While I, as a creative writing student, might be biased, I strongly believe that literature is one of the most powerful things ever. For many people literature is how we find others who are like us or who are different to us and through that we learn about identities and experiences and people. It is however a lot easier for some people to find literature which makes them feel represented or literature with characters or people they can identify themselves with than it is for others. One of the groups it is less easy for is the LGBT community. In this article I will speak about the relevance of queer literature, some small history of queer fiction and what we are or should be striving for in the future regarding literature.
Imagine you are a young person sat in your room feeling confused, lonely and frustrated because the world out there doesn’t seem to understand you and there is nobody like you who can help you understand yourself. You pick up a book and in that book you find a character, just one small character, who has the same sexuality and same gender identity as you. You read on and find that maybe you aren’t actually alone and maybe there is a way to describe how you feel inside and hey, if this character can show who or what they are and live their life being proud of that, then you can too! Now imagine you don’t get that because your sexuality or gender identity doesn’t fit into the social default of straight and cis-gender, and you are left there confused, lonely and frustrated. That is why representation is so very important. LGBT youth have greater vulnerability to a wide range of health (both mental and physical) and social problems such as disordered eating, sexual assault and transmitted diseases, homelessness, abuse and suicide which are frequently caused by discrimination, marginalisation, and isolation. Being able to find a novel, or even just a short story, that makes you feel less alone, less marginalised and makes you feel that you can be proud no matter what can decrease those higher risks that come with being LGBT.
We are lucky nowadays because of the vast amount of diverse literature that exists out there and which we can access almost instantly. This was not always the case though. Queer literature has become far more accessible and common in our contemporary society. This is arguably due to the movements that have brought LGBT rights to the forefront as well as the ancestors of today’s queer fiction, those who have paved the path in times where differing sexualities, let alone varied gender identities, were forbidden. Joseph and His Friend: a Story of Pennsylvania by Bayard Taylor (1870) is argued to be the first gay American novel, as it depicts two male characters who, despite the author’s added plausible deniability, are irrefutably in love with one another. In 1870 homosexuality would have been virtually unheard of, partially due to the fact that the term ‘homosexual’ was only coined by Hungarian doctor, Karl-Marie Benkert, in 1869 and did not reach the UK or America until long after the novel was published. The novel however depicts the love Joseph has for his friend and they are described to have ‘kissed each other’ in one scene and it is implied that they had intercourse in another. Taylor explicitly depicts the kiss but, due to social constraints he would have been unable to be anything other than implicit with the intercourse of the characters. As additional context, 1870 was 25 years before the trial of Oscar Wilde who was placed on trial for gross indecency (which homosexual behaviour was referred to then) and whose writing was used as evidence against him during his trial. Wilde was convicted and sentenced to two years of intense labour. Now imagine what would have happened 25 years prior to Taylor if he had been explicit with the relationship of the two characters and did not add plausible deniability through his character pursuing women, especially considering homosexual behaviour was punishable by castration and imprisonment. In 1870 nobody was writing publicly for LGBT people, which can be seen as a cause for why many LGBT people hid who they truly were, similarly to how in the novel Joseph hides his love for his friend by marrying his friend’s sister. Nonetheless, Taylor is revolutionary for his time, and can be seen as one of the first stones for the road that has led to today’s diverse range of LGBT fiction with openly queer writers such as David Levithan (Two Boys Kissing), Adam Silvera (History is all You left Me) or Meredith Russo (If I Was Your Girl) being able to create fiction which allows young LGBT people to feel represented and heard within media.
Reading queer fiction can be reassuring for LGBT youth, but it can also be educational for straight cis people. Through literature we can meet a plethora of different people and learn about identities that are not the same as our own, thus opening our minds and educating us. That is why LGBT literature is so important. I encourage everybody to find and support LGBT literature and to read as much of it and as diverse a range as you can. Just reading novels about white gay boys written by straight white women, while appreciated, is not enough. We need to read novels about trans women written by trans women, such as Birthday and If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo. We need to read stories about bisexuals written by bisexuals, such as the Captive Prince series by C S Pacat. We need to read books about gay Latinos written by gay Latino men, such as Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. We need to read stories of intersectional experiences, of race and sexuality, such as James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room.
So, to conclude, literature has come a long way from being ‘constrained about alluding to homosexuality’ as author Dave Astor states. However, it can still go so much further than where it is now if we allow it to, if we pick up LGBT themed books, short stories, novels etc, if we support LGBT authors and their work. This is why the AberBalch/AberPride committee will be sharing their favourite Queer media on the public Facebook page.