#27 – Guest Posting: Stuff Gay Books Taught Me
And now a guest posting by Kalev, my Overseer of Deb0rking and Tsar of the Nerdery! Which is brilliantly written (as Kalev’s stuff always is), the likes of which have no been seen since the last guest posting I posted today. I figured it was time to give you some good writing, since you’ve been so kind as to follow the tripe of decreasing quality I’ve been feeding you all day.
Hello, and welcome to the guest blog post that I promised Beth I would get to her before today and then managed not to. Even now she’s probably wondering, “Where the heck is Kalev with his guest post?!”
So I wanted to take Beth’s Blogathon 2009 theme, Stuff Books Taught Me (or, as anyone who knows Beth would know she would put it, Stuff Books Learned Me), and put a bit of my own spin on it. So I figured I had two choices: I could go back to my roots in the misty past and do Stuff Comic Books Taught Me (which granted is an interesting twist because most people just do not take comic books very seriously and probably do not think of them as terribly educational) or I could go for the obvious and do Stuff Gay Books Taught Me. Because obviously, as anyone who knows me knows, everything about my life is about gay stuff. (Ok, that’s maybe a little more accurate than my sarcasm would indicate, but shut up, ok?)
Getting back to the point, and I do have one, my relationship to books and what one can learn from books is, I like to think, different from the average person. Not just because I had a 3-hour daily commute for the last four years of high school and did nothing but read (generally fantasy and sci-fi) but also because a key facet of my entire identity, the way I understand myself in the world… well, it found its genesis in a book. A fantasy book, to be more accurate. In fact, my entire coming out was presaged by one fateful moment back in Grade 10, when on page 70 of Mercedes Lackey’s book Magic’s Pawn, the reader finds out the main character, Vanyel, is gay.
The reader in this case was me. And my initial reaction was, “Oh that’s why I identify so strongly with Vanyel!”
And then the freak-out began. Well, ok, it wasn’t that big a freak-out. A big freak-out wouldn’t have let me sweep things under the rug. I just convinced myself that no, the only reason I identified with the main character was not why I identified with the main character. And I stayed very deep in the closet (the full denial mode place) for nearly 5 years after that. But I do give my 15-year-old self a lot of credit, because even though he was so frightened he denied the painfully obvious truth for nearly half a decade more, he did finish reading that book. And that series. And further books by the same author, who always wrote sympathetic gay characters. In fact, thinking about it, it is stunning to consider just how many lives one person can change (and, more than likely, save) through the power of writing. The power of books.
So everything about me coming out and me being gay (which if you know me, is–still to this day–quite a lot), all of that is bound up in books and reading. Books and reading are integral to how I define myself, even though to be honest, I don’t do that much reading anymore. But there is no denying the power of books to radically transform lives. In my case, books literally taught me how to be. Because having butterflies in your stomach over your classmates at the all-boys private school is a far, far cry from being gay. One is not born a gay. Being gay requires learning to be gay, and learning to be gay requires instruction. (And no, I don’t mean that kind of instruction, dirty-minded people… honestly, that doesn’t require much in the way of how-to steps.) But getting from the obvious question, “Why the fuck am I like this?” to the less-obvious one, which is, “Why the fuck do people give a shit that I’m like this?” requires, if you ask me–and since this is my guest post, I’m going to assume you do–well, it requires context. And books are great for context. The best, really. Maybe oral storytelling comes close, in a slightly different way, but books, having things codified, solidified, structured and laid out for people to delve into–books are king.
And gay people? They love to write. And when they write, they really write what they know. I mean, slightly fictionalized autobiography is a staple genre of gay literature. As are coming out stories. So for a boy who did nothing much more than read, coming out went pretty well. All I needed was to do was find the sometimes tricky to find gay books and away I went.
This is all kinda pre-Internet. I mean, it would have been totally pre-Internet if I hadn’t been studying Computer Science at UBC at the time, because this was 1994, which is about 2 years prior to when the web first exploded into the public consciousness and the public sphere. In fact, I’m probably one of the very last people to come out pre-World Wide Web. And I think that’s important to note. Because as much as I think the Internet is awesome for queer youth trying to figure out who they are, I think the fact it detracts from an already-endangered pastime, the reading of books, is pretty detrimental. Because if you’re a young queer person and all you do is talk to other queer youth and the occasional queer adult (who for some reason hasn’t been labelled a dangerous predator *rolls eyes*), you do not get anything remotely approaching the whole story. You lose so much context, and so much history. You end up with a really shoddy foundation. And we all know what happens to people who don’t learn from history, right? Or is that something you can only learn in a book? But yes, 1930s Berlin always springs to mind these days.
But yeah, in addition to a fantasy novel making me gay, I learned everything I needed to know about how to be gay from books. What it meant. What the implications were. How it might impact how I interacted with my family, my friends, my workplace, my country.
And what stunned me, even then, which was 15 years ago, is how incredibly CLUELESS my contemporary newly-out brethren were. Like by 2 years into the whole “being gay” thing, I knew more than some people who had been out two, three, four times as long. And not because I’m particularly bright–these are, in general, all university-educated people I’m talking about–but because I read. Because I bothered. Because I made an effort to learn whence I came, in the cultural sense. Because, in essence, of books. Because so many of the queer people who came before me made an effort to record their experiences for posterity. And it is heart-wrenchingly good they did, because many of my favourite authors from the 1990s–which was a definite high point in gay literary history–many of them are no longer with us. And their stories, I think, are the ones I carry closest to my heart. Their stories, really all gay stories–they are what connects me to people. They are my history and they give me my sense of belonging.
Stories, which more often than not end up in books than in any other form of media, stories are incredibly important to queer people, I think. We still grow up thinking we’re all alone, we still grow up without any obvious queer role models and elders, we grow up raised by people who still far too often have no clue what we’re going through, even if–gods willing–they are less likely to outright reject us these days. So to me, books are even more important to us than to the general population. Books contain stories, and stories connect us in a way we often thought was beyond our reach.
So what stuff have books taught me? Only how to come out. Only how to find my voice. Only how to be steadfast, how to be brave, how to live life fully. How to live honorably. How it was okay to be outrageous, okay to be out, okay to stand up, okay to fight back. How it was okay to cry. How it was okay to be different, and to walk my own path. Books, more than anything else in my life, taught me I belonged, and in so doing, they showed me how to be Kalev.
Read about the charity that I’m supporting, Options for Sexual Health!