Each of these books explore what it feels like to not fit in- either by being so blatantly different that you can never go unnoticed, or by having to conceal who you really to the point that your very identity dissolves. Although gay marriage is now legalised across all American states and high profile celebrity transgender people such as Caitlin Jenner and Laverne Cox have grabbed the media attention, these four short books remind us that the struggle for equality for people of all genders and sexualities isn’t over.
Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx
Annie Proulx’s short novella (only 60 pages) caused a deep physical reaction in me; sadness and bleakness, broken only by the sense of desperate energy on the rare occasions Jack and Ennis have together. Her writing is sublime; at times wordy and verbose, other times understated and simply implied. The difficulty of expressing homoerotic affection, indeed any affection at all, really comes out in this short story where men are expected to be strong, independent and emotionally callous. Marriage and sex is just a functional thing, where Ennis had ‘her (Alma) pregnant by mid January’, making sex seem like a duty and an ordeal. When he finally gets to meet Jack again, their physicality is both endearing, rough and sad all at once since it is so powerful but doomed. Ennis calls Jack ‘little darlin’ (295) which is something he only says to his horses and daughters which makes it all the more heartfelt. Proulx writes with such evocative intensity you can imagine the smell of the fields, feel the crisp wind on the mountain and the smell of tobacco smoke and bonfires. I could see the ‘tea coloured river’, ‘the ocre-branched willows’ and the roaming sheep dotted along the plains. The richly detailed landscape contrast with the clipped sentences exchanged between the two men, if any words are exchanged at all. The landscape speaks for them, watches out for them and is the thing that seems most alive in the whole story. It’s also the thing that sucks life from them. As Jack so astutely says, ‘I can’t make it on a couple a high altitude fucks once or twice a year’. Brokeback is the only solid thing about their bond but it reminds them how their love will always be a dark and shameful secret.
Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg
I stumbled upon Stone Butch Blues two days before a university exam and let’s just say, my studies definitely suffered because of it. Any spare moment I had, I pored over the unflinching portrayal of Jess growing up in a working class, Jewish family and feeling like a ‘he-she’ all their life. Jess’s struggle to understand them self as queer and trans in a raw and hostile environment is set against the backdrop of various historical moments- Stonewall, the rise of the unions, Vietnam and the mass demonstrations that followed and offers us a slice of history that we rarely get to hear about. In the first part of the novel there is a police raid of a gay bar on almost every other page and the humiliation Jess has to ordeal at the hands of the police is at times deeply shocking. Despite the very heavy subject matter, there are funny moments such as the bravado between the butches, the banter of the drag queens on stage and one memorable scene in particular, when a group of queers go shopping together, scaring away the lone shop floor manager. There are also moments that are profoundly moving, particularly early on in the novel when Jess is asked to deliver a poem to the class. Most of the students are bored and unfocused but when Jess finishes and walks by the teacher, there are tears in her eyes. There is so much more I could talk about but I’ll just leave you with the poem:
‘From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were; I have not seen
As others saw; I could not bring
My passions from a common spring.
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow; I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone;
And all I loved, I loved alone.’
From ‘Childhood’s Hour’, Edgar Allen Poe
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
David is a young American who moves to Paris in an attempt to find himself away from his fiancé Hella. In the dingy streets of 1950s Paris he meets Giovanni and they have an intense but shortly lived love affair. His unwillingness to confront his homosexual desire is reflected in the honesty of Baldwin’s prose:
‘He pulled me against him, putting himself into my arms as though he were giving me himself to carry, and slowly pulled me down with him to that bed. With everything in me screaming No! yet the sum of me sighed Yes.’
Although David feels trapped in the dank bars and Giovanni’s stagnant and disorderly room, he remains there to escape his increasingly bleak future in marriage. Throughout the novel there is a real sense of being trapped in limbo, unable to leave the house until darkness descends and wallowing with Giovanni in hasty promises and shallow commitments. Giovanni’s chaotic room provides a powerful symbolic back drop to the unfolding turmoil within David. His rejection of Giovanni is ultimately a rejection of himself but it is not David’s weakness which should be condemned but narrow social expectations which ends up destroying their relationship. Although an undoubtedly bleak book (like much of LGBT fiction!) I would recommend this book to everyone as Baldwin writes so powerfully about self-denial, isolation and coming to terms with one’s identity in a society that chooses not to accept it.
Gender Failure by Rae Spoon and Ivan Coyote.
This wonderful book offers a collection of essays, song lyrics, and drawings recounted from Rae spoon’s and Ivan Coyote’s lifelong experiences of confronting and challenging gender. Rae Spoon is a musician who grew up in a very conservative prairie environment and much of their music deals with overcoming this very repressive background. I first encountered Rae’s music on Youtube four years ago and loved the way they ‘queered up’ pop songs. Rae’s covers of Rihanna, Beyoncé and Lady Gaga songs gave the lyrics a whole other meaning and perspective and reinforced for me how wonderfully free, fun and occasionally radical pop music can be. I am less familiar with Coyote’s work but have read some of their blog entries and listened to experiences of encountering difficult moments where their trans identity is revealed, such as in the barbers and public toilets. Coyote writes with a frankness and a humour that makes their writing highly accessible and poignant.
In ‘Gender Failure’ both authors reject our culture’s insistence on a gender binary system and both share many commonalities and experiences of discrimination. Each repeatedly tells stories about how they were misidentified, misrepresented and the effect of rigid gender stereotyping had on their lives.
As someone who identifies as non-binary, and is often read as either female or male, the biggest thing I took from this book was the reassurance that existing somewhere outside the gender binary is not just possible, but real, valuable and valid. This book is a must read for everyone as we are all implicated in the gender system and in the wake of Leelah Alcorn’s death and countless other trans people, it is especially important to read a book like this. Both writers draw attention to how seemingly banal and small scale interactions are highly gendered and sometimes very discomforting or openly hostile for some of us. Yet this book is heart-warming and funny, touching, and educational without being preachy or confrontational. The use of song lyrics, drawings and personal anecdotes make it highly accessible and entertaining and it appeals to all ages and genders.
Words by Emma Wilson-Black
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