Homosexuality: a Novel Problem


Along with separate clothes, separate music, a separate language, there is also a separate literature for adolescents. It kicked off in the nineteen fifties with a series of romantic novels, described by John Rowe Townsend as ‘not so much about first love as about first dating’. At the same time, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951), originally published as an adult novel, was becoming a cult among teenagers for its contemporary language, its adolescent angst and its taboo subjects – sex, booze and acne. Gradually the problems facing fictional teenage girls accelerated from ‘Who will take me to the prom?’ to ‘How will I cope with my parents; divorce?’, while simultaneously the colloquial Salinger style started to infiltrate the adolescent novel. A genre was born: the adolescent problem novel.

Authors ran riot in their search for problems. There is a standard set of problems that crops up in book after book – parental repression, divorce, drugs, pregnancy, relationships and alienation. Race, class, physical disability and overweight have come in for their fair share of attention, while more inventive authors have devoted books to the problems of incest, breaking a leg or falling in love with one’s stepfather. And a handful of books have tackled the problem of homosexuality.

There are two drastic limitations inherent in the adolescent problem novel, though some books do manage to escape them. The first limitation is that, by labeling a social issue a problem, the author establishes a standard of normality in advance, without even having to explain what normality is. For example, labeling homosexuality as a problem pre-empts any questioning about sexuality in the novel. The second limitation is that problems imply solutions, and the solutions in the adolescent problem novel are usually the problem in reverse or the problem done away with. If the problem is overweight, the solution is losing weight; if the problem is drugs, the solution is to stop taking drugs; if the problem is homosexuality, the solution is to stop being homosexual. The result of these limitations is that it takes some detective work to figure out the actual values being expressed in the adolescent problem novels on homosexuality.

There are a number of adolescent problem novels with homosexual minor characters but I’ve chosen to deal only with those books whose main characters are homosexual or have homosexual feelings. I’ve also limited this survey to books where the homosexuality is acknowledged to some degree, though the acknowledgement often takes the form of accusations that are then denied – that is, I don’t include books about latent homosexuality or intense friendships between boys or girls. So the following books are concerned with the choice to be, or not to be, homosexual, and what the different authors see as the causes and consequences of that choice. I want to start by giving an account of the individual books, first on male homosexuality and then on lesbianism, and then go on to draw some general conclusions.

Patterns of Male Homosexuality

Not unexpectedly, the first novel that seriously raised the issue of homosexuality within the adolescent problem novel was about make homosexuality. John Donovan’s I’ll Get There, It Better Be Worth The Trip (1969) concerns Davy’s worry and confusion over his sexual feelings for his friend Altschuler. The action in the book is more minimal than that of the ‘first date’ novels: Davy and Altschuler kiss once, then drink whisky and fall asleep together, after which Davy goes through an agony of renunciation. A number of themes are raised which recur throughout the survey. Davy, the main character, is not really homosexual, just confused by his grandmother’s death, his parents’ separation, his mother’s alcoholism and his father’s inability to relate to him. He is saved from his brush with homosexuality by a violent coincidence – the death of his beloved dog, while he is talking to his father about Altschuler. On the other hand, Altschuler goes on being positive about his feelings for Davy. He is sensitive, charismatic and foreign, traits which come to identify the ‘real’ homosexuals in these books. Donovan has much in common with the later authors in this survey: the quality that is all his own is a cautious approach to the issue of homosexuality which leaves some episodes totally obscure. I’ll Get There opened the discussion of homosexuality in adolescent literature but that was about all it did.

Three years later Lynn Hall produced a book which stands in almost total contrast to Donovan’s. Sticks and Stones (1972) describes Tom’s growing friendship with the young novelist Ward Alexander, and his growing isolation following the spread of small town gossip about the friendship. Hall shows us the details of Tom and Ward’s friendship – what they do, what they talk about, what shifts in their feelings take place. At the same time she makes very clear the personal hurts and failings that motivate the gossipers, viewing them with compassion, but not softening her account of their destructive effect on Tom. Both homosexual feelings and homosexual oppression are pictured with a complexity and absence of melodrama that are to remain unusual within the survey.

When Ward admits to Tom that he is in fact homosexual, Tom’s isolation and unhappiness cause him to reject Ward, which makes him unhappier still. Melodrama erupts for a moment when Tom, taunted by his chief tormentor, crashes the car and kills his passenger, but Hill’s tone of calm good sense is resumed as Tom, convalescing, realises that he has let the gosspers get to him and decides to continue his friendship with Ward. The ending is positive, to a degree, but inevitably one asks, ‘If Tom is now free from public opinion, and his relationship with Ward is so good, why shouldn’t they be lovers as well as friends?’

Lynn Hall asked the same question herself. In response to a letter from the Gay Task Force, she wrote: ‘I had begun writing the book to show the destructive potential of gossip, but by the time I got well into it, I’m afraid I lost sight of that theme. I wanted Ward and Tom to love each other, to live happily ever after, and that was the way I ended it. But the publishers would not let me do it. In their words, this was showing a homosexual relationship as a possible happy ending, and this might be dangerous to young people teetering on the brink. One editor wanted me to kill Tom in a car accident. At least I held out for a friendship at the end, one which might or might not develop into something more, depending on the reader’s imagination.’

So, if authors haven’t internalised the appropriate values, those values are imposed on them. Hall’s ambiguous ending remains one of the best available, but it is clearly less affirmative than her original ending, and continues the association of homosexuality and sudden death. Hall’s limitations are shown by her serious use of the phrase ‘happily ever after’ and her idealisation of Ward, another sensitive, charismatic homosexual, but one can reasonably be indignant at being deprived of an intelligently written homosexual romance.

Reinforcing The Patterns

Isabelle Holland’s The Man Without a Face (1973) firmly restores homosexuality to its problem status. Charles’s mother, who has married several times, alternately smothers and rejects him; his step-sister Gloria is jealous of him and Charles feels as if he is ‘drowning in women’. He is coached for his escape to a boys’ boarding school by Justin, a mysterious recluse injured in an accident where his boy passenger was killed; and during the coaching Justin becomes identified in Charles’s mind with his father. The obtrusive sub-Freudian pointers function for Holland as ‘reasons’ for Charles’s homosexual feelings for Justin, but paradoxically they also allow her to say that Charles is not really homosexual, just nudged in that direction by his environment.

The book is melodramatic and heavy-handed to a degree impossible to capture in a brief summary. Charles is the narrator and while he is supposed to be confused, he is also supposed to be accurate about the people around him, so we are asked to believe that Gloria is a harpy, that their mother marries as a ‘hobby’ and that Justin is a reincarnation of Mr Rochester. Holland is a dealer in stereotypes: the one positive thing that can be said about the book is that she does allow Charles and Justin to sleep together, and this is largely negated by the fact that she proceeds to kill Justin off by a heart attack, to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Her attempted liberalism is a veneer over a strong intolerance, manifested both in the Freudian explanations and the arbitrary death of Justin. And once again, the main character is not a real homosexual; the real homosexual is ‘different’ (artistic, sensitive, charismatic and older) and the relationship is ended by a violent coincidence.

Sandra Scoppettone’s Trying Hard to Hear You (1974) returns to relationships between peers. The narrator, Camilla, talks about how she and her friends react when they discover that her boyfriend Phil and her friend Jeff are lovers. Where Lynn Hall presented gossip as subtle and pervasive, Scoppettone goes for the sensational public response – an attempted tarring and feathering of the two boys, and a ‘test of manhood’ for Phil where he crashes his car and kills himself and the girl involved. This overstatement of the case distances the book from most readers’ experience, while the forces of reason are represented by theoretical pronouncements about the normality of homosexuality from some handy experts, which seems quite remote from the destruction and death in the narrative.

Scoppettone is making a gallant try for ideological soundness, but her theory is not integrated into her plot By choosing Camilla as narrator, she cuts us off from seeing Jeff and Phil’s relationship in progress, and despite her insistence on the normality and potential good of homosexuality, she also equips Jeff with the standard possessive mother and distant father, negating the question of choice in advance. The formula remains unchanged. And the style, veering between melodrama and cute chattiness, keeps the issues determinedly simple.

Eleanor Spence’s A Candle for St Anthony (1977) is another homosexual romance, but Spence has internalised what was imposed on Lynn Hall. Australian Justin and Austrian Rudi progress from the regulation hate at first sight, through an ever-closer friendship, to an idyllic school holiday in Vienna, where Rudi makes a declaration of love and suggests that they stay abroad. But an envious classmate accuses Rudi of being homosexual, and when Justin admits he will return to Australia, Rudi runs away. It is a story of ill-fated love, although the ill fate is in fact only Rudi’s arbitrary and unexplained insistence that they must stay in Vienna.

The book is further complicated by Spence’s insistence, via Rudi, that ‘It wasn’t like that.” Spence clearly feels she is doing her characters a favour by denying the label ‘homosexual’ to all this love, closeness and sensuality between two boys, but it is impossible to work out from the book what her own definition of homosexuality would be. Presumably she is basing some kind of case on the fact that Rudi and Justin are talking about love, rather than sex, although one doubts that she would deny the heterosexuality of a character on the same grounds.

Foreign, poor, hard-working, gifted, sensitive, ‘angular and sardonic’, with a ‘sudden radiant smile’, Rudi is the most extreme example in the survey of the homosexual as superior being – just as removed from everyday life by his superiority as he might be by any inferiority. Clearly, ordinary Justin could not have been charmed from the path of heterosexuality by anything less, and we can hardly blame him for failing to live up to these high standards, and returning to Australia and Rudi’s pretty sister. Spence offers a pleasant romance and shows a liberal concern about the ways in which Rudi and Justin are oppressed by their schoolmates’ sneers, but her willful refusal to recognise that she is writing about a homosexual relationship turns her liberal concern into the regulation dictatorship.

Breaking The Pattern

The only book about male homosexuality to break the basic pattern established in I’ll Get There … is David Rees’s In the Tent (1979). Stranded on a camping holiday, Tim, Aaron, John and Ray draw closer to each other, and in consequence Tim’s homosexuality becomes acknowledged and accepted by the group. While his beloved Aaron makes it clear that he is heterosexual, Tim ends up sleeping with Ray, although they decide not to fall in love. After they are rescued, Ray decides to come out to his parents, and the two boys go to a gay bar and are impressed by its ordinariness.

The events of this book are much closer to the general run of coming out stories than are the car crashes and tarrings and featherings of the previous books. Unfortunately, Rees chose to parallel Tim’s story with flashes of a Royalist boy in the English Civil War who has Roundhead sympathies. Besides being obscurely written, the historical scenes add nothing to our understanding of Tim’s situation. To my mind, they represent nothing more than an attempt to make the homosexual material respectable. And while Tim’s much-stressed refusal to fall in love with Ray may be ideologically sound, his hopeless crush on Aaron thereby comes across as more exciting, and the book ends on a grey note, leaving us to wonder whether Tim is a victim of fear of success.

Like Scoppettone, Rees is trying hard, but the early accounts of Tim’s tormented (and somewhat too clearly expressed) musings on homosexuality are presented with more power than his eventual acceptance, which consequently seems more like a letdown than a liberation. Nonetheless Rees’s novel rejects the stereotypes of the real homosexual and the not really homosexual; it doesn’t solve the problem of homosexuality by a violent crisis, usually involving death; and it presents Tim and Ray as arriving at the decision to identify as homosexual by different paths, thus dispelling the Freudianisms. The only one of the earlier stereotypes perpetuated by Rees is the link between homosexuality and foreignness: Ray is Spanish-English and in consequence is sexually freer than Tim, although he is also shown as more closeted.

The statement that emerges from these novels as a group is a reasonably familiar one, though with some unusual emphases. The compelling attraction of homosexuality is presented with particular force through Altschuler, Ward, Justin and Rudi, all gifted, charismatic and real homosexuals. Having created this attractive picture, the authors then turn and combat it with the threat of ostracism, but in the end they are forced to introduce unlikely and melodramatic catastrophes to bring the relationships to an arbitrary halt. Once the relationship is halted, the main character is generally presented with the ‘going through a phase’ theory, by a handy adult or by strong implication. The process is completely illogical. None of the standard arguments offered in everyday life appear here – ‘You’ll be lonely’, ‘The gay world is shallow and brittle’, ‘You can’t have children’, ‘You’ll be an outsider’. Instead, and for the purposes of propaganda more effectively, the attraction of homosexuality is admitted, and then countered by a bland assumption that of course it can’t continue.

Lesbianism Without Sexuality

This assumption carries over to the series of novels about lesbianism, which begins with a trio of novels that only recognise lesbianism as emotional, not as sexual. Madeleine L’Engle’s Prelude, published as an adult novel in 1945 and republished as an adolescent novel in 1968, predated I’ll Get There … but the lesbianism in L’Engle’s book passed without comment. The book traces the development of a young pianist, Katherine, who becomes deeply involved with another girl, Sarah, when she is sent to boarding school after her mother’s death. One evening Katherine cries out her misery about her mother on Sarah’s shoulder, and when they are discovered, the conservative forces in the school work to break up the friendship.

The intense feelings between the two girls make it hard to believe, as L’Engle asks us to, that Sarah gives in at once to the headmistress’s demands, and that Katherine accepts this with relative calm. As Prue Borthwick pointed out in her Gaywaves programme, we are offered the red herring of identifying with Katherine’s indignation against a conservative world, to stop us from going into the implications of Katherine’s and Sarah’s feelings for each other. L’Engle’s spare objective style in fact outlines the familiar Freudian progression. Sarah consoles Katherine for the loss of her mother and Justin, the piano teacher, consoles her for the loss of Sarah. At the end of the book, in what is to become a familiar image, Katherine sits at a window and watches Sarah walking away. She has successfully passed through a phase.

Alice Rogers, of Alice Bach’s They’ll Never Make a Movie Starring Me (1973) is more aware that what she feels is lesbianism (although the word itself is never used). Indeed the whole novel is taken up with her endless worrying about her feelings for Wendy, an older student at her new boarding school. At the same time the novel has a strangely unfocused quality: Wendy is very sketchily drawn, her extreme conventionality being her only defining feature, and Bach gives no sensual dimension to Alice’s response to Wendy, which makes her obsession hard to understand and creates a very claustrophobic atmosphere. Finally, when Wendy drops Alice because she has been involved in a few minor rule-breakings, Alice becomes disillusioned with her and, coincidentally landing a double date with a friend, decides that her phase is over. The novel ends with Alice saying her farewells to Wendy, although this time we don’t have the image of Wendy walking away.

Winifred Madison in Bird on the Wing (1974), rather than relying on the phase theory, uses the same evasion tactic as Eleanor Spence, allowing herself to describe a passionate romance between two people of the same sex by denying that this is homosexuality. Her heroine Elizabeth runs away from home and meets the foreign, gifted, charismatic weaver Maija. She becomes Maija’s apprentice and they live an idyllic life together, full of mutual expressions of warmth and commitment. When Elizabeth meets Eric, who wants her to go away with him, Maija blanches but heroically allows it, whereupon, of course, Elizabeth no longer wants to. Eric calls them dykes and Maija replies, with the same grand lack of argument as Spence’s Rudi, ‘You’re all wrong.’

However, although the two women are tearfully reunited, within pages Maija has been attacked and killed by muggers, Madison’s agents summoned to rescue her from the inevitable dilemma. There is no question within the novel that Eric, or any man, is superior to Maija, but equally there is no question that Elizabeth and Maija can admit a sexual dimension into a relationship that is otherwise far more compelling than their interludes with men. So enjoyment of the romance has a kickback: once the word ‘dyke’ has been uttered, Maija has to die. It is some compensation that Elizabeth finishes Maija’s last weaving and, though she returns home, will obviously become a weaver herself. But once again we have a strong denial by the author of strongly presented lesbian feelings.

Sexuality Emerges

Rosa Guy’s Ruby (1976) breaks the problem novel mould. It is not about lesbianism, but about the relationship between Ruby and Daphne, which is to say that Guy is not primarily concerned with social attitudes towards homosexuality, as are all the other authors in this survey, but with lesbian feelings, and between two specific individuals. Ruby, mainly preoccupied by the desire to love and be needed, finds no outlet for her feelings with her autocratic West Indian father Calvin, or her cool sister Phyllisia. So she throws herself into her relationship with Daphne, a strong-minded and impetuous young woman who is determined that her options won’t be limited by the fact that she is black. Their sexual attraction is strongly presented, though the book is as much about the clash and interaction between their views of the world.

Ruby is a powerfully written and complex book, head and shoulders above any other in the survey, and consequently Ruby, Daphne and their relationship are made far more real and vivid than any other. We see their relationship in a number of different stages: first love, a period of separation, reunion and an attempt to work on their differences. Finally Daphne ends it, because Ruby’s refusal to defy Calvin’s prohibitions has put Daphne into situations that compromise her need for dignity, Guy doesn’t ignore the question of social hostility towards lesbians but she also makes it clear that the only thing that can end the relationship is a decision by Ruby or Daphne themselves.

The Interracial Books for Children Bulletin criticised Guy for presenting Daphne as ‘masculine’ and a real lesbian; Ruby as ‘feminine’ and therefore basically straight. These stereotypes seem to me to be imposed by the criticism, rather than created by Guy, but Ruby’s sudden turning to an ex-boyfriend at the end of the book Is still disturbing. Certainly, Ruby is presented as someone who needs love so urgently that it deprives her of Daphne’s firm consistency: and certainly we can’t judge books solely on the grounds of where their characters rate on the Kinsey scale in the final chapter. But Ruby’s feelings for Daphne follow her feelings for her father in a diagrammatic fashion that is not in evidence anywhere else in the book. Her initial feelings for Daphne are accelerated, though not created, by her father’s rejection of her, and she turns to her old boyfriend Orlando after getting a renewed sense of Calvin’s love when he stops her from killing herself after Daphne’s rejection. So the book is marred to some degree by the imposition of over-simplified psychological theorising.

Deborah Hautzig’s Hey, Dollface (1978), in contrast to Ruby, is a typical adolescent problem novel. The book is about Val’s struggle to name her feelings for her friend Chloe, whom she likes and laughs with, but also fantasises about touching. Val’s mother says she knows happy homosexuals, and her teacher says that homosexual feelings are normal, but neither are quite prepared to say that homosexuality is natural. Then, when Val accidentally touches Chloe’s breast while comforting her about her father’s death, the two girls at first withdraw from each other, then talk about the situation together.

Chloe is the stereotypic unconventional zany throughout the book but in their final talk she unconditionally rejects the possibility that she and Val could have a sexual relationship. Because neither Chloe nor Val are very strongly characterised, it is impossible to say categorically that the denial is out of character for Chloe but it certainly is surprising – although it is also part of a pattern emerging in these books that the heroine’s beloved will let the heroine down. Val herself is prepared to accept her feelings for Chloe but not the label ‘lesbian’. So, though the book has an air of honest endeavor, it ends in as much confusion as it began. It ends, too, with Val at a window watching Chloe walk away, as Ruby ended with Ruby’s memory of Daphne walking away.

Lesbian Patterns

Sandra Scoppettone’s Happy Endings Are All Alike (1978) is the first of the adolescent novels about lesbianism to end without a farewell. Superficially, the book is a Gay Liberation dream. Jaret and Peggy are involved in a sexual and loving relationship as the book opens. Jaret is courageous in defence of the rightness of her feelings, while Peggy’s remaining doubts add the necessary conflict. Their family and friends make honest attempts to understand and Jaret uncompromisingly pushes them towards further understanding. Both Jaret and Scoppettone in her authorial comments are strong on ideology – but as a result the book hovers uneasily on a borderline between fiction and a political pamphlet. Scoppettone uses the same one-dimensional characters, melodramatic events and rampant rhetoric to show that homosexuality is a free and valid choice as Isabelle Holland did to show that homosexuality was a phase. We don’t get a chance to see the complexities of our everyday life mirrored in statements like, ‘It didn’t matter that they felt right about their love; Claire represented society and her constant put-downs had an undermining effect.’ (My italics).

It is also strange that, in a book which is clearly aiming to give a positive view of lesbianism, the most passionately written section should be the one where Jaret is raped by a boy who resents her freedom and her lesbianism. The rape appears to have no long term consequences – Jaret insists on prosecuting; Peggy is scared away by the publicity but comes back eventually  – but we are left with the sobering impression that the further you stand out against society, the harder you will get hit. In the context of feeling compelled to describe the rape of her strong confident lesbian, Scoppettone’s vehement ideological statements start to look more like whistling in the dark than they did at first. Still, at least she’s whistling …

Apart from Bird on the Wing, which follows the charisma and catastrophe pattern of the male homosexual novels, the lesbian novels give us a very different view of homosexuality. This time the main characters are the real lesbians, constantly betrayed by the women they love – even Peggy lets Jaret down on a number of occasions, although their relationship is at least still workable by the end of the novel. The message, heavily influenced by Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, is that lesbians are doomed to loneliness because ‘ordinary women’ will never match the quality of their feelings – hence the recurring image of the other woman walking away or being farewelled by the main character. The only escape from isolation is to accept the phase theory, Scoppettone’s book being the only exception.

In Conclusion

There is still no novel for adolescents that is completely comfortable about homosexuality. Only In the Tent and Happy Endings Are All Alike show the homosexual relationship still existing at the end of the novel, and they covertly accept homosexuality as a problem, in Rees’s stress on Tim’s unfulfilled love for Aaron and Scoppettone’s concentration on Jaret’s rape. Only Sticks and Stones and Ruby show strong, complex and attractive homosexual relationships that rise above social disapproval, and they both end with a cop-out. And the other novels are remarkable for their palmed cards and loaded dice. There are no logical reasons why all the boys should be checked by melodramatic accidents, or why all the girls should fall in love with girls who let them down; nor do these literary incidents prove anything about homosexuality itself, except that their authors are prepared to go all out to sabotage it.

The propaganda of these books is very aptly pitched at the adolescent who is questioning her or his sexuality. To show homosexuality as totally unattractive would invite disbelief, so the authors first offer the charismatic beloveds of the male homosexual books and the powerful feelings of the lesbian novels, before using coincidence or letdowns to say, “However, it’s not possible’ and rounding off the exercise with the spurious consolation, “It’s only a phase.” The vagueness and illogicality surrounding the failure of the homosexual relationship is in itself an effective propaganda tactic, carrying with it a sense of inevitability and fatalism. Indeed, too much logic about homosexuality would imply that it was also possible to talk logically about heterosexuality – a concept never even raised in these books, where the opposite to ‘homosexual’ is ‘normal’.

So looking at the values expressed in the adolescent novels about homosexuality is a depressing exercise. Given that it is rare for male homosexual and lesbian readers to find any reflection of our experience in literature, it can be said that there is something in all of these books for the self-accepting homosexual reader. It is also important to note that the books have become progressively more open about homosexuality, so future writers may be able to build on their achievement and publish books that accept homosexuality without question. (Though I’ve been arguing that line for years now …) But all in all, adolescent lesbians would be better off reading Rubyfruit Jungle, All that False Instruction or Patience and Sarah and adolescent male homosexuals reading A Single Man, Coming Out and The David Kopay Story rather than the books that are specifically written for them.