The absence of the past is a terror, wrote Derek Jarman, in his essential 1993 book based on a diary At your peril, in which he describes the trauma of being left out of history and not seeing himself represented on TV, in movies, in stories. It’s something that those of us in this industry, I imagine, understand as a deep and basic human need.
If you’re straight, imagine what it’s like not having had books and movies that show what it’s like to be you: no “Romeo and Juliet”, no “Casablanca”, no “Gone with the Wind”, not Adrian Mole and Pandora, not Bridget Jones and Mr. Darcy, not Hermione and Ron, not nearly any book ever written that centers direct relationships in the narrative . I don’t think you can imagine. It’s horrible. It makes you feel, on a very deep level, that there is something wrong with you and who you are should be hidden. It’s so painful to write this list, it makes me want to cry. That’s why in 2017, when the first studio film about a gay teenager finding love was released, “Love Simon,” I sat and watched an audience of young and old gays and lesbians cry. If you’re transgender, until the last five years, chances are you’ve never seen characters like you in the mainstream. It is important. Like Mohsin Zaidi, author of one of the only books ever published on being gay and Muslim, A dedicated boy— explains with such sensitivity, representation can be a matter of life and death.
When I was a teenager, I would search the school library for books about people like me. I was suicidal, I desperately needed the support I wasn’t getting in the real world, and I couldn’t find any. Even if there had been relevant books, I wouldn’t have known because they weren’t talked about. Even EM Forster was so ashamed of his sexuality that he made sure that Mauritius was only released in 1971, when it was in the ground. Twenty years later, student End Howards for my A-Levels, a teacher asked why we were reading “this book written by a homosexual”. Even now, there are almost no books or movies similar to these, with same-sex relationships at the center. The ones I started to read were depressing: everyone died of AIDS or suicide; no lesbian has ever survived.
In the mid-90s, I found Armistead Maupin’s series Tales of the City (first published in 1978), about the lives of normal people in their twenties – gay, straight and trans – and I took them all traveled. Despite their iconic success, there still hasn’t been another popular gay-themed series since. Is it really because there are no such stories, or writers to tell them?
Clearly not. Of course, many LGBT writers tell other stories, but that’s often because, as has happened to countless colleagues, we’re so used to being told to “de-gay” projects. that we prevent and often self-censor. In 2012, when I was looking for a proposal for my first book, Straight Jacket, on gay mental health, an editor complained that there weren’t enough straight people. “That’s the goal,” I replied. “It’s about gay people and for gay people.” I wanted to explain that it would be like complaining The female eunuch didn’t have enough to interest men, but not me.
There are hundreds of writers and books that could have made money for publishers. Lesbian author VG Lee comes to mind; one of the UK’s funniest and warmest writers who has been grossly under-supported by the industry. There are dozens more. An audience exists, but it needs to be marketed. The recent census will be fascinating. Let’s say 2% of the UK population identifies as LGBT. Wouldn’t it be reasonable for even half of one percent of published books to deal with LGBT stories? It makes business sense but also goes to the heart of the publishing industry: what good is it if it can’t tell a diverse range of stories?
Over the past five years, the industry has made considerable efforts to change this situation. I am proud to have been published by Penguin Random House, whose WriteNow initiative has actively sought to publish the writings of underrepresented communities. Individuals also play a role. my second book PRIDE: The History of the LGBTQ Equality Movement (Welbeck) was championed by Welbeck editor Isabel Wilkinson. Having a gay brother, she is aware of the urgent need for publishers to provide diverse stories.
Today, as you can see in this week’s roundup of new titles Bookseller (April 30), what is remarkable is the number of youth novels and picture books for children that are published. It is important. I mean no disrespect at all, far from it, but over the past 20 years the industry has championed literary gay stories – some of them brilliant – but in my opinion the most important thing is that we see our lives normalized in commercial fiction and non-fiction, especially for young people to see that they are not alone. For all the winners (many of whom I love and own), what I really needed were teen romances like Becky Albertalli’s Simon vs Homosapiens (turned into “Love, Simon”). Don’t hate me, it’s true. We were all teenagers once.
It is heartening to see that on both sides of the Atlantic there are published works of black gay voices, such as that of Paul Mendez rainbow milkby Bernardine Evaristo Girl, Woman, OtherDean Atta black flamingo and that of Brandon Taylor Real life. But it’s still a drop in the ocean. Who do you turn to if you are a black or Asian gay man? What if you are a lesbian or bi colored woman? Publishers such as Jessica Kingsley are doing an amazing job publishing trans voices and it’s heartening to see different books by trans authors coming to the mainstream this year, including more work by Juno Roche, Rhyannon Styles, Paris Lees, Monroe Bergdorf and Shon Faye. But it took decades to get there. Will 2021 be a blip?
There also needs to be more ways to ensure that the industry recognizes what makes for success in this area as well. It’s unlikely that many LGBT books will do business with JK Rowling, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t successes that should be celebrated. Straight Jacket, the UK’s first title on the LGBT mental health crisis, was, as far as I know (sue me if I’m wrong), the most successful non-fiction non-celebrity LGBT book of the past decade, selling regularly for the past five years, resulting in a steady stream of e-mails and messages from readers. But I’m not sure the industry knows that. I haven’t been asked for new ideas, even though readers constantly ask me about them.
I sincerely believe that one of the reasons Straight Jacket resonated because gay readers are so unaccustomed to being told explicitly, directly about their own lives in an authentic voice. When The Bookseller asked publishers to submit details of upcoming titles of LGBT interest, I noticed that the majority were mainstream books that “slipped” gay or trans characters.
It’s great in so many ways. We should appear, as in life, but often you can hear the press release desperate not to discourage the general public by presenting something like “a gay book”; often to the point that they don’t even talk about it. I understand. But publishers shouldn’t be afraid to commission books for LGBT audiences on specific issues that speak directly to us. If the idea is strong enough, then back it up with marketing and promotional support and great things can happen.
Today, we are entering a time where the centering of LGBT characters will not automatically turn off the general public. I was shocked at how many gay and straight people had no idea how horrible the AIDS crisis was until “It’s a Sin” was screened. Rejected by several channels, it became one of Channel 4’s biggest hits. Too bad it wasn’t a book that sparked this cultural moment, but there are many more stories to tell. It’s not just a blind spot of the publishing industry. On television, I have only seen one documentary on homophobic hate crimes. The National Theater is set to produce a classic American AIDS play ‘The Normal Heart’ which will no doubt be brilliant, as will the last classic American AIDS play it produced several years ago, “Angels in America”. As Straight Jacket have shown, AIDS is by no means the only major issue that has plagued the gay community over the past 40 years. There are plenty of British writers out there who could write the next classic British “gay game”, but they’re not in command.
A matter of attitude
Not everything can be laid at the feet of the publishing industry. When I was editing Attitude magazine, I decided to publish a short fiction in each issue and asked the writers to submit their work. Almost everyone was sad and unhappy. LGBT life has its challenges, but when the industry tends to never commission commercial optimistic fiction, then maybe writers think that’s how stories should be told. Like Laura Kay, author of The splitwritten, lesbians deserve a happy ending.
Fortunately, more things are coming. Picture books like Nen and the Lone Fisherman would have been impossible to imagine when I was younger. YA fiction like that of Atta and Simon James Green, festive titles like the Jack Guinness anthology The Queer Bibleand novels like Matt Cain’s Sweet and Lovely The Secret Life of Albert Entwistle, would not have been published 10 years ago. The industry is changing. It’s important to celebrate. There is a long way to go, but we are making progress. Let’s continue like this.
And don’t forget the lesbians. (The well of loneliness that was a very long time ago).