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Part I: What is Queer Fiction & are we making distinctions by using such a term?
I’m fourteen. I’m bored. Bored and tired and irritated. Of it all. Of reading, watching, consuming, plots made of heterosexual relationships. Boys falling in love with girls, girls with boys. Boys kiss girls, girls kiss boys. The I love yous and I love you mores. The same. I can relate, I can understand but I’m not being allowed to see anything, read anything, experience anything that I want to experience in real life. The books I’m reading, films I’m watching are not showing me everything. Gay characters are these half-formed pieces of entertainment. They’re invisible, if used, silenced, never fully accomplished to their full potential. I know there has to be something out there – of course, there has to be. Gay people ‘exist’, although I don’t know of them.
Actors and writers and musicians and artists, out and proud, but far away. They live in Neverland. There are two other gay boys in my year at school – the first does nothing to sway my decision to not tell anyone that I’m gay whilst I’m still in high school. He’s overly arrogant, he starts singing and dancing in class, screams at the teachers. He embraces his homosexuality, in a sexually promiscuous way. Of course there’s nothing wrong with that, that’s a whole conversation in itself but his centre of attention attitude makes me irritated. The second is bullied, victimised, worse, pitied. I hide and I tell myself I’m not a coward, that my coming out in the brutal classrooms and even harder playgrounds would accomplish nothing. Why make things worse for yourself when you’re in Hell?
I curl over the laptop at night and order Alex Sanchez’s Rainbow Boys trilogy. They’re labelled as ‘Gay’ books and when I buy I’m recommended only homosexual plot-based books, Amazon assumes I would read nothing else. I grab the box when it arrives through the post and read the books in secret. Why else would I be reading them if I weren’t gay? Anyone who catches me with it will think – know – that I am gay. I might as well be caught with porn. Why else would you be reading if unless you are gay?
I read a lot. I write a lot. I finish and buy more – Perry Moore’s Hero, Geography Club, The Vast Fields of Ordinary, more and more. I read Hero in a day, indulging in the adventure. The second chapter has Thom, the young superhero of the novel, watch gay pornography on his father’s computer and have to worry about the history. I’ve done the same, this is the first time I’ve read it as words. I haven’t written about it myself. I haven’t told anyone I’m gay, I haven’t even told myself. I know I am. My interest – if it ever were that – in girls faded when I was eleven and masturbating over gay pornography seems like a commitment I’ve made to agreeing to who I am.
But it’s not just about masturbation or porn or sex, it’s about me trying to understand what the Hell I am. Nobody brought me up telling me it was OK to be gay. None of my friends know what gay is. “It means happy,” our mothers would tell us. Then, of course, the usual term as teenage-folk, “that’s so gay.” “Walking is for gay people.” “My pen broke. That’s so gay.” Gay then becomes dirty, sullen, incompetent. The phrase that is attributed to the books that make me feel a bit more normal. The books that, if anyone saw me with, would know my secret.
I’m twenty-two. Writing. Writing this column in the top room of the house with the rain drumming against the windows. My desk, crammed with books and papers, a cup of coffee (having recently become a barista – a struggling writer serving coffee, I am a cliché – I’ve began teaching myself the tastes of coffee) and a cigarette in between my fingers. Smoke and the coiling ash. I think about my fourteen-year-old self – nervous, angry, terrified. Being ‘in the closet’, as they put it, is a lonely business. My friend once said to me, “yeah, but you had it easy, everyone was fine with it.” The statement is true but that doesn’t take from the loneliness such a secret creates, as well as the mind-set a lonely person with such a secret has. I don’t like to indulge, I don’t like to go on, maybe that’s why writing about other people is so endearing.
Fourteen-year-old me didn’t understand the world and twenty-two-year-old me probably doesn’t understand it very much but perhaps a little bit better. The term “gay” is no longer ugly. I don’t hold anger towards my fellow flamboyant gay men. I’ve learnt – be who you want to be, find someone who loves you for you, don’t change yourself. Fourteen-year-old me didn’t understand that, he played too many games. But fourteen-year-old me had a problem – how do teenagers in the closet read ‘gay fiction’/’queer fiction’ without outing themselves? Even within eight years society has changed and being gay is much more celebrated than it ever has been but still that doesn’t mean all families and friends are that way – homophobia still exists, teenagers are still dying because of fear, of what will happen, of how their life will turn out. These books make a difference.
But why do we call the books ‘gay’ literature? Why is it ‘queer fiction’? The word ‘gay’, as I said, is no longer ugly but by calling something ‘queer fiction’ are we not distinguishing it from what it is? Literature. If the term ‘queer fiction’ is an acknowledgement of acceptance, aren’t we in an age in which we’ve moved past that and homosexuality – in all its forms – is recognised as part of society’s ‘norm’? We have to ask ourselves – what determines queer fiction? Is it a story that contributes to the queer genre or is it a story that comes from a queer writer? Are we to view Allen Ginsberg’s poetry – of course, his infamous, Howl – as queer poetry due to his sexuality, its content, or both? Is Annie Proulx’s short story, Brokeback Mountain, part of the queer fiction world? And, if so, how is the fact that Proulx is a straight woman supposed to affect our perception of her story and our view of queer fiction?
Questions. Questions come in the form of smoke and reflections, the dying sunlight stretching through the clouds and rain. The literary world is joining our evolving society and putting more of an emphasis on gender equality when it comes to publishing books. Small Press & Other Stories will, in 2018, only publish novels by women for a whole year. Now, while I don’t agree with this – thinking the focus should be on making the publishing houses about equality overall rather than a year dedication – it does draw into the discussion queer fiction and whether we are distinguishing between writers and their work by calling it such.
2015 marks a big year for gay women and men. For those in the United Kingdom, it was the year Ireland legalised same-sex marriages. For those in the United States, it was the year all fifty states legalised same-sex marriages. It was, both days concluded, about love – the law cannot dictate who can love whom, therefore it cannot dictate who can marry whom. 2015 is a year in a more accepting world, a world, however, that has a lot of changes still to make. I sit at my desk, stubbing out the cigarette, existing in the smoke, pushing up, past my nostrils, to my eyes and lungs and beating hard hard. I listen to Yann Tiersen’s Amelie score and hold my pen, doodling, mindlessly, drawing houses and faces and eyes and stopping to make a circle, to draw a line, to form the shape of a Q.
Thomas Stewart is a Columnist for Litro NY and has had his fiction, poetry and essays published at The Stockholm Review, The Cadaverine, Storgy, Vada Magazine, Anomaly, Agenda Broadsheet, among others. His debut poetry pamphlet, 'Creation' is forthcoming from Red Squirrel Press. He has an MA in Writing from the University of Warwick and a BA in English from the University of South Wales. He enjoys folk music, horror films, suburban fiction, watches, cooking, patterned jumpers and beat poetry. He is afraid of the dark.