By Alaina Leary
Today we’re pleased to welcome Jason June to the WNDB blog to discuss his YA book Jay’s Gay Agenda, out June 1, 2021!
There’s one thing Jay Collier knows for sure—he’s a statistical anomaly as the only out gay kid in his small rural Washington town. While all his friends can’t stop talking about their heterosexual hookups and relationships, Jay can only dream of his own firsts, compiling a romance to-do list of all the things he hopes to one day experience—his Gay Agenda.
Then, against all odds, Jay’s family moves to Seattle and he starts his senior year at a new high school with a thriving LGBTQIA+ community. For the first time ever, Jay feels like he’s found where he truly belongs. But as Jay begins crossing items off his list, he’ll soon be torn between his heart and his hormones, his old friends and his new ones . . . because after all, life and love don’t always go according to plan.
The central plot of Jay’s Gay Agenda is focused on how difficult and isolating it can be to be LGBTQ+ in a rural town and Jay’s desire to find LGBTQ+ community. Even though I grew up in Massachusetts, I went to a small rural high school, so I found this struggle really relatable! I was one of the only out LGBTQ+ teens at my high school. Why did you want to explore this in Jay’s journey?
I really wanted to explore the sort of lonely queer island so many of us in the LGBTQ+ community can find ourselves on because it still happens, even in 2021. Many well-meaning people of all orientations in bigger cities can sometimes have the “People love gays!” attitude and can assume that it’s an easy road for queer teens to explore their sexuality regardless of where they’re from. But we still have such a long way to go, especially in small-town and rural America. While Jay is accepted by his farming community, he still feels really stunted in terms of relationship growth because he doesn’t have anyone to explore his sexuality with, and I think it’s important for queer teens who do find themselves as the only out queer teen in their area to know that while they may be alone in their physical space, they aren’t alone in their experience, that they’re seen by Jay, and the day will come when they’ll get to find their queer community.
Tell us about the world-building for Jay’s Gay Agenda. How did you build out Jay’s two worlds, the one he lives in at the start of the book in Riverton and the one he moves to in Seattle? How did you build out the youth LGBTQ+ community in Seattle in particular?
Riverton is super-inspired by Riverside, the small farming community outside of Spokane, Washington that I grew up in when I was the only out teen at my high school. The lack of any kind of main street, the popular fast food joint everyone loved, the small and close-knit class of around 100 students was all something that I experienced in Riverside. Even Jay’s dad wanting to live out in the country and build a log house is inspired by my dad. I lived in a single-wide trailer all through high school while the cabin was being built. So that life came very easily to me.
In terms of Seattle, that was the city that I first went to after high school and finally got to see what a gay community was like. I have such a special place in my soul for Seattle and could live there again in a heartbeat. As for Jay’s friends, they came to me as people I wish I’d have been able to be or meet in high school. Max (a genderqueer Gemini and Jay’s new school BFF), is just so fully his femme self, and I wish I’d been that brave to be able to realize and embrace my genderqueerness in high school. Albert is that warm-hearted, caring guy I always hoped would come into my life and be my first boyfriend. The QSA in general is the safe space of other queer teens that I would have loved to be able to connect and bond with. So fleshing out that community was all an exercise of going back and realizing who I needed in my life. That’s not at all to say the friends I had weren’t very near and dear to my heart, just that I knew my heart was still missing an unapologetically queer community.
Jay’s actual Gay Agenda had a bit of an older Ned’s Declassified feel to me; it’s very much about what Jay thinks he needs to do in high school and then over time, he realizes what should actually be on his Gay Agenda. Where did the idea for the agenda come from? Why is it so central to Jay’s character?
Like Jay, I’m a Type-A Virgo list-maker. Jay’s a bit more list-obsessed than I was, but I definitely had a diary where I wrote all my romantic and hormonal gay hopes and dreams. I actually never kept that diary. I will never forget throwing it away, ripping out each page, and tearing them to shreds before dumping them because I was afraid that it would be found one day. But mentally, all those hopes are still there, so I tapped into that to create the Gay Agenda. That romance to-do list is so central to Jay’s character because he feels so emotionally stunted compared to his other high school senior peers. He notes a couple of times that he feels like this prepubescent dweeb, that all these teens who’ve dated and kissed and lost their virginity have something on him that he’ll never be able to catch up with until he knocks each item off the list. But when he starts accomplishing things, and his life gets more complicated with the layers of being seen as a romantic and sexual being for the first time, Jay realizes that checking off experiences isn’t what matters, it’s really living in the moment and forming connections that does.
Like a lot of readers, I just adore Max, who is such an engaging character. How did you develop Max’s role in the story and in Jay’s life?
I think for so many of us, high school is a time of complete and total self-doubt. Do I look right, do I sound right, do other people like me, am I fitting in? Max is like, “Uh, hi, I’m just going to be me, you’re lucky to know me, and if you don’t like it then buh-bye.” He’s that person who is confidence, and even when he’s doubting himself or upset, he finds a way (sometimes unhealthily) to not let his confident facade crumble. I wanted Max to be this character that is a boost for Jay, the friend who lets Jay know he’s not a prepubescent dweeb, but actually, a wonderful person who deserves love and lust as much as anybody else regardless of whether it’s later than others or not. As Max takes Jay under his wing, or rather, as Max pushes Jay into the gay dating pool, Jay realizes that so much of his self-doubt wasn’t needed, and just going for it is the greatest gift he can give himself.
There’s some tension between Jay and Lu and I love that Lu calls out the way that Jay’s naivete plays into their differences in financial privilege. Why do you think it’s so important for readers, both those who are more in Jay’s position and those in Lu’s, to see this on the page?
I’m a firm believer in a living minimum wage, and this stems from seeing so many people growing up working their asses off and still struggling to get by. I think for many people like Jay when they aren’t living that paycheck-to-paycheck reality, they don’t necessarily understand how literally every cent counts.
For people more in Jay’s position, I’m hoping they can start to think about how financial security has provided comfort in their lives and how to be empathetic to those in positions like Lu, but not in an “I feel sorry for you” way. In a “how can I be there for you” way, and thinking about how we can better level the playing field so people don’t get in spaces where they’re losing their phones, their cars, their homes when they’ve been doing as much as they can to pay the bills. For teens in situations like Lu’s, I want them to know they aren’t alone, that being poor or having to work to contribute to their household doesn’t make them less than or a failure, and that there is never any shame in being realistic with your friends about where you’re at financially.
I love that Jay is such a flawed character and he makes mistakes as he’s figuring everything out. Why did you want to write a character who has to apologize and learn to take accountability for their mistakes?
Because mistakes are so so so so human. I think we see perfection everywhere, especially on social media, where everyone’s life and friendships and relationships look perfect. What we don’t see is all the mistakes made along the way, we don’t see the arguments people are having, we don’t see the wrong choices that hurt others, so it can feel like nobody ever screws up. But screwing up and learning how to be vocal about your wants and needs without getting those at the expense of others is such a part of life, or learning how to be a communicative young adult who realizes the world can’t go exactly as you want it because you have to keep other people’s unique wants and needs and personalities into account too.
So through Jay, I hope readers realize it’s okay to make mistakes, that it’s natural to prioritize ourselves when we’re experiencing relationships for the first time, but that when you screw up and you hurt someone, you have to own up to it. You have to say how you hurt someone, show them you understand where your actions caused them pain so that you won’t repeat those mistakes. Sometimes, the act of messing up and owning up to it then doing better can bring you closer than you ever were before, but that can only happen with accountability.
If you could design your dream panel for Jay’s Gay Agenda, what would the topic be? What other authors would you invite to be on it?
Oh wow, this is the absolute best question! Like, I literally want to be on a panel with so many queer authors it’s impossible to limit it down to a reasonable number, but I would love to have a whole panel on the Queer Warm Fuzzies, of feeling that queer crush for the first time and showing that that magic and spark is just as special and beautiful as the warm fuzzies of a straight crush and should be just as celebrated. Authors who I think are so good at portraying this include Becky Albertalli, Jonny Garza Villa, Kosoko Jackson, Leah Johnson, Emery Lee, L. C. Rosen, Steven Salvatore, Ashley Shuttleworth, Phil Stamper, Aiden Thomas, Julian Winters, the list goes on and on.
What other books do you see Jay’s Gay Agenda as being in conversation with?
I think Jay could have a lot to say to Jack from L. C. Rosen’s Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts), Remy from Julian Winters’s How to Be Remy Cameron, and Simon from Becky Albertalli’s Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. Each of the guys in these are exploring relationships, emotional and physical, and could really give Jay some advice on how to avoid getting so narrowly focused on his Gay Agenda that he doesn’t enjoy the ride.
Can you tease anything about your next YA, a queer retelling of Splash? Because I’m dying from anticipation! Why did you want to write about merfolk?
I have been OBSESSED with merpeople for as long as I can remember. The very first movie I saw in the theater was The Little Mermaid, and I knew that I was a washed-up merperson ever since. Like, when I was little and before I knew how to swim, I would get so excited to be in the water that my dad would have to physically restrain me so he could put a life jacket on me before I ran off the end of the dock and jumped in the lake hoping my fin would materialize. I’m still waiting for that fateful day, but I always knew that I wanted to contribute to mer canon, and make it gay.
So in Out of the Blue, we follow Ross, a sixteen-year-old mer who has to go on land to complete their Journey, a tradition where teen mer get legs for a moon cycle to help a human. Ross is having none of it, totally not looking forward to hanging with destructive and selfish humans, but while on land, they meet Sean, a recently-dumped lifeguard and movie director-hopeful who wants to save face by making his ex think he can move on just as quickly to another partner. And voila! Ross has a human they can help. We’ve got fake dating, we’ve got rom-com adoration, we’ve got fin mishaps! This is my first time ever writing dual POV, and I really hope people fall in love with these swimming sweethearts!
What’s one question you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
This is surprisingly hard for me since I feel like all these questions were so well thought out and specific to JGA that I’m totally drawing a blank! So how about “Who’s your favorite fictional paleontologist/character you need to cosplay more often for inspiration on how to be a confident badass in all walks of life, including but not limited to how to rock khaki shorts?” The answer is obviously Dr. Ellie Sattler.
Jason June is a gay, genderqueer, list-making, Virgo Sun, Taurus Moon, Pokémon-playing writer living in Austin, TX. If he had a Gay Agenda, “marry the love of your life”, “be mom to two extremely pampered Pomeranians,” and “get accidentally kicked in the face by Kylie Minogue as an extra in her music video” would all be crossed off. Visit Jason June on social media @heyjasonjune, and on his website at www.heyjasonjune.com.
Alaina (Lavoie) is the communications manager of We Need Diverse Books. She also teaches in the graduate department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College and is a book reviewer for Booklist. She received a 2017 Bookbuilders of Boston scholarship for her work in the publishing industry. Her writing has been published in New York Times, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Refinery29, Allure, Healthline, Glamour, The Oprah Magazine, and more. She currently lives in Boston with her wife and their two literary cats. Follow her @AlainasKeys on Instagram and Twitter.