In the week following the shooting of 49 people at a queer club in Orlando, my girlfriend and I were called out twice by men for being queer. The first time, we were on a bus on our way back from a vigil in Soho to commemorate those who lost their lives. We went to the vigil after work on a Monday along with thousands of others, both members of the LGBTQI+ community and straight allies. We lit a candle, had a beer. It was a pretty charged experience for everyone, and the last thing anyone needed after that was an ugly argument with a homophobe on the bus home. The second time, we were on our way to a corner shop to buy a pint of milk. Buying milk is a pretty unremarkable activity by anyone’s standards, but still a gang of semi-drunk dudes felt it necessary to make a comment. Lesbians buying milk! How dare they!
It’s not uncommon to be pointed out in the street if you look a bit gay, but in a week when the LGBTQI+ community was reeling from the shooting it felt heavier. I’m not sure if two times per week is an average, the norm, or if we were just hyper aware of the world, more sensitive to it. Whatever the reason, I spent most of last week wanting to punch something.
I’m sure you’ve read a lot about the shooting and its aftermath. About the ‘straightwashing’ of it. About how the media took a long time to call it a hate crime against the LGBTQI+ community rather than a terrorist attack on America. About how nobody pointed out at first that it was an attack on the Latinx community. About how the religion of the shooter seemed somehow more important than the lives of the 49 LGBTQI+ and straight people who died at Pulse. The media did a really tremendous job of demonising an entire religion rather than respecting the queer, mostly POC identities of the victims. Queer voices were erased from the narrative, so much so that gay columnist Owen Jones had to physically walk away from a live television interview. It was a rubbish week, one that has acutely affected the wider LGBTQI+ community and opened a lot of eyes to a horror many of us thought was behind us, or at least a horror that was slowly lessening. The question now is how to move away from that horror.
At the weekend we tried. Instead of going to a normal pub on a normal street, the kind of pub where our special gay senses are constantly on the offensive against stares or whatever else, we went to a camp disco, got drunk, and danced with a bunch of queers. We started watching season four of Orange is the New Black and were soothed by the awesomeness of Lea Delaria. We listened to loud songs by queer popstars. We reached for books with LGBTQI+ characters. I can’t speak for anyone else, but surrounding myself with Maximum Gay kind of helped.
It’s not a new premise, that people look to stories to see versions of themselves looking back. It’s also not news that when you find them, it can help. From the amazing kid who started a whole movement to collect books with black girl characters, to the We Need Diverse Books campaign, the lack of minority representation in stories is something that needs to change. And not just for members of minority communities, but for everyone. Reading different kinds of stories about people who have different identities helps educate, helps people be kinder, more understanding, less aggressive towards difference. It’s so important. I’m not saying it will put an end to tragedies like Pulse – of course it won’t – but it might, in some small way, help give minorities a voice in their aftermath.
This week, rather than wanting to punch something, I’ve decided I’ll be more fun to be around if I try and celebrate the narratives that have given a voice to my community. And because I work in books, that seemed like a good place to start. Just like the filmmakers and television writers who advocate bringing queer characters to the screen, there are some incredible publishers pushing to give a voice to queer writers who are usually ignored by the mainstream. The books they are publishing are as colourful, as varied and as wonderful as the community they represent, and people should read them, talk about them, support the publishers who make them exist to begin with.
Before I tell you about the books, I’ll leave you with another story about the very awesome filmmaker Silas Howard. When I saw a film Silas made with Harry Dodge, By Hook or By Crook, at BFI Flare a few months ago, someone in the audience asked him if it was difficult making something with the knowledge it was inevitably going to be rejected by the majority of film fans on account of being too queer. His answer was long and on-point and passionate, but the best part was when he said people should be able to enjoy films about other kinds of people. When he said: ‘I’m not a shark, but I love watching Jaws.’
(I don’t realistically believe that the dudes who couldn’t keep their mouths shut when two lesbians bought milk are suddenly going to rush out and buy the complete L Word box set or anything, but one can dream.)
The following books have either been published recently or will be published over the coming months. They are all by LGBTQI+ authors, and they are all really, really excellent.
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (Melville House)
Everyone who knows me is probably tired of my chewing their ears off about Maggie Nelson, but I’ve been waiting years to read something like The Argonauts. The queer narrative in the book is universal, domestic and romantic while also being radical, challenging. It’s written as a kind of love letter to Nelson’s partner, Harry Dodge, who is genderfluid (and who made aforementioned film with Silas). It’s about relationships, caregiving, change, motherhood and how/where queerness fits into the mainstream when you decide to do something as traditionally heterosexual as make a baby, build a family. Nelson’s writing is a mixture of memoir and criticism. It inhabits more than one space, which is my favourite thing about the book; that nothing is binary, that life is consistently lived in-between, and that it’s totally fine to feel comfortable in that ‘messy bit in the middle’ , whether we are speaking of gender, sexuality, or anything else.
“Maggie Nelson is one of the most electrifying writers at work in America today, among the sharpest and most supple thinkers of her generation” – Olivia Laing
“In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson turns making the personal public’ into a romantic, intellectual wet dream. A gorgeous book, inventive, fearless, and full of heart.” – Kim Gordon
“This book is a life-changer” – Carrie Brownstein
God in Pink by Hasan Namir (Arsenal Pulp Press)
God in Pink is a very rare and timely thing. It’s a novel about a queer Muslim living in the Middle East. Set in war-torn Iraq in 2003, its protagonist, Ramy, struggles to balance his sexuality with his religion and culture. It’s a heart-breaking novel, full of both raw depictions of violence and quieter moments of contemplation. It’s not an easy read in places, but it’s an important read; the queer Muslim community are completely underrepresented in all mediums. As Namir shows, they need to be listened to.
“If reading from the context of queer lit, what’s most revolutionary about God in Pink is its insistence on faith … God in Pink gives voice to the often voiceless, offer the outside world a window into their lives, and provide a glimmer of hope for change.”- The Globe and Mail
We Go Around in the Night and are Consumed by Fire by Jules Grant (Myriad Editions)
We Go Around in the Night is a crime novel, a literary thriller with a difference. Instead of that tired old narrative where something dreadful happens to a woman and a man saves the day, the heroes here are a gang of lesbians. Headed by best friends Donna and Carla, the Bronte Close gang sell drugs in night club toilets, working as cleaners to account for their income. When Carla is gunned down one night for sleeping with the wife of a local gangster, it becomes a revenge novel that has you rooting for the women till the very end. Fast-paced and gripping, We Go Around in the Night subverts the genre and gives a voice to working-class queer women who rarely appear in fiction.
“A brilliant and gritty contemporary gangster lesbian revenge thriller.”
– Gay’s the Word
Beijing Comrades by Bei Tong (Feminist Press)
Beijing Comrades is the first ever queer novel to come from mainland, totalitarian China. Set against the socio-political unrest of late-eighties, it’s the story of a businessman, Handong, and a young architecture student, Lan Yu. While Handong is unsettled by his desire, Lan Yu quietly submits and what follows is a narrative of identity and freedom in a regime that allows you neither. Due to its depiction of gay sex and its critique of the government, it was first published anonymously on an underground queer website in China in 1998. Although it remains anonymous (Bei Tong is a pseudonym), it’s credited as having started the online phenomenon of gay erotic fiction in China, where LGBTQI+ rights have been largely ignored.
“Beijing Comrades is unafraid to ask difficult questions about love, power, and what we’re willing to do for both.” – Lithub
Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky (Disney-Hyperion)
Gracefully Grayson is a book about twelve year old trans kid who knows that coming out will open her up to ridicule, to bullies, to rejection from friends and family. It’s a big subject to tackle in a children’s book, but one that’s vital given the overwhelming statistics about mental health problems amongst young trans people who have little representation, nothing really to turn towards. In the book, Grayson’s hope comes in the form of a teacher who encourages her to be herself. It’s the sort of book that, in a better world, would be core reading for young people. Unfortunately we’re not there yet, but it’s great that Polonsky has filled (at least partly) the trans gap in children’s literature.
“I’m glad it exists, and I’m happy of the message it sends to queer kids out there, that no matter what happens they are wonderful and absolutely deserving of happiness and of the freedom of being their true selves” – Gay YA
If you’d like to donate to support victims of the Pulse shooting and their families, you can do so through the official Pulse Victims Fund page for Equality Florida, the state’s LGBT civil rights organisation.