I remember reading Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man for the first of what became many times. It’s a devastating book, full of pain and isolation. It’s claustrophobically lonely. Finishing it for the first time induced a consuming, breathless melancholy that took days, if not weeks, to overcome.
It was, counter-intuitively, a joyous experience. For every gut-twisting page-turn, for every stab in the chest, there was the undeniable fact that I was reading a story about a happy, decades-long relationship between two men. I was carried along as Isherwood’s protagonist, George, recalled through his grief the pleasant mundanity of life as a couple, full of secret looks and breakfast routines.
That’s what seeing your experiences play out in culture can do for you. It can make you feel less alone. It can guide you through moments of joy and moments of anguish. The irresistible pull of forbidden attraction in Patricia Highsmith’s Carol is the perfect companion to the exhilarating first flushes of love. Rubyfruit Jungle will instil in you a staunch defiance in the face of those who dare to suggest that you exist as anything other than what you are. Kiss of the Spider Woman will reassure you that any gulf can be bridged, any isolation shattered by common humanity. Jeanette Winterson will remind you that after every nerve-wracking coming out, every painful rejection, comes freedom.
There are still plenty of stories left to tell, and plenty of people left unrepresented by our culture. Shortcomings in diversity continue to exist in every part of popular entertainment. But while the entire publishing industry will undoubtedly acknowledge that we have a way to go, there is plenty in literary history to be proud of. While homosexuality was still illegal in the UK, Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press was publishing Isherwood’s accounts of Berlin’s gay subculture, and Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness was proudly defended in court over its depiction of a female same-sex relationship. While we were still waiting for Queer as Folk and The L Word, gay people surreptitiously swapped yellowing pulp paperbacks, and publishers risked a backlash with the release of books like Maurice, Howl and The City and the Pillar.
Now that we have the freedom to share these stories with minimal fear of censorship, let’s celebrate the vast riches that LGBTQ literature has to offer. Let’s stuff our pockets with Mark Doty’s poetry, proudly devour James Baldwin on our journeys, and celebrate in the success of contemporary writers like Sarah Waters, Andrew McMillan and Ali Smith.
Let’s read the stories that we’ve fought so hard to tell.