what will grayson, will grayson means for the gays
April 20th, 2010
So, last week I learned that If I Stay hit the New York Times Children’s paperback bestseller list at #4 its first week out. This was delightful—and I might add, surprising—news.
But when my editor sent me an early PDF of the list, there was something else that caught my eye that made me even happier, and no, I’m not bullshitting here. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan debuted on the New York Times Hardcover Children’s list at #3 (right behind The Hunger Games and Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, which David Levithan, who also works at Scholastic, edits–oh, the irony!).
WGWG’s success made me happy for a number of reasons. For one, the book is, as John Green might say “made of awesome.” It is a wonderful, hilarious, touching, wacky story of two guys named Will Grayson, who meet by chance about midway through the book and are inextricably linked, by their common names and by an irrepressible character/force of nature named Tiny Cooper, who is described as “the world’s largest person who is really, really gay, and also the world’s gayest person who is really, really large.” The book ends with a musical that is as good as the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical, which is saying something for something that exists only on the page. The book is also edited by my editor, Julie Strauss-Gabel, who I love, and any win for her thrills the bloomers off me (now you know, I wear bloomers) and is published by my peeps, Dutton/Penguin.
But, my happiness goes beyond that. Now look, I don’t keep a running tally of every book that has ever hit the NYT list, but based on my informal survey there has never been a YA book on the list about gay romance where the GAYNESS wasn’t the point of the story. And, sure, there’s gay romance in WGWG. will grayson (the depressed will; you know he’s depressed because his chapters are all in lower case) is gay and (MINOR SPOILAGE) has an online fling, a romance with Tiny Cooper and yet another budding romance by book’s end. Tiny Cooper’s myriad romantic entanglements are on the page here. But you know what? So is Will Grayson’s totally halting and melty romance with a fabulously sardonic girl named Jane. It’s all part of the tapestry—gay, straight, whatever.
And that’s what makes this book so special. And that’s what makes its insta-success so noteworthy—and so hopeful. Because I think that teen readers just don’t give a crap. Gay romance, straight romance, they’ll take it, so long as it’s well-written. Same-sex marriage? Yawn. No big deal. You think I talk out of my behind? I have some research to back me up here. One recent study from The Girl Scouts, no less, found that six out of ten teenagers support same-sex marriage. Another study puts that percentage as 75 percent of teens supporting gay marriage.
Contrast that with:
Or with the Defense of Marriage Act, which says that states don’t have to honor marriages (i.e. same-sex marriages) performed in other states and defines marriage as between a man and a woman, or ballot measures like California’s Prop 8 that undid a constitutional amendment allowing same-sex marriage, or the blowhard culture warriors like the (thankfully former) Senator Rick Santorum who use homosexuality as wedge issue. Santorum charmingly compared homosexuality to polygamy, incest, and bestiality, among others.
Politicians in Congress can argue about the “threat of gay marriage” to the institution of marriage (which so cracks me up; have these guys seen the straight-people divorce rate?) But teenagers, for the most part, aren’t buying these tired arguments. These are kids who grew up in divorced homes watching Will & Grace (a TV sitcom, where the gay guys never got any action and the romance was mostly platonic and usually between the queeny guys and their fag-hags BFFs, and in retrospect, and next to a book like WGWG, looks like a minstrel show). These are teenagers who aren’t scared of gay people because they know gay people. They might even be one. Or have been one for that phase in sophomore year.
Teenagers are always more open-minded than the rest of us, but I think with this generation, these Millennials, it’s particularly true. During the 2008 presidential election, much was said about how these guys were post-racial, color-blind in a way that old farts aren’t. Techies always like to talk about how they are also platform-agnostic (they’ll watch a movie on a computer, a giant screen or an iPod). And it looks like they’re also post-sexual? Okay, that doesn’t sound right. Post-homophobe? Somebody invent a good word. But as far as same-sex relationships go, it’s like, don’t want one? Okay, don’t have one. But mind your own beeswax if some other same-sex couple wants to get married or adopt a kid or make out in the mall.
That’s why I think Will Grayson, Will Grayson isn’t just a wonderful book, but dare I say it, a cultural milestone. It portends a future in which the demographic arc changes and with it the prevailing attitude. I bet if there’d been YA novels back when interracial marriage was illegal, we’d have seen a score of novels about interracial couples before that tied started to turn, the YA equivalent of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? Teens are always on the vanguard.
I imagine we’ll see a lot more books like YGYG as the tide shifts, though I don’t know if we’ll ever get one quite like this. There may be two Will Graysons but there is only one John Green and one David Levithan and the stars like that only align every blue moon.
But that’s why I cheered for the book hitting the list. I’m happy for John, David, Julie, Will and Will, and Tiny and for the millions and millions of teens out there who’ll read the book and get the implicit message that a gay romance is a lovely thing, but it’s becoming a commonplace enough occurrence that it no longer gets its own book; it has to share the page with all sorts of other romances. Yeah, you lose some exclusivity, but that’s the catch in becoming normalized. Isn’t that what the struggle has been about? Acceptance? It’s all over this book. And the #3 slot on the list only formalizes that. Gay relationships? Controversial? That is so 1990s!
Also, in that future, ugly hateful signs like those favored by the wingnuts of the Westboro Baptist Church (the one above) will be replaced with signs like these, courtesy of peaceful and inventive protesters in San Francisco. When the Westboro clan showed up with their God Hates Fags signs, the counter-protesters showed up with signs like these—proof, that, as David and John, show, humor always prevails.