Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan
Another year, another season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Part of the show’s appeal lies in how deftly it manipulates the reality television template; this season even opened by separating the queens into two teams in order to generate more drama. But one tension that the show always picks up on is the dividing line between the older queens and the younger queens. This tension is especially potent right now, because six seasons in, there are queens competing who grew up with the show professionally. So you end up getting queens who have little to no knowledge of drag or camp history. Case in point: the conflict between Vivacious, an old-school New York City club kid queen, and the spry, shrill younger queens of the season, especially those who seem to think that drag is all looks. (…Gia Gunn. I’m talking about Gia Gunn.)
Knowing your histories is important, especially if someone or something is, intentionally or unintentionally, attempting to rewrite it—erasing the contributions of trans women of color to the queer rights movement, for instance, or declaring that women don’t have a place in superhero fandom when a woman invented the modern concept of a superhero. Two Boys Kissing is David Levithan’s contribution, telling three connected stories about gay teens through a chorus of the first victims of the AIDS crisis. (Think White Oleander’s plural narrators, except it’s the dead who speak instead of the witnesses.) Most of these characters have the luxury of safety, family, and a world that acknowledges them—the privileges that our ghostly chorus are most awed by—and still suffer discrimination, hate, and bigotry—the slings and arrows our ghostly chorus is most familiar with.
Harry and Craig are trying to break the world record for kissing after their uneven break-up. Neil and Peter are simply boyfriends. Avery and Ryan meet cute at a gay prom. Cooper’s detachment from the rest of humanity is stretched to the breaking point when his parents discover that he’s gay. Through the eyes of the chorus, their stories are treated in hushed, worshipful tones, which can wear out its welcome. The graceful and grateful dead admit being resentful of the modern gay teen, but they treat each character with eternal patience. It makes for reverential reading, but not terribly engaging reading. It reminds me of nothing so much as an in memoriam reel; necessary, but not exciting.
Still, Levithan’s immense gifts remain on display, even shrouded in the voice of the chorus. Oscar Wilde is brought up as history—as one of the only stories that the dead generation could tell themselves about themselves—and Levithan brilliantly recontextualizes the famous “Either that wallpaper goes or I do” bon mot in the astringent, impersonal hospital rooms that so many of them died in. Despite the fact that the bulk of the novel is about more or less accepted gay youth, my favorite passages come from Cooper’s storyline—his awkward first sexual experience, ruined by porn and his own addictive behavior, and, especially, his rejection of seeking out help: “It only adds bystanders to what’s essentially his burden, and his alone” (43). That last one is very personal for me, as I am very much someone whose first instinct is to lick her wounds in private, but I’m aware of that. Cooper isn’t, and, while his story thankfully does not end in tragedy, it’s still harrowing and very real to see someone without any kind of support, from families or even from stories about queer folk simply being.
All this said, I must pause when it comes to Avery, who is trans. It’s not Avery himself or his circumstances; Levithan introduces his status by referring to him as being born a boy that the world saw as a girl and there’s no issue made of it by their communities, despite Avery’s fears. (Ryan and Avery suffering a harrowing moment, but it’s because they’re a gay couple.) Rather, it’s a matter of history. Gay history and trans history are not the same thing, and conflating the two smacks of erasure. I don’t fault Levithan for being inclusive; after all, Avery is a gay man, and, therefore, this is his history. But Avery can claim one more history in the queer rights movement, one that’s often been rewritten or ignored by “acceptably” queer folk. So I wish that the chorus had stepped back for a smaller chorus of trans men before Avery to see how far they’ve come.
Bottom line: Two Boys Kissing brings gay history to young adult fiction, but the tone is so hushed and reverent that it’s not exactly engaging. Levithan’s details remain pitch perfect, but I do wish, given its focus on history, some attention had been paid to the trans men who came before Avery. If you’d like.
I rented this book from the public library.