In the UK, laws still provided harsh punishments for homosexual activity under the age of 21; the television ran daily reports about the ‘gay plague’ sweeping the world that was going to get you in the end; and then, in 1988, Section 28 of the Local Government Act made it impossible for teachers in UK schools to treat homosexuality as equal to heterosexuality. It was made explicitly illegal for schools ‘to promote the teaching … of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.’
All of this had a huge psychological impact on gay teens and reinforced the isolation that being gay can cause. Who could you talk to? Your parents? Certainly not your teachers. And gay kids were terrified that their schoolmates might know, as bullying was rife. Despite being relatively open at school, it wasn’t until many years later that I discovered several of my schoolmates, who had known about me, were gay too and always had been.
There was, of course no Internet. So where could you get information from? Well, imagine my excitement when a large bookshop chain opened a branch in my town and, right at the back, somewhere between the biology and feminism sections there were a few shelves labelled ‘gay and lesbian’.
An early, heart-pounding perusal of this section revealed a variety of erotic novels, a couple of psychology books, and the obligatory AIDS-era books on safer sex, which made you scared to leave your house. But very soon the shelves began to fill up with gay-themed literature such as the Tales of the City series, and books which were relevant to me.
One such book was Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story, a beautifully honest and romantic account of the author’s coming out as a teenager. This helped me to realise that I was not alone and that actually—at least one other—person had been through what I was going through. It became my secret manual for living throughout my teenage years, hidden in my bedroom.
Steadily, the number of books in the gay section continued to expand and began to include classic books whose authors happened to have been gay, and had a gay theme or character. In this way Virginia Wolf, Evelyn Waugh, EM Forster, Oscar Wilde—of course—and even Shakespeare began rubbing shoulders with Felice Picano, Armistead Maupin, and Julian Mitchell.
And this is where I started to feel uncomfortable. As people’s awareness of writer’s sexuality, and indeed their acceptance thereof, increased, so did the tendency to label writers as ‘gay writer’ and their books as ‘gay books’. And as such, relatively mainstream books got moved from Main Street into the gay ghetto at the back of the shop.
Should it have mattered that in 2004 the Booker Prize was won by gay author Alan Hollingshurst? Well obviously no, it shouldn’t have but all the hoo haa surrounding the first gay book to win the prize acted as a covert signal for those who might be shocked or prejudiced against the theme or the author: a kind of modern day pink triangle.
Mainstream publishing still pushes books and writers into these categories, and along with this is coming a new and subtle kind of homophobia. Romance novels, for example, are love stories between men and women. Love stories between men and men, or women and women, are not romance but LGBT. The excuse that this clear labelling is what readers want and helps them sort out what they want to read, is unacceptable when it acts to not scare the horses.
Distaste for homosexuality is homophobia in exactly the same way as distaste for people of colour is racism. The way to combat this is by familiarity. Anyone who knows a gay man knows that he is not some pervert coming to recruit your children even if that’s what they are told. Segregation is not the way forward.
As a gay man, I can quite happily read and appreciate a love story between a man and a woman—how many times have I sighed with Elizabeth Bennet or empathised with Heathcliff? The reason is because, as a reader and a human being, I am interested in, and capable of appreciating, the whole range of human experience and emotion. Not just that which shares my sexuality. And aren’t we all?
Recently, in Europe and the USA, a lot airtime and newspaper column inches have been devoted to the struggle for marriage equality or the legalization of ‘gay marriage’. When the fight had been won in the USA many people asked whether it was not time to stop referring to it as ‘gay marriage’ and to call it what it is—marriage.
I would like to propose a similar abandonment on the category and labelling of gay authors and gay novels. We now live in a world where the people we meet on a daily basis—co-workers, friends, bank clerks, shop assistants, bus drivers, lawyers, and family—might just happen to be gay. You no longer have to go to gay bars to meet gay people, so why not let art imitate life and end the situation where you go to gay novels to meet gay characters and to the gay section to buy gay books?
This article is prefaced with a question: should gay literature exist? Even as a gay man for whom the labelling of gay books was a godsend, growing up in an atmosphere that, thankfully, no longer exists, I would answer that question, for all the reasons above, with a resounding NO.
What do you think? Do you agree that it is time to make LGBT literature more mainstream, or do you still feel there is a need for this kind of categorisation?