With the start of the Blackwell’s LGBT Book Group as the catalyst, I wanted to write about how reading gay male content fiction(classics and modern works) helped consolidate my self-identification as a gay man, and aided and supported me, immensely, in what was, sometimes, a traumatic process of coming to terms with my sexual orientation. Though, this occurred to me in the 1980s, sadly I do not think it has changed all that much(having watched Olly Alexander’s tortured coming out process and that of his friends and the people he interviewed for his programme on his coming out on TV recently, backed up by startlingly depressing and anger-inducing figures for youth lgbt selfharm, depression, anxiety, suicide attempts and other mental health conditions). Whilst I am not suggesting that reading is some automatic cure-all for these systemic issues, I DO, strongly, believe that, for at least SOME lgbt people, seeing positive images and role models of/for themselves in the media/writing/ music world is extremely self-reinforcing and crucial.
There are too many fiction works to name, but they included: many many of the old Gay Mens Press imprint, books like Vidal:”The City and the Pillar”, Forster “Maurice”, Edmund White “A Boys Own Story” and “This Beautiful Room is Empty”, and Baldwin:”Giovanni’s Room”(all still in print, and still wholly relevant today). That they were THEMSELVES sometimes tortured stories reflected back the issues and difficulties at being a gay person in the “real” (predominantly) heterosexual world at the time (and, to a slightly lesser extent, now). There were two novels, in particular, which made a big(political and personal is political) effect on me:
Barry Nonweiler:”That Other Realm of Freedom”(Gay Mens Press, 1983); and
Ian Everton:”Alienation”(Gay Mens Press, 1982).
They are predominantly bleak books, with glimspes of happiness and self-acceptance. Significantly, because I cannot divorce coming out from lgbt politics and equality battles, they were about the struggles of gay people in the very early days, not long after (partial) decriminalisation of gay male sex(1967; see the two TV series at the moment, “50 Shades of Gay”, and “Queer Britannia”), and they were largely about the internal and external politics of the Gay Left (GLF, ie “Gay Liberation Front”; see also Feather:”Blowing the Lid” for the history of the GLF, Zero Books, 2015; IN PRINT!). It is a struggle which Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is still fighting, (cf his manifesto on lgbt rights).
What did these books achieve for me?; and what can similar (I will give examples, and perhaps we can read/discuss some of them in the group!)fiction of recenter provenance do to support lgbt people today? Well, I saw myself in the characters: torn between embryo self-acceptance and the forces of hetero-patriarchal, heterosexist society;shame and then a journey towards tentative pride. I saw that is was ok to struggle and to be gay and to get there (eventually); I saw the importance of lgbt-specific support networks (friends and groups and the Liverpool Gay Centre as it was then). The characters had similar, sometimes different, battles with self and society. I felt, no longer, excluded and occluded, but part of something: there was hope. I read the books, then I became part of that parallel (lgbt) world of growing(self) radiance.
There was, also, the totemic “The Milkman’s On His Way”(David Rees, Gay Mens Press,1982) which was made much of in the heated homophobic discourse which was the precursor to Section 28 of the Local Government Act, prohibiting the “promotion” of homosexuality.
Recenter lgbt authors have, stressed that they are not, in fact, “Lgbt/gay writers”, specifically or at all. This is a complex interface between self-identity, self-perception, the (publishing) marketplace and societal expectations. But writers like Hollinghurst (“The Folding Star”,1994 is my favourite), Cunningham (classic is “The Hours”, a take on Virginia Woolf,1999) and Leavitt (“Lost Language of Cranes”,1986), despite their chosen self-nomenclature as non gay specific, deal-in order- with subjects like under age love,AIDS and family acceptance(or not). Much more recently, we have, for example, Boyne:”The Heart’s Invisible Furies”(2017, about the fight for acceptance in Ireland) and “A Natural”(Ross Raisin, 2017, about the need for acceptance of gay people within the football world;controversially, to some, written by a straight man).
If I had to choose ONE book it would be Bartlett:”Ready to Catch Him should he Fall”(1990; re-issued 2017 by Serpent’s Tail), an ornate, passionate and brave book of gay love.
For an historical overview, I would recommend “A History of Gay Literature”(Woods, 1998) and for lgbt recommended reads,from all eras, “50 Gay and Lesbian Books Everybody Must Read”(2009) by Richard Canning
Please add(in the comments box below) your own contributions to fiction which helped YOU, or you think would help other lgbt people on their journey