Growing up queer is lonely. One must learn to live with solitude. For me, the only chance I have at being understood is in the pages of a novel. Luckily I’ve been surrounded by books my whole life. The beautiful thing about classic literature is that it’s classic. Literature is timeless, universal. It should teach you about the world and the humans living in it. Because no matter how much changes throughout time, literature connects our experiences.
I never had the resources growing up to know about LGBTQ literature. Yet I still found solace in books. Just because a character wasn’t going through the exact same situation as I was didn’t mean I couldn’t understand how they felt and why they felt that way.
Take The Awakening by Kate Chopin, a regional Southern writer who’s often credited with forerunning twentieth century feminist literature. At the time I read this, I was recognizing my intruding feelings for boys, but repressing it to the point that it ached. It tells the tale of Edna Pontellier, who slowly one summer begins to strip herself of all falsehoods to find her authentic self. It’s a story about the anguishes of liberation, the interior of a heart, and how sheerly brave it is to break open one’s restraints in a culture still so keen on conservatism and tradition. When I read it, I felt understood. Edna, like many LGBTQ individuals, was going through a transition to selfhood. Chopin struck a heart string within queer me, about the almost painfully slow discovery of self, and then the honest courage it takes to be that person out in the real world.
I’ve always identified myself within feminism and found that queer experiences could empathize with those of many women past and present. The otherness and marginalization, the sexual limitations and control over our bodies, gender politics and the subjugation of femininity, and so much more. In a society so domineered by the prototypically patriarchal straight, white male, it’s also surprisingly possible for them to understand us. It’s important to keep an open mind if what we’re fighting for is open-mindedness.
It may be controversial, but Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita can even be read through an LGBTQ lens, especially with Nabakov’s character, Dolores Haze, the adolescent victim of the novel’s pedophilic protagonist. Above all, Dolores is a girl on the verge of her sexual awakening, a wayward child in suburbia who wants to rebel but doesn’t know how or against what, lonely and witty, a little sad, and misunderstood by her environment. Her sexuality is dominated and controlled by an external force, and she is forced to repress her maturing emotions as a result. With Dolores I reflected. I reflected on my own sexual awakening and the absolute confusion of it. There’s this not knowing of who you are in the world, especially in one that doesn’t have the room to comprehend a developing libido.
Since there’s not really a community to fall back on when you’re young and questioning, you’re forced to rely on yourself. I read because I had no other option. And even though LGBTQ literature can be a haven, limiting one’s self to it prevents the same universal understanding that we’re fighting for.
Last summer I finished William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, which stories the downfall of the Compsons, an affluent family in twentieth century Mississippi. It chronicles the conflict between conservatism and feminism, the undoing of traditional Southern values in American culture. But it’s the character of Caddy Compson, the sister at the crux of the novel, whom I felt really understood. When you’re reared by a conservative family in a conservative place like I was, there is absolutely no room to be yourself, especially if you differentiate from the norm. There’s this sense of entrapment, that you can’t freely be yourself so you feel there’s no other option but to rebel. I know what it’s like to live amidst right-wing ideals and tradition, and I know its negative, suppressive effects. Caddy and I both tried to be ourselves in a microcosm that wouldn’t allow it, and when realizing its impossibility tried to rebel. But in the end, all we could do was get out of there: Caddy to Paris, me to Boston.
Though none of these books are truly what could be considered LGBTQ literature, they’ve helped me as a developing queer in so many ways. When I felt most alone, I had Edna, Dolores, Caddy, and so many more who understood me. And that’s what I think literature’s job is: to inspire empathy, and to understand and be understood as a result.