Every time Pride Month rolls around, I find myself thinking about—long-time readers, prepare to be unsurprised—the whole non-inheritability of queer culture thing all over again. The sheer volume of “I don’t even know what I don’t know” that comes to most queerlings when they realize they’re different, but by virtue of the people around them, might have zero access to anything to help even phrase those questions in the first place.
A few days ago, I bumped into someone talking about upcoming Pride author events, and they’re a lot younger than me, and I am absolutely not saying this in a shaming way—please re-read that as often as you need to—but one of the things they said was how a decade ago they could have read all the queer books that had come out in a week, whereas now they can’t even possibly afford them all, and… Well.
No. You couldn’t have.
It left me struggling with finding the right words around reminding (especially younger) queer authors how gatekeeping absolutely kept queer books out of your hands—but those books did exist. No one gave them to you, absolutely. Trust me, I remember. But many existed, and that’s important.
Similarly, last night was the Lammies and it really underlined something for me to look at this year’s list of finalists and winners: I love the volume of queer books happening today—so many of them are from big-5 publishers is a thing to celebrate, yes—and it’s one hundred percent a joy to see it grow and cover more queer voices. The Lammies have been happening for thirty-three years. The time I got to be there as a finalist in 2014, those awards had already been happening for twenty-six years.
Decades of queer books absolutely exist. It’s fantastic the Big-5 are picking up titles now, and not just in a Queer Highlander “there-can-be-only-one” fashion. I celebrate that. But big publishing has a short memory at the best of times, and is a business, and let’s be clear: they learned our voices were worth printing and selling because of all the work done by the smaller queer indie presses over the years, and the queer imprints who fought to have titles, and the queer authors who kept on writing.
I remember starting at the bookstore in the mid-90’s and I don’t think I can explain the feeling of joy (and also betrayal) over just how many queer books there were, just counting published by queer presses, and how I’d had no one to tell me they even existed. In the 90’s. I sat there with that microfiche (yes, a microfiche) and those Books-in-Print slides and I ordered, and ordered, and ordered—it was like someone had finally opened the door to a whole wing of the library that had been there the whole damn time.
And as much as that was amazing, it was also infuriating.
Because yes, even back then, there was queer YA. This is one of the reasons I’m always talking about how “books you didn’t see still existed, but gatekeepers suck.” Especially when it comes to YA. Nancy Garden’s “Annie on My Mind” was ‘82. Rosa Guy’s “Ruby” was ‘76. And John Donovan’s “I’ll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip” was ‘69. Queer bookstores existed. With a flow of new releases and backlist.
I get it, I do. I’m an author, too, and I write partly to do time-travel, to put books into my younger self’s hands that he never got to read. But I could have read so many books when I was a queer kid. It could have happened, if someone had just let me. But they didn’t. That’s the betrayal feeling I’m talking about: until I went looking, I didn’t find them. Until I was in university in a city lucky enough to have a queer bookstore, until… until… until. Again, this was the 90’s, but that bookstore existed long before I got there.
Those queer bookstores? They had new releases aplenty, promise. So that sentiment? Claiming a decade ago (which is only 2011) all the queer books could be read in a week? It’s not just incorrect, it’s erasing the very people who made it possible for this wonderful flood of queer books you’re now trying to highlight. Hell, my publisher alone released upwards of seventy books in 2011. Ten years ago. One queer publisher.
In fact, their established history was one of the reasons I chose them. But I do understand how whether or not someone told you those books existed doesn’t change that those books were not available to you as an individual. I absolutely, one-hundred percent understand that feeling. Because the impact on you as a queerling is the same: I had no stories about people like me. And that’s where it goes back to my usual thing: we don’t inherit our culture, most of us queers don’t have queer parents or older family passing on queer heritage. That includes books. And that sucks. Never gonna deny that.
But, look, especially throughout Pride Month, it’s so important we remember who came before us, and that includes the queer authors who wrote those books, too—many of whom are gone, like so many of our queer elders. And like I said, I’m not saying you’re wrong about what it was like to be a queerling. It’s true: you had no access to stories about people like you. But there were stories about people like you, written by people like you, and that’s a huge part of—hell, I’d go further and say it’s the only reason—why it’s even possible you’re seeing so many of them now. That hope for the queer future? It came from the queer past and the queer present.
So much of being queer feels like constant work, and it is. We have to teach ourselves so much, because no one else damn well will. And that can really suck, and it’s endless, and it’s exhausting, but it’s worth it. And we have to remember the people who came before us, and we have to make sure queerlings find out who they were. We have to.
No one else is going to do it for us.
I mentioned a little while ago about how I was working on a YA novella, ‘Hope Echoes,’ which is slated for next year from Bold Strokes Books as part of Three Left Turns to Nowhere, alongside two other linked-setting YA novellas by Jeffrey Ricker and J. Marshall Freeman, and the theme of this novella is almost entirely what I’m talking about above: connecting queer generations. Here’s the blurb:
Fielding has a knack for seeing the past, and a life put on hold helping his family weather a terrible year. A trip to Toronto to reunite with friends who went to university last year hits an unexpected stop in Hopewell, but a run-in with two local boys gives him an opportunity to do more than watch the past. This time, in this town? Fielding might just be able to fix the present.
Fielding’s “knack” is a gift for seeing events from the past replaying themselves, and near the beginning of the story he finds a long-lost love letter a young woman wrote to another woman, and he gets it in his head to deliver the letter. For all he knows, it’s been decades, but it just feels wrong to him to let that declaration of love never get to where it belonged.