Sports Complex

Kid Stuff: Gays in Young-Adult Sports Literature

Jim Provenzano | May 11, 2005

Cover art for Teen-Age Sports Stories, published in the 1940s
Of the hundreds of young-adult (YA) sports books available today, fewer than a dozen include gay or lesbian characters.

Traditionally, the genre of teen sports literature has relied primarily on the sports themselves for plot, structure, and protagonist redemption. Such books depend heavily on cliches – the good guys win in the end, cheaters get their come-uppance, and cheering fans and families find value in their hero after an athletic victory.

The roots of these traditional plots go back as far as the early 20th century. Because many sports were still being developed in school curricula, sports novels and serialized stories in magazines served as promotional literature for expanding athletic programs.

Boys' magazines of the 1930s, like The Youth's Companion/American Boy (first published in the 1880s), serialized sports stories alongside war tales and historical revisionist fiction. The magazine�s illustrations, similar to the work of allegedly gay artist J.C. Leyendecker (of Arrow shirts and collars ad fame), lent a homoerotic feel to a few locker-room scenes. Yet, predictably, through the first half of the past century, no young-adult sports stories ever dealt directly with homosexuality.

That limitation continued through the 1940s and '50s, with most plots involving star players whose talents needed to be tamed to conform to team needs and coaches' demands. The '60s saw a gradual shift toward questioning conformity in sports and finding a place for oddball athletes. Guards for Matt (1961), an illustrated book, tells of a nearsighted basketball player who tries to prevent repeated accidents with his glasses by donning a scuba mask.

In 1974, Patricia Nell Warren's The Front Runner (Bantam), a crossover story of a gay track star and his old guard, war-veteran coach, broke sales records for gay fiction. The novel depicts the intersection of early-20th-century sports figures like Coach Harlan – gruff and evasive in issues of sexuality – and Billy, the new generation of out and proud gay jock.

This paved the way for YA sports fiction that dealt with lighter variations of sexuality issues between athlete-characters, such as those in Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Catch Trap (1979), which tells of a romance between gay teenage circus gymnasts.

In Anne Snyder's Counter Play (1981), Brad struggles with the fact that his football teammate and new best friend is gay. Their friendship leads to rumors about Brad's own sexuality. Similarly, Diana Wieler's Bad Boy (1989), about a hockey player who discovers that his best friend and teammate is gay, realistically depicts the inner and outer frustrations of maintaining a friendship scorned by others. Wieler's book was named YA Book of the Year by the Canadian Librarians Association, and stands out in this genre for its poetic style and realistic depictions of conflict, sexuality issues, and sport.

It's worth noting that these four books were all written by women. At that time, few male writers dealt with gay themes in sports fiction.

Among those who did is John Fox, who wrote The Boys on the Rock (1984). Sometimes considered the Catcher in the Rye of its time, Fox's novel includes swimmer Billy Connors' inner thoughts about his fragile relationship with an older boy. Fox's minimal, poetic writing style would only be seen in one book: he died of AIDS before completing a second novel.

Books for teenagers can and should have deeper literary significance if they are to resonate for all of their audience. Young-adult literature, faced with a code of censorship in aspects of sexuality, often prevents teenagers from finding out their most pressing questions about the least discussed changes taking place in their lives: the changes in their bodies.

In developing my own novel, PINS (1999), what I found most clearly missing from all wrestling novels was homosexuality. But in realizing the potential market for such a book, I faced a dilemma: be explicit, and lose the high school market; be complicit, and lose the story I set out to tell. I chose the former, hoping that teens would find my book anyway, and they have.

Alex Sanchez's Rainbow Boys (2002) marked a lighter crossover appeal for gay teen athletes. Its sequel, Rainbow High (2003), includes Kyle, a basketball player who comes out. The idealized educational environment evades serious exploration of the homophobia common on high school sports teams, but Sanchez's books do succeed in being inclusive.

The results of a poll of high-school students nationwide show increased visibility of gays and lesbians in the student body and widespread acknowledgment of GLBT friends and family members among straight students, according to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). The poll of 9th to 12th graders shows about 5 percent of students as gay or lesbian, 11 percent with gay or lesbian teachers, and 16 percent with gay family members.

Yet, despite widespread acknowledgment of the GLBT community members in schools, the poll also reported rampant use of antigay language and harassment of gay students.

Contemporary YA literature should reflect these figures. Authors should explore issues surrounding gay and antigay students, including the bullying jock as enemy or antagonist, and the sexual violence of hazing.

The elimination of physical education programs across the country has deprived many kids of a well-adjusted knowledge of their bodies and physical potential. Among male and female athletes, a hyper-awareness has led to a diverse array of eating disorders and to body dysmorphia.

Between the Abercrombie & Fitch ideal and outward displays of bigotry, the male teen athlete is caught in a state of what could be called "homoerotophobia" – the simultaneous attraction and revulsion toward male eroticism. This needs to be addressed and acknowledged so that young-adult literature can move into the 21st century.

Jim Provenzano is the author of the novels PINS and Monkey Suits. Read more sports articles at www.sportscomplex.org

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