feature art: Autostraddle
School gets a bad reputation when it comes to affirming LGBTQ+ youth. Curricula and policies are often inherently homophobic and transphobic (and it seems to just be getting worse). However, so many LGBTQ+ youth also depend on clubs like Gender and Sexuality Associations, supportive teachers, and their classmates for affirmation. When the COVID-19 pandemic shut the world down, I spent a lot of time thinking about LGBTQ+ youth — how are they connecting? What about those who aren’t “out” at home? Are they safe? Where are they finding joy in this grief?
As an abolitionist teacher-scholar, I spend A LOT of time dreaming about what is possible beyond this world. The pandemic offered us a glimpse of possibilities — community care, organizing, and radical education saved us when systems failed. While education systems scrambled to support students, I thought about the lineage of QTPOC organizers that took matters into their own hands. And then that’s exactly what I did.
In August 2020, I texted my friend Cody with an idea — an online “safe space” book club where LGBTQ+ youth would read and discuss LGBTQ+ Young Adult (YA) books. We took it and ran. Both former English teachers, we hoped to muster up 10 kids (mostly our past students) to read books in community. We started a GoFundMe and spread the word.
Just a month later, we’d received more than 150 applications from students all around the country (and world), secured enough funding to provide free books for the year, and kicked off the club — Love and LiteraTea. Now in June 2022, we are wrapping up the second year of Love and LiteraTea by reading Kacen Callender’s Felix Ever After. Almost two years later, I have so many reflections and wonderful memories. But this dream and book club was never about me or Cody — it was always about the kids. So, I brought three Love and LiteraTea members (Ash, Fer, and Aven) together to have a conversation about their journey in the book club, the magic of the space, and their recommendations to others wanting to support LGBTQ+ youth these days. As we continue to fight like hell to protect, support, and love LGBTQ+ kids, may we always center their dreams, experiences, and voices.
shea: First, can y’all tell me a bit about yourselves — who were you back in that fall of 2020 when you joined Love and LiteraTea? Who are you now?
Ash (he/him/his): I joined L&L in the first year as a sophomore, and now I’m a wild junior who’s a lot more comfortable in my sexuality and expression. I joined because I noticed that I never really read books for fun anymore, and I needed an excuse to do that. Before L&L, I was a mess (I mean I still am) but like I was the only queer person of color I knew, so I was like pretty subtle in my queerness. Now, I’m loud as hell and I wanna say more confident too after meeting the other awesome people in the group.
Fer (any pronouns but mostly they/them): When I joined Love & LiteraTea, I was a senior in high school, and now I’m a freshman in college and usually go by my middle name now (fer). I joined with a friend out of curiosity. I’ve come a long way from who I was in high school. I’ve unpacked a lot of stuff I used to ignore before the pandemic, and with that, I feel like I’m a better communicator and person in general. Still got room for improvement, but I feel a lot happier too.
Aven (they/them): Like Ash I was (and am) a mess. When I started Love & LiteraTea, I was in peak pandemic isolation mode. I had about two and a half friends and was struggling a lot with online school. Like failing all my classes and struggling with online school. Since then, I’ve worked a lot on my tendency to self-isolate (I was invited to a grand total of two parties this year. I’m practically a social butterfly). I’m a lot better at building and maintaining relationships, and I managed to graduate high school on time!
shea: What made y’all say “sure! I’ll sign up and sign online with some strangers to discuss queer books?” What made y’all stay?
Fer: The flyer intrigued me! My last book club was a public library thing where you would just fill out a form and read it on your own, so I thought this would be a lot more interactive and fun. It was also really refreshing to be in an openly queer space, because I didn’t have to defend my identity or fear that I was “doing too much” or reading too far into it like I would in a lot of other places. The free books were really a plus because I was an unemployed high schooler in the middle of a pandemic, so it was kinda the push I needed because I was like what can I lose from this? I was super lonely and going THROUGH IT at the time, so it was something new I could look forward to.
Ash: I vividly remember joining our first meeting and hearing “WAP,” and it was all over from then on. That one meeting gave me enough of a preview for me to be like yeah this is my spot. I also just know I’m welcome and seen whenever I’m here, like no doubt about it. I feel like all of us here like instantly clicked, and I knew I wanted to stay. It’s so obvious that we all genuinely care about each other too, and I can’t think of another space quite like it. Like every meeting y’all repeat it — you love us, you got us, always.
Aven: Well the premise combined two of my favorite things: being gay and reading, so I was naturally intrigued. I heard about L&L through a friend, and I managed to get two friends to sign up with me, which lessened the terrifying ordeal of meeting strangers. Plus, I loved the idea of meeting people in a space where everyone would assume I was queer. And I was in the beginning stages of figuring out gender things, so I was really excited to introduce myself as nonbinary without people seeing me another way first. I think what hooked me was how I’d feel afterward. I’d log off each meeting smiling and energized. Somehow our little community always managed to make my mood a little better. L&L is so radically loving, and I was missing that sort of community. I wanted to hold onto it so I kept coming back!
shea: So Ash you mentioned humor, which I feel was a big thing in our group — what other pieces of the meetings did y’all enjoy?
Ash: The books, for one, were all good obviously, like we got REPRESENTATIONNN. We didn’t have to deal with the stereotypical white gay story, and we got stories for queer people by queer people. Even our books that were heavier in content were comfortable to talk about in our meeting, because there’s just never any judgment. We got to meet with a couple of authors too, which is like crazy since we were able to actually talk with them and ask questions in a casual setting.
Fer: I really liked the breakout rooms. We would really build off each other’s connections, and I feel like we were able to develop unique relationships with each other in the little rooms, so like every time we’d get each other in another room it would be like omg heyyyyy! It made it easy to kind of speak my opinion and even criticism. I know this sounds very hater of me (because I am one), but I loved when we would be able to criticize the things we read, too. I feel like in a lot of other environments I find myself fighting for these characters or the books in general because there isn’t a lot of space made for LGBTQ people in cishet spaces, so it doesn’t leave much room for anything else. Here, we were super critical of the conventions and the character tropes in these books because it wasn’t like criticizing GAY books or GAY characters it was just talking about characters and books
Ash: We trashed so many characters.
Aven: We got to trash talk but also go deep if we wanted to! Oh goodness, I liked it so much. The queer and trans news segment at the beginning was always a treat, and I really enjoyed just chatting and checking in with small groups before we dove into book stuff. We also got a lot of opportunities for creativity in our discussions, which was super fun. I don’t remember their name right now, but one kid would always draw amazing doodles to represent things on our analysis slides.
shea: Ha yes I loved hearing your critiques of books. What stood out about reading, discussing (and yes — even trashing) the books in community?
Aven: I really love how reading in community forces you to slow down and think about the text. Instead of binge-ing a fun read, you pause and eventually discuss it with other people, and that influences how you read and interpret the rest of the book!
Ash: Oooh where to start! Reading about queer people in a way that’s genuine is rare; getting a story about queer people of color that’s like that is even harder. Reading books back to back about different experiences (even if they’re fictional) is really life-changing. I love how it’s both a fun read and something to spark conversation. Like, we’ve had so many discussions about characters and their actions.
Aven: Ha. Speaking of the hate train — don’t forget about Judy in Like a Love Story! We all said this a lot, but we read books that weren’t solely focused on gay trauma, which was super refreshing and uplifting. It was nice to take in stories where people like us got happy (or at least mediocre) endings.
shea: Hahahaaaaa I remember when Abdi Nazemian (author) visited and y’all all just trashed poor Judy.
Aven: We are still trashing Judy.
shea: These days, there’s so much legislation and hatred toward queer and trans folks — what do you think adults can do to support youth? What advice might you give someone wanting to start something like Love & LiteraTea?
Ash: I can’t stress enough how important it is to just listen to us. Having a space like L&L only works for our adults to engage with us. And that’s what we do, we discuss and we talk to each other as equals. I can tell you without a doubt that the adults who have had the most positive impact on me are the ones that engage with me maturely. Like with L&L, I’m able to forget our age difference when it comes to discussion, because I know I’m being listened to.
Aven: Yeah to that Ash. Young folks usually have a lot of emotions and a lot to figure out, so it’s really helpful when adults are willing to make space for serious discussion in addition to joyous ones. Because youth often have serious issues. Bad stuff happens to kids all the time, but people are usually unwilling to talk to kids about hard topics.
Fer: No but for real. Every time we had a discussion in class about LGBTQ stuff, it would always be a debate about whether we deserve rights or not.
shea: Ugh dear educators reading — please stop making kids debate folks’ right to exist.
Aven: PLEASE. Let’s make that whole lesson plan an artifact of the past.
shea: A big thing about L&L was the books — Why do you think books helped us all connect in this pandemic? Any book recommendations for readers?
Ash: I think every one of us was able to connect some aspect of our identity to the characters. My favorite of the books we read was Juliet Takes a Breath (both the novel and graphic novel) because of how it tackled identity and finding yourself. I also loved that it showed sex and sexuality as something other than an awkward taboo.
Aven: I read my Love & LiteraTea books physically, so for me personally it was really great to just get off of a screen. School was online, and talking to people was online, but this was on paper! No pesky blue light! On a deeper level though, in a time when we were all going through so much, it felt good to escape into a different story. Even if it was a hard one, it was something to talk about and take seriously that wasn’t COVID. I’m currently reading The Broken Earth Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin, and it is absolutely amazing. I’m also going to shout out Ruinsong by Julia Ember, because it’s a magical lesbian Phantom of the Opera retelling.
Fer: I forever have a special place in my heart for King and the Dragonflies, because I was able to relate to the parent/King relationship. [The fact that] I was able to relate [to the relationship and story] OMG fucking railed me. To this day, I think that’s the hardest I’ve ever cried for a book. Like, it’s so amazing and gut-wrenchingly sad ugh so great. MY POINT is that the books that were chosen really made me feel things and a lot of the feelings that came with them were familiar.
shea: Any last words for Autostraddle readers about Love and Literatea or supporting LGBTQ youth?
Aven: The task doesn’t need to be as daunting as it sounds. A little can go a long way. It’s okay to be messy and imperfect. But yeah, don’t do a rights debate or invalidate people. Love & LiteraTea may seem like a silly little internet thing, but it means a lot to me and helped so many of us grow as people. So don’t be afraid to start your silly little internet thing!
Ash: Well Love & LiteraTea is a silly little internet thing… but it’s our silly safe place and it’s made our lives so much better and I got to meet cool people and two cool old people.
Fer: Don’t ask the youth to make themselves smaller so you could understand; it is unfair to give them the job of being digestible, and it’s selfish to try and do that. You’re not a savior for doing the bare minimum of making these people feel like actual humans, so don’t act like you deserve an award for respecting someone’s pronouns or saying that gay people deserve rights. It’s not a new thing, we’ve been around. 💯
Ash: Yes! Also, shout out to the old queers and those who find themselves later in life! Not everyone is clairvoyant as a child. We always celebrate that #CharacterDevelopment!
Aven: I’m literally applauding right now.