A new book co-edited by an Illinois State University professor showcases stories, art, and poetry by LGBTQ high schoolers. The project includes a broad spectrum of student experiences.
The book is called “Writing Out of the Closet.” It features work from 20 students across North America. The book is dedicated “to all the young LGBTQ writers still waiting to be heard.”
Kyle O’Daniel is one of the editors. He teaches English at Mahomet-Seymour High School. He said the project came about in part because he realized the work of young LGBTQ artists wasn’t being represented.
“There are actually a lot of barriers for young LGBTQ artists and writers to publishing their work, either because there are not enough avenues to do so, because they feel they might be censored, or even because they censor themselves,” said O’Daniel.
O’Daniel said it’s vitally important for young people, particularly in the LGBTQ community, to have creative outlets.
“We all have stories to tell, and through telling our stories, not only do we teach others about us, I think we learn something about ourselves as well,” said O’Daniel. “Regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, and so on, youth is a time when we need to figure that out.”
Co-editor Erin Mikulec is a professor in the School of Teaching and Learning at Illinois State University. She considers herself an ally to the LGBTQ community. Mikulec said the book mixes experiences of activism and resistance with joy and happiness.
“There seems to be a single narrative of the LGBTQ youth experience of trauma and pain,” said Mikulec. “Yes, that's out there. But that's not, of course, the only experience there is.”
One trans artist in the collection is Jax Wokas. He's now a student at the University of Washington in Seattle. Wokas said trans youth are often left out of the conversation completely.
“We are so often the subject of these big debates,” said Wokas. “People don't even, like, talk to us about ‘Oh, hey, you're the one being directly impacted by this. How do you feel about this?’”
The book comes as conservative state legislatures around the country consider bills to prevent trans children from taking part in school athletics. Some measures would also make it more difficult for them to get gender-affirming medical care.
Wokas said it’s important for people who are questioning or out to be able to see themselves represented in media. He grew up in what he said was a very Christian part of Illinois.
“I straight up didn't know that LGBT people existed until middle school, because it just wasn't a topic that came up,” said Wokas.
Three pieces of his art appear in the book. He said he created it to express his feelings as a gay trans person of color.
“My art was too controversial to hang up in the school, for the most part,” said Wokas. “I created for my friends and hope that maybe that the cishet audience would get on board.”
Wokas said his art has a very in-your-face style.
“The first one that I did was this charcoal piece of a person in a bathroom with all these eyes, like, cemented into the room staring at the person,” said Wokas. “I did that on purpose to make the viewer uncomfortable.”
He said the trans bathroom debate was big at the time. Wokas said he wanted people to understand how it felt using public bathrooms as a trans person.
Another piece draws on his experiences with a date at a school dance. He said he wanted to show the queer joy that exists even in the spite of Christianity-based hate.
“I wanted to really show the pure ecstasy that exists with, like, love and whatnot,” said Wokas. “I think that it's nice for queer youth to be able to see that their love can exist and it can exist happily.”
Where Wokas relies on the visual medium, others in the collection use words as their palette. Nathan Lee comes from California. He said he wrote his poetry in the book back when he was first coming out as trans and struggling with dysphoria.
“I wanted to kind of make the reader feel the same objectification and disconnect from my body that I was experiencing,” said Lee. “That's what was kind of going on, when I was comparing my body, parts of my body, to different objects.”
Lee now studies at the University of California Davis. He said he wants to use his art to connect to other trans people of color.
“I think it's important to make ourselves heard as youth because a lot of times we're dehumanized and objectified,” said Lee. “We're not objects, we’re people, and we have rights and feelings.”
He said his work isn’t necessarily for everybody.
“I don't think you can inspire somebody to advocacy just through art,” said Lee. “I think it's important that you actually put yourself to work doing real meaningful things that will materially help marginalized groups.”
Lee said representation can be helpful for people who are questioning or out.
"I think it's an important gateway to recognizing that like there are other ways to exist than just cisgender, heterosexual, and that you can like, survive and thrive, even if you're gay or trans or whatever," said Lee.
He said art can help queer people find power in their experiences.
“We read and consume art and media because it's beautiful, because it makes us feel something,” said Lee. “I think it's important to let queer people know that yes, your experiences are beautiful, your experiences are meaningful, and that they can see themselves in things that resonate with people.”
Editor Erin Mikulec said she hopes the book will benefit both the young and the old. She said she gave a copy of the collection to an older friend of hers.
“We were chatting, and he said, ‘This is what I needed when I was that age,’” said Mikulec. “So I want this to be something that's really positive for young people, but I also think it's a really good thing for people of all ages as well.”
Co-editor Kyle O’Daniel said the book also reflects the changing of the times from the days of limited LGBTQ narratives in media.
"A lot of the representations that are even just, you know, 10, 15 years old, definitely tell that one single story,” said O’Daniel. “But now, if you turn on the TV today, it's a much different experience, so I hope that the book kind of provides a different experience as well."
O'Daniel said he hopes there’ll be more volumes of the collection, and more chances to raise the voices of young LGBTQ people.
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