I remember the first time I read a book that featured a gay protagonist. I was thirteen, and my band section leader (a senior whom I looked up to immensely) had recommended the Kiesha’ra series by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. Eager to please, I read the whole series. The ending of the fourth book, Wolfcry, hit me like a train. Spoiler alert for a decade-old book: The protagonist falls in love with another girl. It happens gradually, but I was so unused to seeing wlw romance that I didn’t see it coming. I was shocked. I read the scene over and over. In the car with my section leader, who was giving me a ride home, I told her I’d finished the book.
“I liked that one,” she said. “Except for the ending.”
I deflated. I didn’t know why that made me feel bad, but it did. A few months after that I watched RENT, which quickly became my favorite movie. It was the first time I’d ever seen gay and trans characters onscreen.
Three years later I read Mrs. Dalloway on the recommendation of my fantastic chemistry teacher, who almost definitely knew exactly why I needed it. Again, I had no idea that the book would contain a f/f romance until it happened. I remember right where I was when I read it — sitting at a high school jazz festival, reading between band performances.
I was in high school in the early-mid 2000’s. At that point, people were starting to come around to LGBTQ rights, at least a little bit: Massachusets had already leagalized marriage equality; Glee, for all its many* flaws, was beginning to make gay and trans representation hip; Albus Dumbledore was a gay man, or so we were told. But I lived in a very conservative, very small town in Kentucky. I had literally not met an openly queer person in my life. Ever. My senior year, the school principal, who happened to also be a band mom, combed through the marching band looking for closeted gay students; the ones she found, she outed to their parents. One girl was kicked out of her home. In English and political science classes, the morality of being gay — not just of marriage equality but of the state of being gay — was debated. I was deeply afraid of being gay; when I developed my first crush on a girl in eighth grade, I didn’t tell anyone for three and a half years.
Yesterday I was combing through my childhood bedroom and I found an old Moleskine notebook from senior year of high school. After a paragraph about a girl I liked, I wrote,
God, if she ever read this she’d hate me. I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry. I don’t mean to. I’m trying to fix myself. I’m trying so hard.
When it came to my sexuality, the only self-expression I knew was shame. You can see, then, why I latched onto any story that contained girls who like girls. I’m staunchly against the idea that a single “diverse” book can magically fix a child’s life; that seeing their identity on the page, no matter how thinly represented, can suddenly make them feel whole. But at the same time, reading Wolfcry and Mrs. Dalloway and watching RENT — those were significant moments in my life. They did change something in me. I was starving for something, anything that looked like what I was going through. I was a writer, but I didn’t know how to write about myself. I knew how to write because I read, and I’d never read anything about being gay; I had no idea how to tackle that part of me. Finding books with gay characters helped me learn how to write about it, and writing about it helped me come to terms with it and then to feel proud. When I heard that House of Hades, a spinoff of one of my favorite series and a hugely popular book, featured a major gay character, I cried. I was twenty, I hadn’t read the book yet, but I cried. I imagined being a kid and reading that scene. I imagined how overwhelmed I’d have been. I imagined how many kids were reading it now and beginning to see themselves, the way I had in Wolfcry.
But it’s still true that this is a process, and that a single book will never be able to substitute for that process — especially if it’s written by a cis straight person. That’s why we need a whole lot of books written by a whole lot of different people with different experiences, fantasy books and sci-fi and realistic fiction, books that appeal to a lot of different kids. So they can see their lives in characters like themselves and characters unlike themselves and start to understand all the various ways in which they can express their own inner lives.
Even at age twenty-three, out and proud and having read a plethora of books about LGBTQ characters, I haven’t completed this process. My latest heart-stopping reading experience came after finishing We Are Okay, a (beautiful) YA novel featuring a wlw protagonist. In her acknowledgments page, Nina LaCour mentions her wife and daughter. I know so few married lesbians, let alone ones with kids, that I haven’t yet internalized the idea that being gay does not mean I cannot have a family. So every time I read something like that, I have to take a few moments to gather myself. I’m still having those moments, unlearning the fear and self-hate I’d internalized growing up.
Ours is a community plagued by self-doubt, terror, mental illness, substance abuse. It’s also one that has always determinedly expressed itself even when expression meant visibility and visibility often meant violence. From Stonewall to James Baldwin to Janet Mock, LGBTQ people have used words to fight for their humanity — whether those words are in spoken protest, on a sign, or in a book. That expression is brave and it is vital, because it gives others the opportunity to read who they are and then write who they are and say who they are and shout who they are from the rooftops.
There’s more and more shouting these days. I’m proud to join in, to shout for those who can’t or who haven’t yet found their voice. That’s where Pride and literature intersect for me — in a glorious cacophony.