Alex Sanchez is the debut author of RAINBOW BOYS (Simon & Schuster, 2001). He received his master’s in guidance and counseling from Old Dominion University. For years he worked as a counselor of youth and families in the United States and overseas.
Born in Mexico to parents of German and Cuban heritage, he may be found at: www.AlexSanchez.com.
Tell us a bit about your writing background. How did you get started writing for teens?
Though I didn’t write RAINBOW BOYS with a particular audience in mind, as the novel took shape it became apparent I was writing the book I desperately wanted and needed to read when I was a teen—one that would have told me: “You don’t have to hate yourself for being gay. It’s okay to be who you are.”
What were your earliest influences?
Foremost was my mom, an artist who constantly encouraged my friends and me to access our creativity; my dad, who exemplified the ethic of hard work; and Mrs. Holden, who read aloud THE SECRET GARDEN to our 4th grade class, inspiring me with a love of stories.
Did you face any early challenges to finding success in writing?
All through school I loved to write reports and compositions, but never anything that would reveal the feelings going on inside me. I was terrified of anyone finding out I was gay.
In college I took a children’s lit class and for a project, I wrote a picture book—though nothing gay-themed. After college I continued to write, but I was still too afraid to write anything truly personal. Once I did take a creative writing workshop and wrote a story with a gay character. But the instructor’s homophobia caused him to lash out at it and reinforced my belief that writing about my feelings was too shameful. After that I didn’t write for several years.
What encouragement helped you along the way?
I reached out to several friends working on their own creative projects. We encouraged one another. Writing is an inherently solitary process. I came to realize I couldn’t—and didn’t need to—go through it alone.
In addition, I discovered the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown (www.fawc.org), which offers one-week workshops with many of America’s finest writers. I’ve gone each summer for the past seven years, found tremendous encouragement, and learned a lot.
What draws you to write stories connected to gay themes? Why do you feel such stories are important to teen readers?
I was 13 when I first heard the word “gay.” Immediately, I knew that’s what I was. And I hated myself for it. Like so many gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (GLBTQ) teens, for the remainder of my school years I withdrew, depressed. Alone in my room after school, I would tell myself, “I’m not going to feel this way. I refuse to let this happen.”
The world has changed a lot since then. TV shows like “Will & Grace” and “Ellen” have brought positive portrayals of gays and lesbians into millions of homes, Gay-Straight Alliances have formed in thousands of schools, and many GLBTQ teens are “coming out” at ages as young as 13. Unfortunately however, the predominant experience for most of the world’s GLBTQ youth is still one of isolation, harassment, persecution, and self-loathing.
Books can provide a moral compass, a system of values, a way to understand yourself. Usually you learn these things from your peers, or at school, or with your family. But what happens when all those avenues tell you that what you’re feeling is bad and wrong? Books often hold a special place when you’re gay or different, giving you hope for a world in which it’s okay to be who you are.
Gay kids, like any others, need to see images of themselves in literature—positive images and affirming stories to help guide them through the often painful and confusing terrain of adolescence. It’s primarily for those teens and their allies that I write.
What advice do you have for beginning writers?
Have you ever been to a museum and seen an art student with an easel copying a painting hanging on the wall? It’s a great way to learn. The equivalent applies to writing. Take a book that moves you and actually copy your favorite parts. It will reveal so much to you about what makes good writing.
In addition, read your work aloud. When you write, appeal to as many of the reader’s senses as possible—visual images, sounds, tastes, smells, and textures. Use dialog sparingly. Actions really do speak louder than words. And above all, surround yourself with people who will give you confidence and build you up as a writer. Encouragement is so important.
Do you have any particular suggestions for gay and lesbian writers?
Write what you’re most afraid to write. Find people whom you trust and with whom you feel safe. Share what you write. Break your isolation.
How about Latino writers?
Write in a way that both Latino and non-Latino readers will feel included.
Your parents are of Cuban and German heritage, respectively. How does this inform your writing? To what extent are any related influences found in RAINBOW BOYS?
My family immigrated to the United States from Mexico when I was five. I didn’t speak English. I had to learn. I think that gave me a good ear for dialog. I also had to learn the culture. I think that helped me to become a better observer.
The prejudice I experienced as an immigrant helped me understand how people carry out cultural bias—both intentionally and without realizing it. In writing RAINBOW BOYS, I tried to include a diversity of characters. Growing up gay and Latino made me aware of how important it is for readers to have positive images of themselves.
Where do you turn for instruction and inspiration?
For instruction, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. For inspiration, books, movies, friends, and other individuals whom I look up to.
What are your favorite books as a reader today? What qualities in them appeal to you?
My heart yearns for books with heroic characters and inspiring stories, in which the reader can be part of the good world, the world that seeks nobility, courage, and integrity. That’s what young people long for, regardless of their sexual orientation.
There’s something in all of us that craves to admire, to marvel at, to receive confirmation that the human spirit is amazing, powerful, and good. When you’re gay or lesbian, particularly when you’re young, such a need is even more striking.
How would you describe the current status of gay and lesbian related children’s and young adult literature? What are the bright spots?
I think the critical and popular success of RAINBOW BOYS is indicative of the increasing acceptance of and demand for gay and lesbian related children’s and young adult literature.
The reality is that primary schools, teachers, and kids have to deal with increasing numbers of same-sex parents. At the same time, secondary schools, teachers, and kids are faced with students coming out at increasingly younger ages. The average age for coming out in the U.S. is now 15 years old. Five percent of U.S. high schools now have gay-straight alliances. One out of every four high schools in the U.S. participated in the 2002 gay-straight “Day of Silence” project. A sea change is occurring in our culture. In the context of the larger civil rights struggle, there’s no turning back the tide.
Books that help educate, enlighten, and promote understanding in terms of gay issues will succeed because the demand for them will make them successful. I don’t think you can create a much brighter picture.
What obstacles do you see? What might be slowing down progress?
Just as there will always be school bullies, there will always be individuals who try to control what others can read. In our current political and social climate there is a small but vocal minority relentlessly seeking to suppress teen access to information about sexuality’especially gay and lesbian issues. The reality is that teens are far more harmed by these misguided attempts at “protection” than they would be by having full access to honest information about sexuality.
Growing up gay or lesbian is such a lonely experience in the first place. Because of homophobia, you never know if your family or friends will reject you if they find out who you really are.
Gay kids, like any others, need help to understand their emotional and sexual feelings, especially in the era of HIV. According to the CDC, one out of every two new HIV infections occurs in young people under twenty-four. Another CDC study estimates that every day four teens in our country will take their lives because of their fear, confusion, and self-hatred around being gay. Thirty-two others will attempt to. These are staggering statistics. And they are more than that. These are our young people. They need knowledge. For gay kids, books that address issues of sexuality and homophobia can, quite literally, save lives. For straight kids, such books can promote empathy, compassion, and understanding.
What do you do outside your writing life?
I hang out with friends, see a lot of movies, and bike every day.
Do you do school visits or other speaking? How can people get in touch with you?
I love speaking to groups—about creative writing, homophobia, and integrity. I had the honor of speaking to a group of five hundred reading teachers at the 2002 International Reading Association convention. Afterwards, a crowd of attendees came forth, telling me their own stories of gay family members or students. It was quite moving.
It’s exciting to see how many educators now realize the harmful consequences of homophobia on self-esteem. They’ve become more knowledgeable about the disproportionately higher rates of self-destructive and at-risk behavior among gay and lesbian teens. They recognize the need to understand, protect, and accept all youth. More and more parents, teachers, and administrators are seeing that if we want safe schools, those schools have to be safe for everyone.
For someone to reach me, the best way is through the Internet at www.AlexSanchez.com.
What’s up next for your fans?
I’m currently completing the sequel, RAINBOW HIGH, due out from Simon & Schuster in 2003. Also look for a short story about a 13 year-old gay Latino boy, in the anthology “13,” being edited by James Howe.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I’d like to close with an email that I think sums up the importance of books like RAINBOW BOYS:
Dear Mr. Sanchez,
I walked into [the bookstore] this morning, picked up your book, and didn’t walk out until I had finished and it was dark outside.…
I live in a really homophobic town and it was nice reading about characters dealing with that in high school, especially when things like that are happening to me in jr. high. Sex hardly ever gets addressed, especially homosexual issues, and yet we deal with homophobia every day. It was nice to know we’re not alone.
It’s for readers like her that I write. Thank you.