The Guardian has a feature this weekend: ‘At last I felt I fitted in’: writers on the books that helped them come out. I think it’d be easier for me to compile a list of books that almost-but-not-quite made me come out. I started writing this as a Twitter thread, but it started feeling too self-reflexive for that (it’s more of a political/polemical medium, isn’t it, the Twitter thread?) so I’m writing it here.
My teenage years were full of queer books. Even when I was over a decade away from figuring myself out, I sought them out like your “regular” queer teenager: furtively borrowing them from libraries, devouring them in my room, throwing them across the room sometimes when I couldn’t deal with the emotion any more…and then when I’d finished them I’d always run. Not moderately “going for a run”, you understand: full-on sprinting down Kirkby Road as if something was after me. In a turn of events so clichéd I would cringe SO hard if I read it in an article, I don’t feel any kind of impetus to do that any more: it’s as if I’m no longer running from anything. I’m so sorry; cringe if you want. It’s true, though.
Brokeback Mountain, Regeneration, The History Boys, Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’, Maurice, A.E. Housman’s poetry and Tom Stoppard’s play about him, bits of Cloud Atlas, The Song of Achilles, The Stranger’s Child… All of them provoked such violent identification, such an overwhelmingly intense emotional pull, that if only a stranger had turned to me on the street and whispered, “Do you think you might actually be a gay man?”, it all would have made sense. There were TV shows, too: Doctor Who and Torchwood, of course, and does anyone remember the BBC drama Einstein and Eddington as viscerally as I do? But overwhelmingly, it was the books – and yet none of them were ‘the books that made me come out’, because I didn’t know that the thing I needed to come out as existed. Sure, I knew for certain that life would have been easier, made much more sense, if I’d been born a gay man – and not just because every guy I ever had a crush on turned out to be gay; I had a devastatingly accurate gaydar in those days, in that if I fancied anyone that was a pretty good guarantee he didn’t like girls – but that didn’t mean I knew I could do anything about it. I told my mum I thought I’d been a gay man in a past life. It felt like she’d forgotten ten minutes later, because she didn’t treat me any differently; I hadn’t realised I was trying to tell her, and myself, about my life now.
Actually it was a film that made me come out in the end: Pride, in summer 2014. That kind of bothers me. I think that’s why I’ve written all this: because I’m a book person. Books are my life, in several very literal senses; my husband and I have a running joke that if you try to talk to me about a film, I’ll usually reply, “Oh, is there a film? I’ve read the book!” When I tell people I came out because of a film it feels like a misrepresentation of me and my past: a denial of the significance of all those books, and an erasure of the fictional men I still can’t help but talk to in my head. It’s a huge injustice that most of the trans people growing up alongside the gay writers featured in the Guardian article didn’t have access to the same kind of validation and recognition within books that their gay peers did – but here I want to say that I did have the books. I did have that experience Hector talks about in The History Boys:
The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.
They just didn’t quite make me come out.