The role of LGBT fiction in the identity-formation of a gay man

Words by Steve Benson

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With the start of the Blackwell’s LGBT Book Group as the catalyst, I wanted to write about how reading gay male content fiction helped consolidate my self-identification as a gay man, and aided and supported me immensely, in what sometimes was a traumatic process of coming to terms with my sexual orientation. Although this occurred to me in the 1980s sadly I do not think it has changed all that much (having watched Olly Alexander’s tortured coming out process on TV recently, backed up by startlingly depressing and anger-inducing figures for youth LGBT depression, self-harm and suicide).

Whilst I am not suggesting that reading is some automatic cure-all for these systemic issues, I strongly believe that for at least some LGBT people, seeing positive images and role models of and for themselves in the media is extremely self-reinforcing and therefore crucial.

There are too many fiction works to name, but they included many of the old Gay Men’s Press imprint. Books like Vidal’s The City and the Pillar, Forster’s Maurice alongside Edmund White’s A Boys Own Story and This Beautiful Room is Empty, and Baldwin ’s Giovanni’s Room. These are all still in print, and in my opinion, are still wholly relevant today). They were tortured stories; reflecting back the issues and difficulties of being a gay person in the ‘real’, predominantly, heterosexual world at the time. There were two novels, in particular, which made a big political and personal effect on me: That Other Realm of Freedom by Barry Nonweiler and Alienation by Ian Everton, both published by the Gay Men’s Press.

They are predominantly bleak books, with glimpses of happiness and self-acceptance. Significantly, because I cannot divorce coming out from LGBT politics and equality battles, they were about the struggles of gay people in the very early days, not long after the partial decriminalisation of gay male sex in 1967. They were largely about the internal and external politics of the Gay Left – a struggle which many are still fighting.

What did these books achieve for me? And what can similar fiction do to support LGBT people today? Well, I saw myself in the characters: torn between embryo self-acceptance and the forces of hetero-patriarchal, heterosexist society. It was ‘shame’ – followed by a tentative journey towards ‘pride’. I saw that is was OK to struggle and to be gay and to get there eventually. I saw the importance of LGBT-specific support networks. The characters in the books that I read had similar, but sometimes different, battles with self and society. I felt no longer excluded, but part of something – there was hope. I read the books, then I became part of that parallel LGBT world of growing self-radiance.

Some more recent LGBT authors have stressed that they are not, in fact, ‘LGBT or gay writers’. This is a complex interface between self-identity, self-perception, the publishing marketplace and societal expectations. But writers like Hollinghurst (The Folding Star, is my favourite), Cunningham (The Hours) and Leavitt (Lost Language of Cranes) – despite their chosen self-nomenclature as non gay specific, deal with subjects like underage love, AIDS and acceptance. Much more recently, we have, for example, John Boyne The Heart’s Invisible Furies, about the fight for acceptance in Ireland , and A Natural by Ross Raisin, about the need for acceptance of gay people within the football world – perhaps controversially written by a straight man.

Please add in the comments box below your own contributions… What fiction has helped you? Or what do you think would help other LGBT people on their journey?




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