I’m heterosexual, but in junior high a banned LBGTQ novel changed my life.
Happy Pride Month
Welcome to Spirit: Notes for the Creative Contemplative, where I discuss the role of literature, creativity, and mindfulness in culture through personal essays. I’m the author of What Will Outlast Me? (forthcoming 2023 from Unsolicited Press), and I’m the founder of Writers’ Studio, a literary arts education program in Corpus Christi, Texas.
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I’m heterosexual, but in junior high a banned LBGTQ novel changed my life. The book was M.E. Kerr’s Night Kites (1986). It’s about a high schooler, Erick Rudd, who has a complicated dating life when he hooks up with Nikki, an edgy, flirtatious blonde, and dumps his boring and predictable girlfriend, Dill. His fling with Nikki is blissful until Erick finds out his older brother, Pete, who’s gay, has AIDS.
Kerr’s literary work was ground-breaking. Not only did Night Kites positively depict a same-sex relationship, it was the first YA book to discuss AIDS, and it was 1 of 3 YA books published in the 1980s and 1990s that mentioned AIDS/HIV. According to Kerr’s website, Night Kites was banned, but it’s hard to verify to what extent. Given the resurgence in book censorship, it’s not had to imagine that Night Kites has had plenty of haters.
In the past year, Texas public school districts have banned 716 books, making it the number one book-banning state in the nation. The novels most frequently targeted have LBGTQ themes. (The second most targeted tackle racism or feature people of color as protagonists).
I grew up in a conservative part of rural Nebraska, so it amazes me that I could check out Night Kites from the Ord Township Library when I was 13. The librarians understood that “a library is a place of voluntary inquiry.” Carolyn Foote, a retired school librarian explains, “That means when a student walks in, they’re not forced to check out a book that they find objectionable. But they also don’t have authority to say what books should or shouldn’t be available to other students.” If we strip libraries of materials that are objectionable to some, we take away readers’ ability to engage critically with multiple perspectives. Reading material that challenges ideologies helps young people figure out what they stand for and what they are against.
Night Kites had a profound impact on me because it showed me a world with characters who were not like me and let me into their lives so that I could relate to them as ordinary people, not as Other.
The theme of Othering is explicit in Night Kites without being heavy-handed. It takes its title from a key childhood memory Erick has of Pete flying a special kite rigged with a battery-operated light. Pete explains, “Night kites are different, they don’t think about the dark. They go up alone, on their own and they’re not afraid to be different.” Though Pete and his boyfriend are different in the context of their sexuality, Kerr develops them as nuanced, layered, realistic people. Pete loves Star Trek, writes science fiction, enjoys his teaching job and traveling, and struggles with an overbearing father. Pete and his boyfriend are depicted as an ordinary, loving couple. This, remarkably, was my first encounter with a same-sex couple. I didn’t know any out people in 7th grade, though by college several of my former classmates would come out.
I identified with Nikki—and for most of the novel—wanted to be her. She’s sophisticated. She wears sexy clothes that makes her look like she’s stepped out of a Madonna music video. She smokes with no-hands, back when smoking was still cool. (The novel is clearly a product of the 80s: there’s a Bruce Springsteen concert as well as acid-wash Guess jeans galore.)
It makes sense that I’d gravitate toward the white, heterosexual, cisgendered female characters. I was a mousy girl-next-door type like ex-girlfriend Dill, which is why Nikki was aspirational in my middle-school mind. Nonetheless, I could see myself in the female characters.
Representation in fiction is important. Literature that depicts characters of diverse races, socio-economic classes, genders, and sexual identities is vital to create a society of inclusivity. Young people who fall in the minority margins take comfort in reading about characters who are like them. Diverse characters in literature also widen personal perceptions and breakdown harmful stereotypes.
“Fiction gives us empathy: it puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gifts of seeing the world through their eyes,” explains Neil Gaiman.
Fiction does what other art forms can’t—by entering the story world through my imagination—I could understand what it would be like to be in these characters’ situations, and in that space of my imagination, I was gifted empathy. Night Kites changed my life because it began my journey to becoming an ally of the LBGTQ community. Had I had not had the open-mindedness that began with accepting and understanding Pete, I would have lost out on valuable, caring, creative, nourishing relationships with dozens of friends, colleagues, students, and relatives who identify as LBGTQ. Banning young adults from reading diverse literature denies them the ability to connect with others who aren’t exactly like them.
Night Kites also contained the first sex scene I’d ever read. Nikki seduces Erick, which is not to say that the writing is pornographic, as is often the charge leveled at banned YA books. (Sorry to disappoint, but I didn’t step into a life of sodomy because I read a steamy scene in an LBTGQ novel.) In the love scene, Nikki convinces Erick to skinny dip. She shows him her breasts. They kiss, but that’s it. Kerr wasn’t crass. (Even PG-13 movies allow brief showing of female breasts and nipples, like when Kate Winslet strips in Titanic.) I recently reread Night Kites and was surprised by how it had given me (what I now know to be) a realistic picture of healthy, consensual sex. As a student at a school with an abstinence-only sex-ed program, novels like Kerr’s were the only places I experienced sexuality being discussed frankly.
Spoiler Alert: When Nikki finds out about Pete’s diagnosis, she dumps Erick, fearful of her reputation, fearful that the stigma of AIDS will taint her by proximity. I was livid that she’d dump her boyfriend over something that he had no control over.
That’s where the shift came for me. I saw her bigotry and intolerance and selfishness, and it was not a good look. I knew Nikki was wrong, and when a few chapters later, she starts dating Erick’s nemesis and school bully, that confirmed it. I was indignant! Literature’s ability to incite emotion so intense it can shift one’s world view scares conservative groups into banning books. The real shame is that they’re unwittingly banning open-mindedness and empathy in the process, and that’s scarier than anything a kid will read in a banned book.