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.
Six years later, it became abundantly clear that that wouldn’t be feasible. I was unhappy, and I felt like I was putting on a show every day. Going to school was a performance. For six hours a day, five days a week, my mind would whir with the fear. I analyzed everything I said, did, and wore to ensure nothing gave off the impression that I wasn’t straight.
That was about as far as I had gotten: that I wasn’t straight. I didn’t know how to identify myself or what my letter was in LGBTQIA+ because I’d never had the resources to learn more about the community or the people within it. Growing up in a small, conservative town in the Northeast, being gay didn’t seem like option. No one at school talked about it. When they did, it was rare for them to be met with kindness. Or acceptance.
Unsurprisingly, we also never read or learned about the queer community. English class meant Lord of the Flies and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Scarlet Letter. When we analyzed a text, we weren’t looking for queer undertones or desire. We were looking for symbolism or alliteration or imagery. Sometimes gender would come into the discussion (if we were lucky), but it never lasted long before the conversation turned back to the author’s tone. Looking back now, I can’t help but be awestruck by the fact that we spent weeks on Walt Whitman’s writing and still wouldn’t touch sexuality with a rainbow ten-foot pole. I didn’t even know Whitman was queer until about a year into college.
History class meant the American Revolution, Civil War, and World War I. We learned about the industrial giants responsible for the railroad and the journalists who exposed the horrors of mass food production. We learned about the injustice of internment camps and imperialism. The curriculum by no means shielded us from the realities of American history, but it didn’t include all of it. We didn’t learn about the criminalization of queer people or the endless police raids on LGBTQIA+ safe spaces. We didn’t learn about the courage of Harvey Milk or the transgender women who were warriors at Stonewall. And, we especially didn’t learn about the disproportionate suffering of queer people of color.
“Everyone” T-Shirt via the Human Rights Campaign. You can buy here.
I recognize that much of this likely has to do with the fact that I was at a public school in a conservative town; my teachers probably would’ve been fired if they’d tried. However, that does nothing to rectify what twelve years of education without even a mention of the queer community had taught me.
I wasn’t important. I didn’t exist. I was alone.
By the end of my senior year, I’d come out to myself, my parents, and a few close friends as gay. It was a wonderfully terrifying relief to finally get to be myself in some capacities, but I still struggled. Meeting someone new brought the possibility of having to come out again. And again. And again. I’d hoped it’d get easier each time. That hadn’t been the case. No matter who I was talking to, my heart always pounded, heat flooded into my cheeks, and my stomach twisted into knots. I was happy to be closer to living as myself; I just hadn’t expected it to still be so exhausting. It also didn’t help that I couldn’t see representations of myself anywhere. I wondered if what I was experiencing was a universal struggle or when it got better—if it ever got better. I also wasn’t sure what it meant to be part of the LGBTQ+ community, and I didn’t have even the slightest idea of what it was like to actually fall in love.
All of that changed when I found Kelly Quindlen’s Her Name in the Sky.
I took 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. Reading 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.
Image via Google Sites
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 felt validated. And, reading Hannah and Baker’s story gave me something I’d yet to find since I came 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.
I’ll never stop educating myself because there’ll always be much more to learn. But, if there’s a standout lesson I’ve gleaned from all of this, it’s this: queer representation matters. It matters in books. It matters in history. It matters in our every day lives. It matters that it’s accessible for struggling queer kids like me who needed to know that there was hope. Putting a book in someone’s hands that speaks to their story…it makes all the difference. LGBTQ+ History Month doesn’t have to stop with October. Celebrating the remarkable fortitude of this community should and deserves to be year-round.