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Alex Sanchez Biography (1957-) - Sidelights

gay school rainbow boys

Alex Sanchez is one of several new voices in young adult literature that explore gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans-gender, and questioning (GLBTQ) themes in fiction. Sanchez's 2001 Rainbow Boys takes the familiar high school triangle plot and gives it a new twist, positing it Alex Sanchez in the form of gay romance and awakening. "I've been told my writing is fundamentally about relationships," Sanchez told interviewer J. Sydney Jones. "What brings people together and pulls them apart, particularly in terms of love, friendship, family, gender, culture and sexuality." As Sanchez further noted in his interview, young adult literature has undergone a "sea change" in the past ten years, allowing the exploration of subjects taboo only a decade ago. Speaking with Toby Emert of the ALAN Review, Sanchez reported to Jones that a decade earlier "the story lines and characters would've been very different." At that time, according to Sanchez, "only a handful of gays and lesbians came out as teenagers; the process was almost entirely limited to adults." The average age for coming out in the United States had fallen to fifteen by 2000, leaving many high school students to deal with this difficult transition on their own. "Unfortunately, the predominant experience for most GLBTQ youth is still one of isolation, harassment, persecution, and self-loathing," Sanchez remarked. The need, therefore, for books such as Rainbow Boys is great. "A book like it provides a vicarious emotional experience that can be tremendously valuable in helping teens navigate the transition to psychologically mature, healthy, integrated adults." It can also help to instill within straight students an understanding and empathy for gays and their difficulties. "I think the story of Rainbow Boys grew out of my own internal struggle between wanting to accept myself and being afraid to," Sanchez remarked to Emert.

Sanchez was born in Mexico City, Mexico, in 1957, to parents of Cuban and German heritage. When he was five, the family moved to the United States, "forever altering the course of my life," the author commented in his interview with Jones. "As I began school, I spoke no English. I watched people's lips move and had no idea what they were saying. I experienced growing up as an outsider. I got picked on for being different. It was my first experience with prejudice." One of his childhood icons was the cartoon character "Speedy Gonzalez," the "most positive Latino in a medium most familiar to me as a child—cartoons. Speedy broke stereotype by being smart, hardworking, the fastest mouse in all Méjico."

Sanchez attempted to assimilate rapidly into his new environment. "I learned English as fast as I could. When I told other children I was from Mexico, they told me: 'But you don't look Mexican.' I began to realize that even knowing the language, Mexicans and other darker-skinned people in the United States were looked down upon by both children and adults. The shame I felt caused me to stop speaking Spanish. When my parents took me shopping or to a restaurant, I didn't want other people to know we were from Mexico. I didn't want them to look down upon us. Because I was relatively light-skinned, I learned I could pass as white. I could hide who I was, so that others would like and accept me. By the time I reached middle school, I had buried a core part of myself—my Mexican heritage. I was no longer different. Or so I thought."

Sanchez found solace at home, encouraged into self-expression by his artist mother and his father, "who exemplified the ethic of hard work." Books also became a refuge, especially The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf. That classic story of a Spanish bull that prefers sniffing flowers to fighting in the bull ring appealed to the young outsider, letting him know it was okay to be different and to be who you are.

Who he was, however, became more complicated when Sanchez reached adolescence. "I was thirteen when I first heard the word 'gay,'" Sanchez told Jones "Immediately, I knew that's what I was. And I hated myself for it. Like so many gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or questioning 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.'"

As a teenager in the early 1970s, "there was no such thing as being 'out' in high school," Sanchez recalled. "I do remember one boy, who was labeled 'gay' and consequently got beat up every day. I watched and stood silent, afraid that if I said anything, I might be found out too. So instead, I looked on, feeling guilty. The way I coped was by becoming 'the best little boy in the world,' just as in Andrew Tobias's book of that title—a classic overachiever, being the best at everything, in order to mask the shame I felt. I hated high school, and raced through it, finishing a year and a half early. What young person wouldn't hate a setting that leads them to hate themselves? That's probably what led me to revisit the setting in a novel."

Sanchez went to college at Virginia Tech, graduating with honors in 1978. After college he went to Hollywood, hoping to break into the film industry. For several years he worked at a variety of minor jobs—theater usher, movie projectionist, TV production assistant, studio tour guide, and script reader—waiting for his big chance. In fact, such a chance came with his script-writing job, which convinced him that he could write better than most of the people submitting scripts. He tried his own hand at script writing with limited results, but the experience let him know that he had found his true calling.

Before that time, he had enjoyed writing, but had always shied away from expressing his true feelings or revealing his gay identity. "Like many writers, I loved to write since I was a child," Sanchez explained to Jones. "But as I grew up, I learned it wasn't safe to share who I was. In college I wrote a picture book for a children's lit class but it wasn't anything truly personal. Not until grad school did I finally summon the courage to write a story with a gay character. The instructor's homophobia caused him to lash out at it. After that I didn't write for years. But the dream of writing stayed with me. When I finally summoned the courage to try again, I reached out to several friends working on their own creative projects. We encouraged one another. In addition, I discovered the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, which offers one-week workshops with many of America's finest writers."

Sanchez had meanwhile also completed a master's degree in guidance and counseling, and worked in family and youth counseling for many years. When he left that field and went into human resources, he decided it was time for him to put his thoughts down on paper. Little did he know at the time that he would be facing a five-year writing project for his first book. "I didn't write Rainbow Boys with a particular audience in mind," Sanchez told Jones. "As the novel took shape, however, it became apparent I was writing the book I desperately wanted and needed to read when I was a teenager—one that would have told me: 'You don't have to hate yourself for being gay. It's okay to be who you are.' My intention was to write an upbeat and affirming book that would inspire and encourage empathy."

The book ultimately gained the attention of a sympathetic agent. "An instructor who liked my work recommended me to her agent, a straight suburban mom," Sanchez explained, "who liked the manuscript because of its themes of acceptance and personal integrity. It's a book she hopes her kids will read when they're teenagers. She was a huge champion of the manuscript and had the contacts at Simon & Schuster."

Published in 2001, Rainbow Boys is the story of three high school seniors who confront their sexual identities and learn to deal with issues of self-worth and self-image. Kyle is smart and athletic, a serious student with a secret crush on Jason, a jock and one of the most popular boys in school. Jason, however, is seemingly very straight, going steady with an equally popular girl. Completing the triangle is Nelson, dubbed Nellie by his classmates, as he is a "flamboyant loner," according to a reviewer for Book. Nelson is outspokenly gay and helps to establish a Gay-Straight Alliance at his school. Because Nelson and Kyle are best friends, it is assumed that Kyle too is gay, even though he does not advertise it. Kyle, thus, is subject to the same harassment at school that Nelson is. To complicate matters, Nelson hopes to turn his close friendship with Kyle into a romantic relationship. Jason, meanwhile, is confused about his own sexuality, not knowing if he is straight, bisexual, or gay. In an attempt to clarify these issues he attends a Rainbow Youth meeting where he is met by both Nelson and Kyle, who are surprised to see him in attendance. "This uncomfortable confrontation starts the ball rolling down a path of deception, denial, revelation, and acceptance," according to Betty S. Evans in a School Library Journal review. Such a difficult path involves not only the three boys themselves, but their friends and parents, as well.

Emphasizing love and acceptance, Sanchez depicts the emotional issues facing three gay high school students: a jock who has a girlfriend and serious family problems, a closeted gay who fears the truth, and a forthright gay activist. (Cover photo by Jack Louth.)

Sanchez's gay coming-of-age novel was greeted with critical praise. Evans called it a "gutsy, in-your-face debut," that uses "real life" language to speak to gay issues at the high school level. The reviewer for Book similarly found that Sanchez "writes with clear, honest language about … first sexual experiences." Reviewing the novel in Lambda Book Report, Bob Witeck felt that Sanchez's "story telling is fluent, direct and authentic," exploring "the universal nature of romance." Witeck also thought that the novel would present more "truthful … flesh and blood" gay characters for a straight audience. Likewise, Booklist contributor Michael Cart commented that "Sanchez writes with passion and understanding," ultimately demonstrating that "coming out is really coming in—entering a circle of support." More praise came from a critic for Kirkus Reviews who noted, "this is a fine first effort, thought-provoking and informative for all young adults." Lynn Evarts, reviewing the novel in Voice of Youth Advocates, pointed to the "remarkable job" Sanchez does in portraying the "feelings and emotions of a gay teenager experiencing his first crush," and Kliatt's Paula Rohrlick also felt that "YAs who are struggling with some of the same issues will appreciate this realistic, caring portrayal." And a contributor for Publishers Weekly similarly lauded Sanchez for creating "modern situations that speak to contemporary teens." Awarded a Best Book for Young Adults citation by the American Library Association, Rainbow Boys was an impressive debut for Sanchez.

A sequel, Rainbow High, explores the second half of the senior year of Sanchez's three protagonists. At first reluctant to jump back into the lives of his characters after living five years with them, Sanchez soon became immersed in the project. "The boys face new and different challenges," he explained to Emert. "The dramatic storylines explore more deeply issues about HIV, safer sex, and teen relationships told through characters that readers can care about and learn from." Writing in Publishers Weekly, a critic thought that the author "expertly mixes coming-out issues with the universal complications of first love," while School Library Journal contributor Robert Gray claimed that "mature YAs will identify with the problems and decisions these individuals must face."

"I'm an equal opportunity writer," Sanchez said to Jones, "not writing for any particular demographic. I write on the premise that a reader picks up a book in order to think and feel, to be entertained or inspired. The only 'audience' I have in mind when writing is the characters themselves. Am I capturing how they think, feel, and reveal themselves through actions? Am I being true to them? If they were to pick up the book would they say 'That's me!' I believe that meaningful, truly powerful writing springs from the heart, describes the conflict of the human heart, and reaches out to move the reader's heart. If I can come close to that, I've achieved my goal."

In his moving sequel to Rainbow Boys, Sanchez follows the three gay protagonists as they grapple with the difficult choices facing all graduating high school students, as well as troubling issues like homophobia and the HIV virus. (Cover photo by Jack Louth.)

Describing his other goals in writing, Sanchez concluded to Jones, "Books can provide a moral compass, a system of values, a way to understand yourself. Usually you learn these things from peers, or at school, or from family. But what happens when all those avenues tell you that what you're feeling is bad and wrong? Books can hold a special place, providing hope for a world in which it's okay to be who you are.… To inspire, empower, and help change the world for the better—one heart and one mind at a time. That's my dream. That's my hope."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Sanchez, Alex, interview with J. Sydney Jones for Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 51, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2003.

PERIODICALS

ALAN Review, fall, 2002, Toby Emert, "An Interview with Alex Sanchez, Author of Rainbow Boys," pp. 12-14.

Book, September, 2001, review of Rainbow Boys, p. 91.

Booklist, November 15, 2001, Michael Cart, review of Rainbow Boys, p. 566.

Horn Book, January-February, 2004, Roger Sutton, review of Rainbow High, p. 83.

Kirkus Reviews, October 15, 2001, review of Rainbow Boys, p. 1492.

Kliatt, September, 2001, Paula Rohrlick, review of Rainbow Boys.

Lambda Book Report, October, 2001, Bob Witeck, "They're Only Mysteries Themselves," p. 21; April, 2002, Martin Wilson, "Listening to 'My Inner Teenager,'" p. 30.

Publishers Weekly, November 26, 2001, review of Rainbow Boys, p. 62; December 24, 2001, "Flying Starts," pp. 30-35; November 24, 2003, review of Rainbow High, p. 65.

School Library Journal, October, 2001, Betty S. Evans, review of Rainbow Boys, p. 169; November, 2003, Robert Gray, review of Rainbow High, p. 146.

USA Today, June 26, 2001, Deirdre Donahue, "Books Give Honest Portrayal of Growing Up Gay."

Voice of Youth Advocates, December, 2001, Lynn Evarts, review of Rainbow Boys.

OTHER

Alex Sanchez Home Page, http://www.alexsanchez.com/ (December 1, 2002).*

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