When I first started thinking about what to write for National Coming Out Day, I struggled for quite a while. I am a straight, white, female. My pronouns are she/her/hers and it is not really my place to create a recommended book list to the LGBTQIA+ community for a good read about coming out. I could put together a list of famous LGBTQIA+ writers, but National Coming Out Day should have something special, something meaningful, written for it. Then, it was recommended to me that I collect a few stories from other people instead. I reached out to some people very close to my heart and Bookstr reached out to our readers to see who in our community of book-lovers had a story they would like to share.
Listed below are four stories, from four different people. They offer a beautiful variation of perspectives, but share one thing: the power of their literary experiences was so influential and inspiring that it allowed each reader to feel a little bit more comfortable in their own skin. Words cannot describe how important it is to feel comfortable with who you are and to have the ability to pursue whatever kind of love you look for in your life. I am a straight, white, female. I never had to worry about my family, my friends, or society accepting the love which I quietly look for with each passing day. It is a privilege which I was born with, but it is a right that everybody should share. With that being said, I want to take this opportunity to thank the four wonderful people who shared their stories with us. It has been an honor to read your stories, to put them together in this single piece, and I have no doubt of the effect it will have on those who read them as well.
Whether you are a member of the LGBTQIA+ community or an ally, please enjoy these four stories:
1. Andrew Rimby, PhD Candidate and Instructor at Stony Brook University reflects back on his queer reading experience
Seeing my Gay Identity in Literature:
On this National Coming Out Day, in 2020 during a pandemic, I have been thinking a lot about the first LGBTQ* novel that I read and which provided me comfort as I was struggling on whether to come out or not to my family. The year was 2007, and I had just arrived at my town’s high school as a freshman. I knew that I was attracted to men, but I hadn’t yet met any high schoolers who identified on the LGBTQ* spectrum. While browsing the new adult fiction in my Philly suburban library, I came across Call Me by Your Name which had just been released a few months before I came across it. I looked at the plot synopsis and quickly made my way to the library checkout while surreptitiously looking around to see if anyone I knew would observe me checking out a gay novel. I went home and started to work my way through the novel which felt reminiscent to Dorothy arriving in the Emerald City and being taken aback by the shimmer of the emerald buildings. I finally felt that my authentic self was being mirrored back at me. I decided after reading the novel that I would come out to my parents before the year ended.
Reflecting on how a gay novel led me to feel comfortable to come out always reminds me of the power that literature holds on a reader. What if my town library didn’t request Andre Aciman’s novel or have access to several other LGBTQ* novels that I turned too after reading Call Me By Your Name? I think of this question a lot since it speaks to the access an LGBTQ*person has to art that reflects their own identity. Currently, I’m teaching a Whitman focused English major course which has me rereading poetry that opened my eyes up to a queer desire that Whitman has his speaker express to the reader. When I’m asked what coming out meant to me, those 13 years ago, I will always answer: It made me feel seen.
2. Anonymous College Student discusses their journey of discovering their gender
Having come to terms with the fact that I was gay, I questioned whether I should also be honest about my feelings towards gender. I didn’t want people to think that I was just following trends or trying to be special. I decided to ignore my internal questions about my gender and try to live a life as a cis lesbian. For years, I ignored the discomfort that being perceived as a woman brought me. At the time, I knew of no books, shows, or other forms of media that included nonbinary people. I figured it was best to hide that part of me.
Then came, I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver.
This book brought me out of the loneliness I felt when trying to understand and explain my gender. In the first few pages, we learn that the main character is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns. This was the first time I saw someone using those pronouns in a book and the feeling I had when seeing those pronouns in conversation was indescribable. The character’s description of their gender and their fears of not being accepted was so validating. Although the book begins in a difficult place, overall, it is a book of hope and shows that you can find people who will love and support you for exactly who you are. It gave me the strength to be honest to my friends that I am nonbinary. Although I still have further to go on my journey, this book was crucial in me beginning to live my most authentic life. I have noticed that there are more nonbinary authors and characters in books lately, and I hope that doesn’t stop. Accurate representation is so uplifting and helpful to people who may otherwise feel completely alone. Books have the power to change lives.
3. Susie Poore, one of our own at Bookstr and Graduate Student at NYU shares her experience in a previous article with Bookstr
I didn’t know that gay books existed until I was eighteen years old. I’d also barely said the word “gay” out loud until then either. It was the summer before my freshman year of college, and I was tired. The entirety of my senior year had been an ongoing battle with figuring out my sexuality. Actually, I should say that that was when the battle turned into a war because I’d been fighting ever since I was twelve years old. That was when I’d realized that I might’ve liked girls in the same way I was told to like boys. Because I was in sixth grade at the time and utterly terrified, that thought was quickly locked up and shoved into the back of my mind. I didn’t plan on opening that box ever again.
All of that changed when I found Kelly Quindlen’s Her Name in the Sky.
I’d taken a whim on a Tumblr search for queer books because despite being an active reader, I’d yet to come across a love or coming-of-age story with anything but straight characters. Sure, I could relate to a degree, but there was always a fundamental disconnect. Being gay didn’t define me, but it had shaped a lot of my lived experience in ways that only another queer person could understand. Her Name in the Sky was the first time I felt like I’d finally been met with that understanding. It was an actual relief—no terror—to read a story that made me feel like I was important. It proved I did exist, and it showed me I wasn’t alone.
The book gave name to everything I’d been struggling with. Questions of self-acceptance and internalized homophobia. Worries about others’ perceptions and reactions. The search for a welcoming community (and lack thereof). In every page, I was validated. And, reading Hannah and Baker’s story gave me something I’d yet to find since I’d come out to myself: hope. Despite every hardship they face on their journey, they still get their happy ending. They still fall in love, beautifully so. That was all the reassurance I needed to know it’d be possible for me one day.
Her Name in the Sky genuinely changed my life, as has every other queer book that I’ve read since. From Audre Lorde to Gabby Rivera to Rita Mae Brown, reading books by queer women and for queer woman has brought me to the best community I ever could’ve asked for. I’ve laughed at descriptions of soft lesbians turning into walking disasters around pretty women. I’ve applauded criticisms of lesbian stereotypes and gender roles in queer relationships. I’ve appreciated the intersectional focus of memoirs and fiction alike. Most of all, I’ve been proud to learn my history and the history of my community. These books led me to everything I know about the beginnings of queer activism, the gay rights movement, and the challenges LGBTQIA+ folks face today. Putting a book in someone’s hands that speaks to their story…it makes all the difference.
To read more of Sophie’s story, please click here to read her full article.
4. A full look on how two books representing asexuality made an anonymous college STUDENT cry
I have cried over hundreds of books, over so many characters that I couldn’t begin to keep track of their journeys. I have cried over the deaths of characters, resulting in waking my family up at midnight, and I’ve cried over exasperation over the difficult choices of others. Even through all those stories, I’ve never cried over the feeling of connecting with a character before.
I first learned of the term asexuality as many people would example, college. Where it was thrown at me, not aggressively, that ‘hey, I think you are ace.’ Of course, coming from a strictly religious family, I had no idea what that meant. Let alone what being gay, lesbian or any of those other terms within the community meant. Years later, I found out one of my my best friends was transitioning, so, I did what any questioning, partly sane, person does; go on Tumblr. But that is another point entirely.
I’m always looking for a good book, but I’ve never actively searched for a book as hard as I did for my ace and his trans. We both search up and down every site and store we can. When I came across these two books, I was beyond excited to read about someone who fixed the peg I was trying to determine I fit in. Yet, I was frightened as well. How would they be portrayed?
Let’s Talk About Love, by Claire Kann, was the first asexual book I read and was a great introduction to the term. Where Alice is trying to determine where her relationships go when her partner doesn’t understand why she doesn’t want to get it going in the bed. It wasn’t till Ashe went to a therapist on campus that the term asexual was brought up to her. In this day and age, it’s nice to see a positive relationship between patient and therapist. No matter how Alice explains how tough it is to find a group with other bisexual people, let alone ace, her talks with her therapist are constant through the book. This made me feel like he was guiding me as well, encouraging us to find a group of people to talk to, to continue sorting. Just keep working through it. It was amazing to read through Alice’s story, even if she found someone, as she eventually found herself kinda attracted to because he was nothing but nice to her.
When she finally came out to him, my heart dropped. I was preparing myself for a hard decline, a drop of humiliation or disgust. Because that is all books show these days, albeit not directly, that it is normal to want to go under the sheets with someone. To want to be with someone that intimately. To want to settle down and have children. I have never had those thoughts; even growing up I never thought about having a family or having my own children. I just want to live free and have fun, and that never happened in those stories. Unless you had a husband/wife of the opposite gender. So, when Alice explains that her “sexuality is nope”, I waited with bated breath, and it turned out to not be a big deal. He barely reacted, and I was astonished. His biggest reaction was finding out he was only the fourth person to know, that this was a big secret Alice had kept hidden from everyone. Even as she went through her awakening, the story still ends with their discussions of being in that type of relationship. I was still confused reading about how a page ago, Alice said she wasn’t into it, where he says she would make him happy, even as they stationed that they had time to figure it out. This helped me get a sense that, maybe I had time to figure it all out.
Maybe, I just have to find that rare person I’m attracted to before determining where the relationship would go. This connected with me where, I recalled, I had broken up with my last boyfriend of 7 months. I still remember when I told him that I identify as ace, effectively shutting him down. At first, I thought he was simply confused, that he too had never heard the term before. That didn’t end up being the case, as he continuously asked me for sex. Straight out. Eventually I got sick and tired of his asking and making me anxious whenever we were together. He wasn’t even accepting an excuse of waiting util marriage. We broke it off mutually, when we both said we weren’t changing our opinions. Sometimes, I still go back to the end of Let’s Talk About Love just for Alice’s “Cutie Code”, where she determines her color code of attractiveness against her friend’s thoughts. Where, for her friend’s code of wanting to kiss someone, Alice just wants to dance with them. Whenever I get that slight fuzzy feeling, as rare as it is with my busy schedule, I look back at the color code.
While the first was an amazing story, a great introduction, it was Tash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormshee that made me feel things I’ve never felt before. Tash does, again, research on Tumblr when she finds the term “asexual.” Seriously, where else do you go for this sort of stuff? I’d really like to know sometime, especially when everything out there tells you the same thing. While I don’t connect with Tash right away, what with her vlogging and best friends from infancy, it’s when she goes viral that it begins. Tash gets to connect and chat with another famous vlogger for a while as she continues her own vlog work as a stage director of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina book adaptation.
However, it is when she gets nominated for a vlog award out of state that the story really comes to life for me. Tash gets to meet, in person, her vlogger crush. This is where I begin to cry. He doesn’t get it, he tells her “you can’t like guys and say you’re asexual. […] It’s one or the other, you can’t have both.” My heart was breaking reading this, one of my greatest fears. That I’d never find someone worth the time to consider being with. That nobody out there would understand me. That they would focus on what I do not want instead of what I do want. This was the first time I have ever cried over feeling like I was the character. That it was me, in the room, being told I didn’t know what I wanted. That I would grow out of it, this simple fear of sex, and move on.
I thought that would be it. That was the chapter I thought it had peaked. I was through the pain with Tash. We’d been rejected by the guy we were crushing on and had both regretted the moment we had told him. He just couldn’t understand how you could say that you liked someone, but not want to be with them. That it didn’t exist in his perception of the world. Then the final section of the book came and I realized I shared more with Tash then I had thought. I too, was sabotaging any happiness with someone. I, too, believed that it would be difficult to be with most guys because of what makes them Most Happy. I grew up with that from my dad; be careful with guys, they only want one thing. Seeing Tash end her story with someone who says they don’t mind; they’d rather HUG her than be with anyone else? Cue waterworks again.
There could be people out there for me. There could be people who understand. There could be people who want to be with me, me personality. Someone who just wants to be mine and spend our life together. I may not be a classic romantic, but I do want someone. I do enjoy reading books with relationships in them, but they never felt attainable to me. As I’ve grown into a young woman in my mind twenties, I’ve seen everyone around me go through relationship ups and downs. My best friend is a transgender gay guy (I love him with everything in my body) and has been nothing but supportive as I work towards, still, trying to understand where I stand on the spectrum. There is so much to understand out there, without many representing books to use as guidance.
This year, I plan on getting past my fear of coming out to my family and friends.
featured image via tripride