OPINION: LGBT+ literature taught me to love myself

by Frank Wynne | Writer
Wednesday, 27 January 2021 09:19 GMT

FILE PHOTO: A portrait of former inmate Oscar Wilde, who was gaoled for gross indecency with another man, is displayed in a cell at the former Reading prison, in Reading, Britain September 1, 2016. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

It is no exaggeration to say that discovering LGBT+ literature in 1970s Ireland saved me.

Frank Wynne is a literary translator, writer and editor. His anthology “QUEER: LGBT Writing from Ancient Times to Yesterday” is published by Head of Zeus.

I was terrified. I had casually suggested creating an anthology of LGBT+ writing that would stretch from ancient times to the 21st century and span as many languages and cultures as I could fit between the covers of a book. Now that my publisher had agreed, all I could think was: “How do I even begin?”

It took a day or two for me to realise that I had begun long ago; in a sense, I had been researching this anthology all my life.

I can’t precisely pinpoint the age at which I knew that I was “different”, but the first inklings came long before I hit puberty. I knew without knowing that this difference was something I couldn’t talk about openly, or even confide to my closest friends.

Growing up in a village on the west coast of Ireland in the 1970s, in a world where the internet was a lifetime away, where there were only two TV channels and where “sex education” was limited to the reproductive cycle of rabbits, I had no words for what it was I felt, no way of knowing whether there were others in the world like me. But instinctively, I realised that there was only one place I could search for misfits, eccentrics and loners. And so, at the age of 11, without quite knowing what I was looking for, I began to scour the shelves of my local library.

Needless to say, the library – ironically, a deconsecrated church – did not have an LGBT+ section. I was in my late teens before I first saw the word “gay” in print, and 21 before I first managed to say it aloud.

But on the dusty shelves I found Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin and Mary Renault’s “Fire from Heaven”, a brazen, erotic retelling of the story of Alexander the Great.  Deep in my closet, I built my own library of queer writers – though I still swapped the dust jackets of novels so no-one would know what I was reading.

I remember the prickle of cold sweat I felt, at 19, as I stepped into my local bookshop to collect the copy of Edmund White’s “A Boy’s Own Story” I had dared to order. By then, the library had reassured me that, however isolated I felt, I was not alone.

In those early forays into LGBT+ fiction, there were no happy endings and I feared that E.M Forster was right, that only in a novel could “two men … fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows”. Happily, I was wrong.

When I came out in my early 20s, the world didn’t end. Most of my straight friends were loving and supportive and with my new LGBT+ friends I marched for equality, for pride, for acceptance, for the right to be and the right to love.

I also discovered a wealth of writers – ancient and modern – who made my heart soar, who celebrated difference. Fierce writers like Audre Lorde and William Burroughs, poets like Constantin Cavafy and Michelle Tea, memoirists like Anne Lister, Jan Morris and Alison Bechdel.

It is not too much to say that books saved me – they encouraged me to love myself and to dare to love others. In the end, I realised, my anthology was a homage to all those writers across the centuries who taught me. In the words of the glorious Rita Mae Brown: “The only queer people are those who don't love anybody.”