If you are a lesbian and you want to get married in California, you're in luck. But if you are a human being who would like to read novels with lesbian protagonists by openly lesbian authors, you'd better move to England. In the U.K., openly lesbian novelists with lesbian content like Jeanette Winterson and Sarah Waters are treated like people, and their books are treated like books. They are published by the most mainstream publishers, represented by high-rolling agents, reviewed in regular newspapers by real critics, contextualized with other British intellectuals, given mainstream awards, broadcast on television as movies... and as a result of all this respect and consideration, they are read by a broad constituency in England and the rest of the world. For those of us writing here in the United States, England seems like the Promised Land.
In America, lesbian literature has gone the way of cheap rents, good public schools, nonmonogamy, integrated neighborhoods and free will. At this year's Lambda Literary Awards (the awards the LGBT community gives to our best books ignored by the straight book awards), not a single lesbian book nominated for best novel was published by a mainstream press. Our literature is disappearing at the same time we are being told that we are winning our rights. How can we be equal citizens if our stories are not allowed to be part of our nation's story?
In the 1980s, the AIDS crisis forced America to admit that gay people exist, and for a brief period the vibrant but underground literature of authentic gay and lesbian experience was able to surface through corporate presses and hover on the margins of American letters. By the early 1990s the country's most powerful presses started presenting lesbian literature as an integrated part of U.S. intellectual life. But that's when cultural containment kicked in, in the form of niche marketing. Corporations began the process of transforming a political movement into a consumer group, by selecting particular products to be sold to queers alone. Chain bookstores literally took lesbian literature off of the Fiction shelves and tucked it away in newly formed Gay Book sections, which are usually found on the fourth floor in the back behind the potted plants. At the same time, lesbian writers who avoided protagonists as lesbian as they are were allowed to stay in Fiction. The industry created incentives for authors to avoid the specificity of their own experience, absurdly creating the only literature in the world in which the authors' actual lives are never recorded. The best known example of many would be Susan Sontag, who maintained her stature as a Major American Intellectual while never applying her prodigious intellectual gifts to a public analysis of her own condition. She even wrote a book analyzing AIDS stigma while staying in the closet.
Ironically, in our conservative cultural moment, familiarity is confused with quality. It is actually harder to write a lesbian novel than one with a dominant culture protagonist, because there isn't the recycling of agreed upon narrative conventions that mainstream writers depend on. As a result, writing that actually brings new information about how people live and expands American literature is coded as “wrong” and irrelevant, while the U.S. continues its obsession with the coming-of-age of the white male as the central story of the nation.
Now that we face the possibility of an Obama presidency, LGBT people hope for a more equitable society, in which we can enjoy a country that reflects our needs as much as those of heterosexuals. In a media culture, not being represented accurately and with variety is a serious disability. If they can do it in England, they can do it in New York. Let all the writers, agents, editors, publishers, marketers, publicists, critics, book buyers and booksellers act as if lesbian and gay literature is for everyone. If weexpect this from each other and behave accordingly, it will come to be.