By David Levithan
All right, I ditched my speech.
Originally I was not going to talk about this book – Boy Meets Boy – because it doesn’t actually have any sex in it. It has a lot of gay romance in it. And I was actually going to read the gay sex scene from my latest book in America, Wide Awake, because it was … you either challenge yourself to write a really bad, award-winning sex scene, or you think maybe one day I can actually get it right. And I actually – it’s a pretty hot sex scene, I have to say. I’m proud of it, and a couple of readers were like oh, you pulled it off. Which is great. And I was going to talk about – there’s a line in Wide Awake where, after the boys have sex, one of them turns to the other and says: ‘You see, this is what they’re afraid of.’ Because that is, in many ways, what they’re afraid of. And so I wanted to talk about gay sex and what it means and sort of the historical opposition to it. But you know, I’m going to be honest with you. I don’t feel that I can get into the gay sex thing because I feel we need to talk about the gay thing first. And I think just talk about the kids you serve and the books these are, because – to put it in a way that I hope is not offensive – talking to people and just sort of being here, it’s been incredibly welcoming and I’m very jealous of Scott Westerfeld for his honorary Australianness and I’m hoping y’all will set me up with a nice Australian boy and I’ll be able to have it someday too – but I feel I have travelled back a little bit in time.
Because I’m not used to being the only gay author on the panel. I’m not used to being the only gay male author in the room. I’m certainly not used to being the only out gay male writer in the whole body of literature. It’s really weird to me. I’m not used to my book being alone on the shelves as being a book that gay teens can turn to – again, the male version. So it’s a little back in time. I talked to Jenny Pausacker yesterday and man, it was like, oh, please give me a hug, like I don’t know how she did this in 1986. But I still feel that although society has come a long way, I don’t know that literature is. Many different people in different ways yesterday told me, well you know Australia – and I’m actually going to quote Jenny, because she phrased it perfectly – it’s homosocial but homophobic. That we have Mardi Gras and we have all these wonderful things, but at the same time the fear is still there and the hatred is still there and the hesitation is still there. And I kind of want to talk about that.
Because I think that what our books can do is change that. And I’ve seen it happen: I’ve seen it happen on an individual basis with kids; I’ve seen it happen in communities. And you have to energize yourself to do it. When I was talking to the kids I mentioned a song which I never thought I would mention so often in the course of a conference, from a musical called Title In Show. And it’s somebody talking about creativity and she’s talking about the vampires in her head. And in her head, as an artist, the vampires are saying: ‘You’re not good enough.’ They’re saying: ‘You can’t say that.’ They’re saying: ‘Nobody wants to listen to this.’ They’re saying: ‘You’re going to get into trouble for saying this.’ They’re saying: ‘How dare you try to express this.’ And these are the vampires that the authors deal with. When you’re sitting down and writing, and I think all of us have said it in some ways, you have to just… put them away. The name of the song is ‘Die, Vampires, Die’. Because she’s fighting, she’s saying: No. I want to create what I want to create; I want to say what I want to say; I want people to accept that. And again, when we’re alone in our room in our computer, when we’re talking about our writing, those vampires are there and we put them away, we write the books, we put our names on them, we take them out in the world. That’s our part.
But then there’s your part.
The vampires – and I know this because I’m one myself – exist for publishers too, and editors, and also – because I’ve talked to them – librarians and booksellers. Those vampires say: You’re going to get into trouble for putting this on the shelves; you can’t hand this book to a kid; people in your community, they’re not going to like this book, they don’t want to talk about this issue; you’re going to be taking a stand and it could be really hard, you could lose your job, you could be criticized, your boss won’t really like this. All those vampires talk in your heads. For some of you it’s louder, for some of you it’s not, and certainly a lot of the time it’s very much based in reality.
I see those vampires in you. I talk to librarians, I talk to booksellers who say outright: I wish I could carry your book in our library. Oh, I wish my school, we could talk about this issue, but it would be too hard. To put it bluntly: fuck that. What are you here for? That’s the question you have to ask. I mean – reading matters, we agree upon that. Why does reading matter? Reading matters because life matters. And reading matters because living matters. I can’t believe that you’re here and supporting reading and supporting teen literature because you want test scores to go up. I can’t believe that you’re here because you’re curious which book is going to win which award next year. You are here because you want to help kids. And you help kids by getting them the right book at the right time. And you can’t let the vampires prevent you from doing that.
If you don’t kill the vampires you are killing the kids who need the books.
I’ve already had it happen – it happens wherever I go, and I’ve had it happen here – the kids who come up to me, it’s totally unspoken, whether they’re gay or they have friends who are gay; we talk, we understand what the exchange was about when I sign the book, when I talk to them about it, I make time. Because that’s the important part of my job, is talking about it.
A kid walks into a library or into a bookstore or into a classroom: he or she wants to see himself or herself reflected in the shelves. Absolutely. You have a moral obligation to respect that, and to fight off the vampires and give them those books. There’s no question here. Right now – and this happens to be my moment and my time and the issue of the day – right now, homophobia is the acceptable prejudice. There’s still some people who for whatever reason believe there is room for argument on this. The truth is – I’m a word person and this is a definition – there is no such thing as an acceptable prejudice. Period. And this is a fight that librarians and booksellers and authors and teachers have been fighting – in different ways, for different things – since the dawn of books. You would not let somebody, I hope, come into your bookstore, your school, your library, and say I’m sorry, I object to books by Jews, you can’t have Jewish books in this library. You would never pull back from ordering a black book for your shelves, either (a) because you didn’t think you had any black people in your community, or (b) because other people might object to it. I should believe you wouldn’t. In previous times, people in your position would have, because the vampires would have been so loud that they would have given in to them. Well, you can’t.
The kids need you. These books help. And again, it’s not just my book – my book, unfortunately, happens to be one of the only ones around right now. There will be more. The younger generation, thank God, gets it much better than we do. They are so much more accepting, they are so much more with-it, they are so much against intolerance and prejudice than we are. We owe it to them to fight. Again, it’s a moral obligation. You have to do it. There is no room. The vampires have all these great arguments. The only argument you have is doing the right thing. Again, because you’re here for a reason.
Oftentimes when I do this, I ask for people to raise their hands: okay, so who in this room is gay? I’m not going to do that in this room because I don’t actually know what the consequences would be for whoever would raise their hand. I encourage those of you who are out, I mean who are gay – someone in the Q&A mentioned: talk about this. Because I think if we put a face on this, the more it helps. And the more you know these kids, and you know these kids and you know what they’re going through, you understand it better. So again, I’m not talking about sex. If you think being gay is about sex, you’re totally, totally wrong. It’s about identity. And again, teen literature at its best, and the reason I believe I do it, I believe most of us do it, is that, again, in the right hands it doesn’t just entertain: it is meaningful. It says ‘You belong.’ I mean, what Jack said on the ‘boys’ panel is true of every single teenager: they’re wondering: Who am I? Am I doing the right thing? Will people hate me? What’s my identity?
Books can help. But books can only help if you get them to the kids.
So – again, I’m sorry for speechifying. I hope this is meaningful to you; it is to me. Because again, I’ve seen what can happen when it works, and it works a lot. But the truth is, again, you have to get into the fist fight with the vampires. And you have to take all of those hesitations and all those people who might yell at you and who might say you’re doing the wrong thing… You have to stand up and do it. Because otherwise, change ain’t gonna happen. Thanks.