Sunday, July 28, 2013

On the importance of LGBTQ literature

I'm currently reading Jeanette Winterson's autobiography Why Be Normal When You Could Be Happy?, and she talks a lot about how literature saved her. This, of course, lead me to thinking about those coming out years, and how desperate I was to locate myself in the pages of the books I read.  I remember so clearly accidentally picking up E. Lynn Harris' Invisible Life in the adult fiction section and feeling absolutely floored.  The cover itself was enough to draw my radar.  Something about the way the two men looked toward each other, and I knew I had found something.  Too afraid to actually check it out at first, I would read sections of it curled into a corner of the library and then replace it carefully in the H section before leaving.  I was so relieved to find in print the same feelings I was having, even if they were happening for a man and not a woman.  It was enough to see that we existed outside in the world.  After I was outed, I finally got up the nerve to take it home. Sometimes I didn't even read it again. I would just stack it with my other library books in my room and be comforted by its presence.

Fast forward to my first year of college.  I left home and came to Tallahassee, admittedly not a bustling metropolis, but still the largest city in which I'd ever lived.  There was a gay community center and, wonder of all wonders,  a gay bookstore! (Oh, Rubyfruit Books, how I miss thee!) The first time I went in that store, I felt this knot in my chest release.  Staring at me from all angles were gay and lesbian fiction, nonfiction, tshirts, buttons, sex books...I wanted to turn in circles and toss my hat like Mary Tyler Moore. It was one of the most wondrous experiences I have ever had--discovering that not only were we legion, we were freaking prolific writers!  The first book I bought was Rita Mae Brown's  Rubyfruit Jungle. I devoured that book, and then I read anything that had the woman's name on it. By the gods, if she had written copy for Kellogg's boxes, I would've been on an all-cereal diet.  I was then handed Winterson's Written on the Body for a Women in Literature class. I was engrossed in the book and remember having to do a group project on it. I was so nervous, because I felt like I had to represent my people well and honor her. Really, it was a crap project, but that book. Oh my god. That book. Perusing my beloved Rubyfruit, I found out that she wrote others and fell in mad love with Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.  One afternoon, I was in the campus bookstore and found "Lesbian and Gay Studies" section. Albeit, it really was a small section, but the implication! This was a regular bookstore. And they had books about us! Like it was normal! I felt another knot release. I know I picked up every book on those few shelves and stared at the covers and back jackets.  The first one I bought was Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, and after I got over the shock of not really needing to try to be covert about my purchase, I proceeded to buy one every single time I had money.  There was erotica and nonfiction and so many blessed other things.  And if I had only been able to locate these in my own library, senior year might have been a very different place for me, at least, internally.

Remembering all this makes me want to order a million LGBT books and stuff shelves full in libraries everywhere. Because everyone deserves to be able to see themselves reflected.