When we talk about the progress made by the LGBTQ movement in recent years, we’re describing a state of affairs in certain very privileged parts of the world. I was forcefully reminded of this in the four years I spent teaching high school in Sofia, Bulgaria, the setting of my first novel, What Belongs to You.
Like much of Eastern Europe, Bulgaria is a place where it’s still almost impossible to imagine the availability of basic resources for vulnerable queer people, much less the large-scale social validation that comes with marriage equality.
But even in the United States, access to the freedoms some LGBTQ people enjoy depends on geography, class, education, and cultural background. This is hard to remember when there’s such a seductive, sweeping narrative of triumph emerging around the queer rights movement. But it’s important, I think, that we make a space for queer stories from outside the zones of (still very relative) queer privilege: other parts of the world, as well as rural America.
Three debuts coming this winter and spring offer a chance to listen to those stories. The first is Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues & Coming of Age Through Vinyl, a memoir by the journalist and music critic Rashod Ollison, which Beacon will publish in January. Born in central Arkansas, Ollison was raised by a mother whose “only way of loving me,” as he has said in interviews, “was keeping me alive.” His father, traumatized by the Vietnam War and struggling with addiction, was absent for much of his childhood and adolescence. Increasingly withdrawn, isolated both by his race (he’s the only black student in many of his gifted classes) and by his burgeoning awareness of his own sexuality, Rashod takes refuge in music. The popular music of several eras fills these pages, and Ollison writes gloriously about it. “I wanted to be the sound: free and powerful, bold and assured,” he thinks, listening to Chaka Khan after being bullied at school. “This was not the sound of a faggot.”
March will bring Saleem Haddad’s Guapa (Other Press), a novel about a young gay man in an unnamed country that resembles Syria. The story takes place over a single breathless day in the life of the narrator, Rasa—a day that’s bookended by two traumatic events. The first is being discovered in bed with his lover, Taymour, by his grandmother. The second is Taymour’s wedding.
In between, Rasa accompanies a journalist to interview Islamic militants in the city’s slums and searches for his friend Maj, a star in an underground drag club who has gone missing after a raid on a theater where men cruise for sex. These present-day crises are punctuated by Rasa’s memories of his childhood and his years as a college student in the United States during 9/11 and its aftermath. The book is a double portrait—of a young man coming of age in a place where being queer is a crime too terrible to be spoken, and of a city riven by conflict, from the gyms and shopping malls of the elites to the impoverished margins. It’s a beautiful, timely book.
Finally, in May, Riverhead will publish Boy Erased, Garrard Conley’s memoir of “ex-gay” therapy, a barbaric practice still in use almost everywhere in the United States. (Only four states and Washington, D.C., have outlawed it.) Like Ollison, a native of Arkansas, Conley grew up the son of Baptist pastor, whose religious conviction Conley shared as a young man. But his desires increasingly make him question the life he’s being groomed for. Terrified at the thought of separation from the family and the faith he loves, he agrees to enter a fundamentalist 12-step program that promises to make him straight. The scenes of this therapy are harrowing in their portrayal of vulnerable young people being led to the depths of self-hatred and shame. But the real marvel of Conley’s book is the portrayal of his parents, who are torn between the myths of prejudice and the reality of their devotion to their son. Though the book is a compelling condemnation of gay conversation therapy, by the end it offers less a narrative of anger than a rich testimony to resilient love.
None of these books presents LGBTQ people as mere victims, but neither do they subscribe to a narrative of equally distributed progress. Each of them is a reminder that almost everywhere in the world, including the United States, queer people are still fighting for their lives.
Garth Greenwell’s novel, What Belongs to You, was published by FSG in January 2016.