I’m Finally Reading the LGBTQ+ Books I Denied Myself as a Teen
Never look too long at lingerie ads. Keep your cool when another girl lightly brushes your arm. Speak about romance in vague terms like whomever I love and my future spouse. Ignore flyers urging you to join the high school GSA. And, above all, avoid lingering in the LGBTQ+ section of the library.
These are a few of the rules I gave myself at age ten, when I first saw Megan Fox lean over that car in Transformers (2007) and realized I was bisexual. Director Michael Bay probably had young boys who like cars in mind when he filmed that scene, but he cast a big net and I was caught in it like a helpless, sapphic dolphin.
Unfortunately, I grew up in suburban southeast Texas and thus quickly decided coming out was a problem for an older version of me. My self-imposed straight-passing guidelines were a defense mechanism. It would be 12 years before I “officially” came out, and in the interim, I dreaded the thought of some nosy librarian or family member catching on based on the books I checked out and buried my nose in. So I missed years worth of earnest coming-of-age stories, haunting queer memoirs, lesbian pulp novels, gender-defying sci-fi sagas, and so much more.
I hesitate to search for silver linings in a pandemic that has taken so much from us (with the help of cruel and incompetent governments). But this year of isolation has given me time to read for fun again. Twice a month, I get to request books online from my local library and make the 20-minute drive to pick them up, my only regular excursion beyond the grocery store and the park.
Now that I’m out, it has been a delight to dive into what feels like a surprisingly welcoming era of LGBTQ+ fiction and memoir. I used to comfort myself while reading Twilight, The Fault in Our Stars, or Delirium by concluding that, even if I did look, there were likely not any better gay books to devour instead. How wrong I was! I left the desert of self-denial only to realize it was an island surrounded by thirst-quenching water.
And what sparkling, choppy, exciting water it is! I found myself reflected in bisexual fiction like The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid and bisexual nonfiction such as Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir about same-sex intimate partner violence, In the Dream House. My longing for a gayer version of Practical Magic (1998) was met in Katrina Leno’s Summer of Salt and my curiosity about navigating attraction to more than one gender sated by Susan Choi’s My Education and Malinda Lo’s Adaptation.
Becky Albertalli, the author of Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, came out as bisexual last August, after enduring intense and unfair scrutiny of her identity and her “right” to write novels about gay teens. I had avoided her book like all the others, but watched Love, Simon (2018) in theaters by myself one evening. I wept as Simon’s mother, played graciously by Jennifer Garner in a cable knit sweater, told him, “I knew you had a secret. When you were little, you were so carefree. But these last few years, more and more, it’s almost like I can feel you holding your breath.”
Some people, myself included, subscribe to the superstition that you must hold your breath while passing a cemetery, lest you inhale some sorrowful spirit. For more than a decade, I held my breath when I passed tables of discounted queer fiction in Barnes & Noble. I held my breath when my family teased me (good-naturedly) for bringing home a friend who happened to be a boy, despite the temptation to ask why they never teased me when I brought home a friend who happened to be a girl. I held my breath and followed my nonsensical rules in a poor attempt to keep out the pain I had seen other LGBTQ+ people endure. In hindsight, I was holding that pain in.
I recently finished All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens throughout the Ages, an anthology from 17 authors that includes characters who are asexual, transgender, bisexual, and more whose stories revolve around issues other than their identity. It came out in 2018, but I still mourn for my ten-year-old self, imagining how her life could have differed if she had felt safe enough to reach out for stories like these back then. To make it up to her, I think I’ll exclusively read stories that center LGBTQ+ characters for another decade or two. It’s an immense pleasure to catch up on such a long reading list.
After Simon comes out, his mother says, “You get to exhale now, Simon.”