As an out queer boy in the mid 1990's, I did not have many role for being an LGBT young adult. Being a voracious reader, I often found myself searching out subtext where the author likely never intended it, or even mentally swapping pronouns in order to make the relationships in books relate better to my own life and identity.
There were next to no portrayals of queer/LGBT youth in literature (or film, but that's a different essay), and the ones I could find to often fell into the tired trope of LGBT = miserable or dead.
Even fantasy author Mercedes Lackey's celebrated Herald Vanyel, the character referenced by many of my cohorts when this point is raised, lost his "true love" to suicide and spent the vast majority of his life lonely, only to have his own life cut short soon after finding it again. I'm not saying that Vanyel wasn't an incredibly progressive character for his time (1989), and Ms. Lackey and her publisher deserve praise for having an openly gay main character in a somewhat mainstream novel, particularly then. However, it still isn't an ideal message for LGBT youth to have about what their lives will look like.
In the midst of an adolescence wracked by the consequences of a serious chronic illness, it is being queer that stands out as defining my fears for the future, much to my mother's surprise. My family and community were extraordinarily accepting of my identity from the time I came out at thirteen. However, my parents didn't have any gay friends, and they couldn't appreciate the weight I felt as a young queer person growing up in a world that didn't seem to have a role for me beyond tragic hero, comic sidekick, or devilish villain. Even the mentors at the LGBT youth group I attended couldn't really tell me what it meant to be an LGBT adult. For many, the advent of AZT had only recently made it apparent that they had a much longer adulthood to plan for than they'd thought, and I imagine in many ways the future seemed as mysterious to them as it did to me.
Today there is an entire genre of young adult (YA) fiction for LGBT teens and children. I'll grant that plenty of it is crap, but then, that's true of just about any genre. The remarkable thing is that plenty of it rather good, and the messages these stories carry are more diverse than one might expect. Coming out is of course a common theme, but while many are about self-acceptance, many look at finding one's place in the world, while in others, the characters' sexuality is a component rather than a focus of the plot. Our youth now have books about coming out to family and friends, exploring and changing gender identity, falling in love, heartbreak, finding a path in life, sex, and all the other elements of growing up.
I will confess a familiarity with a surprising number of these books. I have my own small library of YA LGBT fiction as a refuge from the rigors of adult life. These are the books I wanted, and one could even say needed when I was young, but of course very few of them existed yet. I've built a satisfying adult life for myself as a queer man, but there are times when I'm worn down, feeling hopeless, or simply need an escape. At those times it can be nice to take down an LGBT YA book and soak in the messages of self-acceptance, hope, and a bright future, that weren't available to me when I was younger.
YA author Alex Sanchez, himself a gay man, has a rather good list of LGBT books for young adults on his website. I encourage people to take the list with them to their local and school libraries. If you don't find any of the books on the shelves, consider making a donation and encouraging the staff to shelve, rather than resell them.
Note: an earlier version of this essay appeared on my blog on 1/20/12