‘Solace, joy and a lifeline’: Why queer literature is vital for people growing up LGBTQ+

To mark LGBT History Month, Amelia Abraham speaks with three people from very different generations and backgrounds about the role reading played in finding their identity.  

Amelia Abraham
Mohsin Zaidi. Photo: Stuart Simpson for Penguin 2020
Mohsin Zaidi. Photo: Stuart Simpson for Penguin 2020

Mohsin Zaidi grew up in the suburbs of East London in a house where no one read books. At the time, the only gay men he knew of – Freddy Mercury and George Michael – looked nothing like him. A Pakistani man now in his 30s, he remembers the feelings of isolation and pain that came with keeping his sexuality a secret until he got to university, where he felt able to come out as gay to himself, then others. 

'I started seeing a psychotherapist because I was struggling to come to terms with my sexuality,' he says. 'She knew how isolated I felt and wanted to show me a world of queerness that I couldn't yet see. She did this through giving me piles of books.'

For Mohsin, discovering LGBTQ+ literature was the revelation he had been waiting for. The book he recalls most clearly is Covering by Kenji Yoshino. 'It discusses the ways in which minorities try to hide or “cover” their differences in order to conform to the norm,' he says. 'It suddenly made me think about how much I had conditioned myself to fit in.'

Now, Mohsin has written his own book. A Dutiful Boy is a beautiful memoir about his upbringing and the seeming incompatibility of those two facets of his identity: being Pakistani and gay. Its dedication read: “To every young person struggling with their identity. You are not alone.”

For many of us who are LGBTQ+, queer literature can provide solace, joy, a lifeline. Reading Mohsin’s book, despite the fact that we are from very different cultures, I could identify with his story. I grew up outside of London, in a town without so much as a gay bar, and where I didn’t know any other LGBTQ+ people my age. Being bisexual (I now identify as gay) could at times feel scary. For this reason, I didn’t tell anyone until I was eighteen, when I met my first girlfriend. Around this time, it was the LGBTQ+ books I was encountering at university that helped me feel less shameful about my queerness; Susan Sontag’s diaries, Cookie Mueller’s hilarious short story collection Walking Through Clear Water In A Pool Painted Black, Eileen Myles’ Chelsea Girls, James’s Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and Patricia Highsmith’s Price of Salt. Reading them, I encountered models for what my life could look like; I entered a world of possibility. 

You have to see it, to be it

Mohsin points out that, when you are from an immigrant or minority ethnic family, it’s most likely that you’re going to be of the same ethnicity as your parents. 'My values are shaped by my Pakistani heritage, the same way my taste buds have been shaped by the spicy food my mum cooked when we were kids,' he explains, 'I was raised hearing stories about Pakistan and about my grand-parents' experiences of coming to England in the 60s. I understood growing up what it meant to be different, because everyone I was related to had experienced the exact same thing. But with sexuality, this isn't the case.'

For that reason, many of us grow up with no examples of what it’s like to be LGBTQ+ within the home. Although my parents were more accepting of my sexuality than Mohsin’s initially were, they were not interested in queer history, and I grew up with no queer female role models in my life, bar for a few older lesbians I saw on TV. This is, according to Mohsin, why we need queer literature: 'Stories help shape cultures and if you hear no stories about something that is a part of you then, to my mind, that part of you can't possibly develop and mature at the same pace as the rest,' he says. 'That's the importance of queer reading; it nurtures you, and helps every part of you grow.'

Paul Flynn. Photo: Stuart Simpson for Penguin 2020
Paul Flynn. Photo: Stuart Simpson for Penguin 2020

This was also the experience of Paul Flynn, author of Good As You: From Prejudice to Pride – 30 Years of Gay Britain, which is exactly what it sounds like: an excellent nonfiction book charting gay history between 1984 and 2014, when same-sex marriage was legalised, and mapping it against Paul’s own personal history (and fanatic knowledge of pop culture). 

Paul grew up in Manchester, where his first year of sixth form college coincided with the introduction of Section 28, a law introduced in 1988 by Margaret Thatcher’s government to ban education around homosexuality, particularly in schools. It meant that Paul was a teenager in a climate whereby homosexuality was rarely talked about. But luckily, by that point, he had already found queer literature – in the plays of gay writer Joe Orton.

'The first proper queer writer I was aware of was Orton because Adam Ant was in a production of Entertaining Mr Sloane at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester when I was fourteen,' Paul remembers. 'I didn’t get to see the play, but I found a copy of it in Wythenshawe library, read it one afternoon sitting in thrilled, agitated silence and it absolutely blew my mind. A year later, The Orton Diaries were published, which I bought from the Cornerhouse bookshop, an outlet of Manchester’s one arthouse cinema. 

'I recognised the two gay men who ran the shop because they also worked in The Hacienda canteen. They had me totally sussed, so we had one of those conversations you do as a tentative teenager where you sort of admit to being gay without quite spelling it out.'

‘There is something folkloric about gay literature’

Digging into the life of Orton, who was later infamously murdered by his boyfriend Kenneth Halliwell, taught Paul what not to look for in a partner, he darkly jokes, but it also exposed him to a new way of educating himself about his own sexuality. 'For me, literature is better than therapy. It’s less prescriptive, more engaging and you feel heard without being medicalised. I got the same sense of personal revelation over the last few years from reading Phillipe Besson’s Lie With Me, Didier Ebiron’s Returning To Rheims, Hilton Als’ White Girls, Joseph Cassara’s The House of Astonishing Beauties, Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes The Form of A Mortal Girl, Tim Murphy’s The Christadora, Edouard Louis’ Who Killed My Father?, Tom Eubanks’ Ghosts of St Vincents, Andrew McMillan’s poetry and the screenplay for Can You Ever Forgive Her?” 

Although we are no longer living in a time like the 1980s, says Paul, he still finds that he 'prefers books written by or featuring central LGBTQ+ characters to those that aren’t, because there’s an authenticity you can taste.' In his mind, 'there is something folkloric about gay literature, about the thrilling exchange of our stories.' 

Paul Flynn. Photo: Stuart Simpson for Penguin 2020
Paul Flynn. Photo: Stuart Simpson for Penguin 2020

And we have to tell our own stories, because many of them were either never recorded or lost. As the American writer Hugh Ryan documents in his book When Brooklyn Was Queer, in the past, when homosexuality was criminalised in the West, writing about it was considered incriminating, so a lot of people didn’t. And if they did, often those records were lost, with LGBTQ+ people or their family members destroying their own diaries for reasons to do with shame and repression. 

For these reasons, our history is patchy at best. But the good news is that, whether written by straight or gay authors, in recent decades the diversity and complexity of queer books has expanded massively. 

For us, but also for everyone

Artie.  Photo: Stuart Simpson for Penguin 2020
Artie. Photo: Stuart Simpson for Penguin 2020

Artie, who is 25, a queer book blogger and lives in Sussex, not far from Brighton, identifies as bisexual and nonbinary and uses “they/them” pronouns. They went out looking for queer literature as a teenager in the 2010s – a very different landscape to the ones Mohsin and Paul grew up in – and found that there was a wealth of LGBTQ+ literature that met their needs and desires. 

The young adult sector, by this point, boasted nuanced books about gender nonconformity and complicated same-sex relationships. One book that Artie discovered, still a favourite, is called Not Otherwise Specified, and is about a teenage girl called Etta going through eating disorder recovery and struggling with her life passion. 'She was a black ballerina who found a love for musical theatre and she is bisexual, experiencing prejudice both from straight people and her group of friends who were all lesbians. I felt like that was something that wasn't and still isn't talked about enough, the pressure to be straight enough or gay enough,' Artie says. 

Similarly, another LGBTQ+ YA book they love is Heartstopper by Alice Oseman, a queer graphic novel about Charlie, who is gay, and Nick who finds he is bisexual, 'because representation for bisexual boys and men is still lacking,' says Artie, and because it works to break the stigma that 'being bi is just a stepping stone to coming out as gay.'

The power of queer YA is that it helps to normalise LGBTQ+ identity and relationships, and Artie believes that more kids – whether they are straight, queer or questioning – should be able to read LGBTQ+ characters as they would any other YA. 'I think it would help build understanding from a younger age and help minimise bullying,' Artie explains. 'I heard a lot of disgusting things growing up as an openly bisexual/pansexual person from both gay and straight people, and LGBTQ+ fiction becoming more mainstream would help to prevent this from happening.'

For Artie personally, queer literature gave them a language for their own identity that they didn’t previously have; 'I didn't understand how I felt about my gender until I came across different nonbinary genders and what they generally mean. I figured that out when I was 20 but lots of kids now are figuring it out or experimenting at much younger ages because they have seen other people do it. I was never happy as a “woman” but didn't feel like a “man”, I had no way of explaining it until I saw others talk about it first, and that partly happened in books.'

Hence why they started blogging: to help spread the word about great LGBTQ+ books, but also to call out books that weren’t getting it right. 'I felt the need to give people the truth about the representation in the books and media everyone called 'LGBTQ+' or 'gay representation'. Most of the time it's a side character, or a one-dimensional representation. I wanted to warn people but also give suggestions for what they could read.'

What we can do better

LGBTQ+ literature has improved vastly in recent years in all the ways that Artie has outlined, something that has happened alongside greater inclusivity in publishing generally, from the emergence of more diversity grants and initiatives to new imprints that champion minorities

However, according to Paul, 'British LGBTQ+ publishing feels a touch cautious at the moment.' He points to France as an example of a country having 'a fabulously radical run in queer publishing on the back of Edouard Louis becoming a proper working class, rock star writer.' The US is still market leader, he says – pointing to some of the books mentioned above as both sexy and ground-breaking. 'With some adroit forward thinking from publishers, British queer writing could get its fingernails grubbier. We’re missing a touch of grit at the moment, something which could immediately be reversed by giving better advances to LGBTQ+ authors and changing the stifling way they’re paid out, largely after the work is done.'

Artie.  Photo: Stuart Simpson for Penguin 2020
Artie. Photo: Stuart Simpson for Penguin 2020

In Artie’s mind, while queer literature should be read by everyone, and it is good that straight writers show an interest in telling queer stories, the biggest thing we need is more queer writers doing the writing. 'This is mainly down to the publishers choosing to publish queer stories written by straight people. Some of them do a good job, but a lot of them are coming out with problematic work that would only do harm. LGBTQ+ writers know more about the experience and more of the politics of being LGBTQ+ and how to handle it in their work.'

What Artie would also like to see is more stories featuring queer characters that aren’t solely about being queer. 'A good example of this is Wranglestone. It's a zombie apocalypse adventure YA with elements of mystery and it just so happens the main character is gay and has a love interest. There isn't a lot of plot value put on coming out or people being against them for being gay. The focus is on everything else, just like non-queer YA,' Artie explains. On top of that, they’d like to see more of our untold LGBTQ+ history brought to life in stories, 'true or just inspired by it,' they say. 'We have all this straight white cis history out there but being queer or trans isn't a new thing, so where are our stories?'

In other words: LGBTQ+ people have been around for a long time, so literature has a lot of catching up to do – something which makes for fertile ground in the world of queer publishing. As rights are won, we find more ways to talk about our gender, and we learn to accept different types of love more freely, we will need more stories that reflect our ever broadening experiences, but also show us what the possibilities are, as queer literature so vitally did for me. 

Mohsin agrees: 'The best books, they say, contain both mirrors and windows. That's how I felt when I started reading queer literature. Even though I hadn't yet experienced many of the things I was reading about, there was a familiarity to them... it was as if I had imagined the things that were being described on the pages. The love, and the hardship.' 


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