Finding Myself on the Shelf

Uncovering My Own Identity through Queer Literature

by Erika Grumet

“We dance around in a ring and suppose

But the Secret sits in the middle and knows”

-Robert Frost

No one knows what you’re thinking when you’re wandering the library shelves. For me, they were a safe space when I had the kind of questions that no one could answer for me…even if I had known someone I might have been able to ask. But it was the early 90s. “Lesbian” meant atheletic, butch women like Martina Navratilova. That was definitely not me. And besides, I didn’t not like boys, I just knew girls made me feel “that way” too. “Gay” meant “men” and I definitely wasn’t one of them. And the only times “bisexual” came up were basically if you were talking about AIDS or famous people like David Bowie or Elton John. I was watching MTV with my sister one afternoon when she turned to me and said, “You know he has his right ear pierced. That means he’s bisexual. That’s gross.” 

All of this, and even a summer of “experimenting” (sneaking around with a girl at summer camp,) but I insisted to myself, it was nothing, and every time I had a “wrong” thought about girls, I would go through a complicated mental series of steps involving shame, scolding myself, and forcing the thought out of my head along with a reminder about why I shouldn’t think about those things. The worst “fear of being found out” moment by far though was during my college search. In the pre-internet days, we had these huge books that listed all kinds of facts about colleges, and then there were separate niche guides for various students. My guidance counselor pulled out a book one day when I was in her office , one that catered to more liberal students and showed me various features and ratings in this book, and then she pointed out how this one described the climate on campus for “Gay and Lesbian” students (it was the 90s…no B and no T.) I had an internal freakout–how could anyone know what I’d been thinking about? I’d never actually told anyone?How could anyone assume I was a lesbian? I’d had boyfriends!!! 

But the shelves of the public library, those were safe. No one knew, while I wandered the fiction section, what I might be looking for, and I could just get lost for hours if I wanted to. There was a lot of fiction to read that year, too; my Writing Fiction and Poetry class meant writing at least two response papers a week to things I’d read, but the expectation was that we would be reading more than two pieces a week. Those pages were paper sails of safety, carrying me to places I could go to figure things out for myself. 

I dug in. I read Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, all six books. I read Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance, enthralled and excited to read the scenes on Fire Island, where I’d spent a few summer days…although not on the beaches described in the novel. I read David Leavitt, whose books I still love, thirty years later. I read Paul Monette, Edmund White. I read “A Home at the End of the World” (which confused me terribly at the time but in retrospect, probably had more influence than I gave it credit for then.) I read Bret Easton Ellis’s books–he actually had a (male) bisexual character in “Rules of Attraction,” too. And mountains and mountains of contemporary poetry mostly relating to HIV/AIDS; I was already volunteering as a peer educator, but being queer was still an experience I was so disconnected from and so scary that I sought out other ways to understand it.

All these stories, and a few themes stand out. People finding peace within themselves and wholeness in their own identity. These were the stories of happy, out, queer people with fulfilling lives, not the tragic stories I’d seen or read before diving into queer literature. There were stories of people making peace with their families…something I craved in my own life, as a teenager in a family where some of the relationships could best be described as “volatile.” Even when parents in some of these stories struggled to understand their children as “different,” they were redemptive stories, where people were loved and accepted for who they were, the gifts and talents they had. And there were stories of chosen families, the intentional communities people surround themselves with, the communities that lift them up, that sweep them along, that carry them through the everyday. I’d discovered a little bit of this phenomenon while spending a few summers at a “Montessori inspired, progressive, liberal, hippie, creative and performing arts summer camp” (coincidentally also the site of the aforementioned summer of “experimenting” with another girl). 

There’s something I noticed when writing this piece… something I hadn’t noticed before. My first plunges into queer literature, into understanding what it meant to call myself something other than straight (I had no idea what that might be at the time) and into defining what that label meant to me were completely centered on books written by, and predominantly about, men. I don’t know why. I don’t know if it was a question of what was available in the library’s collection, or what was on my radar as a reader (I picked up Bret Easton Ellis because of the film version of “Less than Zero,” and then went on to “Rules of Attraction,” and “American Psycho,” I picked up David Leavitt because I saw the film “Lost Language of Cranes”, and so on). Was I just going through the writers who had written the blurbs and forwards and things to the books I already liked? If you look at lists of what was published at around this time, books by and about gay men far outnumber those by and about women. I already had a strong feminist identity. Why not read the stories by or about women? Perhaps I just needed that distance, to understand theoretical, hypothetical things before I could really grapple with some of the bigger questions, some of the closer to the heart issues. And I did read Rita Mae Brown and Jeanette Winterson and Leslie Feinberg and others… but only after I had come out. 

It was in those pages, where I could get lost in my own imagination, where I could find the safe place to begin to uncover my own secrets, to face my own fears, and to unpack my own internalized homophobia. It still took a few more years, and a lot more denial, shame, guilt and insistence that I wasn’t, as I now sometimes put it, “queer as a football bat.” I had a lot to learn, about myself, about labels and identity and about what was important to me, but in those pages, I found comfort, confidence and safe passage to take the first steps on my own journey. 

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