When I spoke with comedian Jeffery Self last week, he was getting ready to head home to Rome, Georgia, to celebrate Mother’s Day and, while he was there, to promote his new YA novel Drag Teen (Push, $11.99). The book's about an openly gay Florida high school senior named JT whose only hope for attending college is performing in and winning a drag competition-slash-scholarship contest in New York City. The prospect of promoting a book with a strong LGBT POV in such close proximity to the Georgia-Alabama border didn't faze Self.
Growing up gay, even in the South, wasn't an issue for him. He recalls, “Me, growing up gay, I didn’t, like, organize a gay pride parade or anything, but I did a lot of community theater and that’s basically the same thing. When you direct a production of Steel Magnolias, that’s basically a way of coming out.”
He continues: “I think my own personal dealings with it felt very comfortable. I knew that being gay was cool and that eventually I would move to a big city and have lots of friends who wanted to listen to Elaine Stritch with me.” And he did move to New York City after dropping out of a North Carolina acting conservatory when he was 18, and later relocated to L.A. when he got sick of “living in a shitty apartment and doing the New York hustle thing.” (He lives in Cheviot Hills.)
Drag Teen reflects Self's own experience insofar as it's not a book about a kid struggling to come to terms with his sexuality. In fact, JT, who narrates the novel, says so on the very first page: “This isn’t one of those stories about a heartwarming journey toward accepting my cursed homosexual identity. No … Being gay is, in fact, one of the only things I actually like about myself.”
The JT character has all the makings of a marginalized protagonist — the gay son of beer-swilling, TV-transfixed gas station proprietors, who has a long-standing affinity for occasionally wearing a wig — but his struggles are more universal than that: academic mediocrity, body consciousness, general self-doubt. He even has a smart, handsome boyfriend named Seth whom he can't quite convince himself he deserves.
In addition to the drag contest representing his only chance of escaping a muggy, buggy, culturally bereft pocket of Florida's west coast and a life spent toiling in his parents' gas station, it also means JT has to overcome his fear of performing in drag in public; he did it once at a school talent show and was mercilessly booed when his backing track cut out.
With the encouragement and companionship of his boyfriend Seth and brassy best friend Heather, JT and company concoct a lie to appease their parents and embark on their pilgrimage to New York, encountering obstacles and even a fairy dragmother — an aging country singer — along the way.
Ultimately, the trip represents JT's coming of age and attempt to find his “otherwise,” as he puts it. Talking about his parents, he says, “They didn't hate me but they didn't appear to be big fans either. They didn't get me, didn't know any better. They knew only their own world, and had no intention of ever learning anything otherwise. That was the problem with home for me, the lack of otherwise.”
Self, who was an early adopter of YouTube as a comedy platform and went on to have a sketch show on Logo, among other very funny projects (like this one) and his podcast This Is Really Important, says he doesn't doubt there are other YA novels that approach homosexuality in a way that's similar to Drag Teen, but he wasn't familiar with them. “I read others and they tackle more of the issues of coming out,” he says. He also set it in Florida, a place that's Southern but not Southern Southern, so the book wouldn't have to delve into a gay boy's struggles for acceptance in a small and small-minded town.
As YA novels go, Drag Teen is pretty PG, but there's still the chance that its candid approach to sexual orientation could land it in the crosshairs of creepy fundamentalist groups that do things like attempt to have books removed from school libraries. Self welcomes the prospect: “I guess there is some list of the banned books of the year and I’m really campaigning to get on it. I think that would be such an honor.”