I Wrote the Super Queer Novel My Younger Self Needed
Would I have realized I was gay sooner if queer books were more mainstream?
When I tell people about the idea behind my debut novel—a fictional town in Kansas is named the most homophobic town in the nation, and a queer task force is sent in to try to teach them acceptance—they usually say something like, “Wow! How on earth did you come up with that?” The simplest answer is that I, too, could have used a queer task force in the small Maine town where I grew up.
By “small,” I mean small. My childhood house was heated by a wood stove, and if you took a walk during deer hunting season, you had to don a neon orange hat and vest to not get shot. I’m sure my town wasn’t the most homophobic one in America, but it wasn’t the most aware or accepting, either. My house was across the street from my grandmother’s, and the woman who lived next door to her was short and stocky, with short gray hair. She lived alone, and drove a Subaru, and tended to wear Carhartt pants and turtlenecks. I never knew her name because my extended family only ever called her “the lesbian.” I found out recently she actually isn’t even gay, but the snide, jokey tone my relatives used when they referred to her let me know that being gay wasn’t condoned.
Reading books was a way for me to partially see past the rural confines of my town. Today, YA is known for being one of the most diverse genres, especially when it comes to LGBTQIA representation. But when I was young, there were no books like Pet by Akwaeke Emezi or Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli or Like a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian. In elementary school, we were largely assigned books like Hatchet, My Side of the Mountain, and The Cay—all centering young male protagonists who learn how to survive in the wild and, in the process, [cue cheesy music] learn about themselves. Stories about young women weren’t really assigned in school—boys got to learn how to understand themselves, and girls learned how to understand boys. So outside of school, most girls I knew read The Babysitters Club books, about an entrepreneurial group of female friends who, of course, start a babysitting service. While some of the books were about larger themes like family issues or illness, many of the stories centered on the various crushes the girls had on boys.
As instructed, I had crushes on all the boys that all the other girls had crushes on. I pinned pictures of Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Leonardo DiCaprio above my bed. In that same bed, a female friend and I invented a game called “nap time,” where we pretended to be asleep while we rolled around pressing our groins together. We pretended to be asleep because it wasn’t something we could possibly want when we were conscious. When we heard my Mom coming up the stairs, we would spring apart like a bomb had gone off.
When I hit puberty, I wondered why the thought of kissing boys (not to mention doing more) was mortifying. After a guy with spiky bleach-blond hair stuffed his tongue down my throat, I hid in my bedroom the entire next day, thinking I had the flu because I felt so sick. What I liked best was sleepovers with my female friends. We watched movies where the girl always got the guy, and sighed as we massage-trained and ate whole packages of Oreos. One night, we decided to play a game of strip poker—it was probably my idea. I had never wanted to win a game so badly. When most of us were down to our bras and underwear, everyone else agreed it was time to call it quits, but I wanted to keep playing. I still remember the uncomfortable, judgmental looks on their faces when they laughed and told me I was gross. At some point, my best friend Margo and I started taking showers together. We would wash each other’s hair and shave each other’s legs, but we never touched in a sexual way, and we wore bathing suits. Once, my mom busted in on us and took a picture. I remember the look on her face as she pulled open the shower curtain, braced for impact, like she thought she was going to see something shocking.
When my friends started getting boyfriends and I saw them less and less, I would sulk and go into private rages. Partly because I was jealous, and partly because I felt left behind, somehow knowing that I couldn’t have what they had. I was trying, but I didn’t understand why I couldn’t feel what I was supposed to. A boy started picking me up for school some mornings. On the days I knew he was coming, I would sit in front of my bowl of cheerios, watching the Os bloat in the milk, then dry-heave over the sink as his red Pontiac pulled into the driveway.
In high school English classes, we were assigned books like The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Catcher in the Rye. Much like what I read in elementary school, these books also centered male protagonists and their journeys toward understanding themselves. For many years I considered The Great Gatsby my favorite book, partly due to the intensely lyrical writing style, and partly because a book about a man obsessed with another man appealed to me in some way I couldn’t articulate. To a straight reader, Nick is simply interested in Gatsby because he represents the American Dream, but to a queer reader, Nick is interested in Gatsby for other, more private reasons. In The Sun Also Rises, our teacher didn’t tell us that a war injury rendered Jake impotent, and since the characters never speak about it directly, I assumed there were other reasons why he couldn’t consummate his relationship with Lady Brett. Jake’s body couldn’t allow him to be with Brett, much like my body couldn’t allow me to be with men.
I started to feel nauseous all the time. I convinced myself I had an ulcer, so my mom took me to the doctor and I swallowed a white chalky substance that made my insides glow. When they didn’t find anything, I went to counseling. My parents thought I was having a hard time because my dad had recently been diagnosed with Hepatitis C, and things at home were pretty rough. But I knew it was something else. I knew it was related to my fear of intimacy, but I couldn’t articulate any more than that. My counselor asked me a lot of questions about my mother. She never once asked me about being gay. It still didn’t occur to me, even in my diary, even in my most private, hidden thoughts, that I might be a lesbian.
I went to Emerson College in Boston, drawn to the idea of a city where I’d be surrounded by different kinds of people. The ratio of gay men to straight men at my college was about three to one, but the only lesbians I could identify had slicked-back ponytails and popped collars and walked around like there was an apple stuck between their legs. This isn’t to say there weren’t others, but I couldn’t see them—I had never been shown the full range of what queer women looked like, so I had to rely on the paltry stereotypes I had been offered.
Even with this high percentage of queer students, Emerson didn’t offer an LGBTQIA literature course at the time. I took American Lit, Brit Lit, Latino Lit, Native American Lit, and the Contemporary American Novel, and none of them included queer authors or characters—at least not outwardly. When we read Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, my teacher didn’t mention that Woolf was considered by many scholars to be queer, having a long-term relationship with a poet and writer named Vita Sackville-West. For my Contemporary American Novel class, I wrote an essay titled “Women As Shit in the Male-Dominated American Novel,” about how the women in all the novels we read were treated as completely worthless, a joke or worse. There was one scene in particular (from a novel I now can’t remember the name of) that tied the essay together, in which the main male character flushes a toilet on the second floor of his house and the plumbing explodes. His wife, who had been standing directly below the toilet on the first floor, bears the brunt of this explosion and is covered in feces. In the world of literature (and the world at large), if straight women were shit, then lesbians were something below shit, something not even worth mentioning, like a vague fart that dissipates into the air and no one notices it was ever there.
After I slept with a man for the first time, I puked until all that was left was foamy, neon-yellow bile. I wrote anguished entries in my diary questioning my intense fear of sex and relationships. I “fell” for completely unavailable guys and then cried about how they didn’t like me back. When they did like me back, I found some other reason to end it. I trapped myself in the perfect catch-22, ensuring my loneliness and sadness. I read books with titles like Kiss and Run: The Single, Picky, and Indecisive Girl’s Guide to Overcoming Fear of Commitment. I still had fiercely close relationships with my female friends, and I still felt inordinately betrayed when they found boyfriends. When I got so drunk that I didn’t know what I was doing, I would exchange prolonged pecks with my female friends, just lips pressed together with no tongue, but I remember feeling more in those pecks than I had ever felt from anything else.
It still didn’t occur to me that I might be a lesbian. I thought I was just really picky, or hadn’t met the right person yet, or was commitment-phobic, or had some kind of emotional problems, or just wasn’t a very sexual person, or was asexual, or had been molested when I was younger—all of these things occurred to me, but the simplest and most obvious option did not. Due to the dearth of queer representation, I didn’t know that a lesbian wasn’t only a woman with a slicked-back ponytail in cargo pants, and I knew I wasn’t attracted to that, so I assumed I wasn’t attracted to women.
After college, I moved to New York City. I started a job at an ad agency, where I met a woman named Ashley who had short brown hair, doe-like brown eyes, and a strong Roman nose—a trait I had always been attracted to. She wore a lot of designer sneakers and skinny jeans and striped t-shirts. She started flirting with me, which is another thing to note—a woman had never before in my life made a move on me. I was so consumed by my own closeted-ness that it never would have dawned on me that I could flirt with a woman. Someone else had to pull the metaphorical blindfold off for me to get there. I gchatted my friends from my receptionist computer, “A lesbian is flirting with me and I think I like it!”
Things moved very quickly and very seamlessly from there. The first time I called myself a lesbian out loud, my whole body vibrated with confirmation. The puking and the doubts and the fear stopped, and were replaced with comfort and happiness and pleasure. And then love. Ashley and I have been together for more than thirteen years now. She’s since told me that when we first met, her gaydar (which should be world-famous, it’s so spot-on) went off like an alarm.
But even when I was finally out of the closet and out of school and thus free to read books by whomever I wanted, I still didn’t read queer books. They weren’t the ones being presented to the culture at large, and it didn’t occur to me to seek them out on my own. So I read books by straight white men like Dave Eggers and Jonathan Lethem and Jonathan Franzen and Joshua Ferris and didn’t question if they were what I wanted to be reading. I can’t even remember what the first queer book I read was. It might have been We the Animals by Justin Torres, which was the first time I can recall a literary fiction book by a queer author making such a big splash that even straight people read it.
I was nervous to come out to my parents and my brother, but not afraid. I never questioned that they would accept me and keep loving me. I told them on Christmas Eve, about five minutes before my grandparents pulled into the driveway for blackberry pie and ice cream. Perfect movie snow was falling outside the windows. The look on all of their faces was like a google image result for “consternation,” but they were simply surprised, not upset or judgmental. I felt safe. My family was never a barrier to discovering my sexuality. Imagine how much harder it would be to realize you were queer and to come out if you knew that your parents would disapprove, or even worse, stop loving you.
I’ve shared all of this to show that someone who was so deeply, unquestioningly a lesbian still couldn’t figure it out. Men literally made me sick, and I didn’t think the problem could have been simply not desiring them. When society doesn’t allow you to see yourself, you stay hidden. Four of my closest friends, one from childhood, two from high school, and one from my early days in New York, are now queer. None of us were out until after college, and some for years after that. We all had different experiences coming to these realizations, but we agreed that the dominant heteronormative society suppressed our own recognition of our sexuality.
People think that if you’re “really” queer, you know from when you’re a young age. But this assumes that we live in a cultural vacuum where we’re not being bombarded by images of men and women kissing on TVs and movie screens, where the books we’re assigned in school are not 100% straight, where our parents and relatives don’t ask us, “Is there a boy you like?” or “Is there a girl you like?” instead of asking, “Is there someone you like,” where the successful people we see on the covers of magazines are equally queer and straight. It’s impossible to say what might have happened if I had grown up in a different world, but I think my chances of being happier sooner would have greatly increased in a world where queer people are visible, where our stories are just as valid.
To me, 2019 seemed to be the first year it was possible to read mainstream adult books that were by and about queer people: On Swift Horses by Shannon Pufahl, Delayed Rays of a Star by Amanda Lee Koe, Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, Red, White, & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston, A Year Without a Name by Cyrus Grace Dunham, Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, Naamah by Sarah Blake, Lot by Bryan Washington, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden, How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones, and I could go on. So this is how straight people must feel, I thought to myself reading book after book. You can choose from a large array and see parts of yourself reflected in each one. But this was my particular reading experience as a lesbian—even with LGB sexuality more represented, there were only a few adult books from major publishers that were by openly trans or nonbinary authors, and none I knew of by openly intersex or asexual authors.
2020 continued in the same fashion, with my book being one of many that LBG readers could choose from, but there was still an overall lack in trans, nonbinary, intersex, and ace representation. I can only hope that with each passing year, wider and wider swaths of the queer community will see themselves represented, so the need for task forces in all the small towns of America will become less and less necessary.