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The language of Pride: five books I read in the closet

Jess Curry shares the stories that showed her the value of LGBTQ+ representation growing up.

As a fourteen year old with severe ‘only gay in the village’ syndrome, it is not an overstatement to say that stories centred around LGBTQ+ figures became a cure for loneliness. After all, to read is to become part of something bigger than yourself. As well as the direct dialogue from writer to reader, I realised that I was just one of a larger readership: an intoxicating mix of individual and collective experience that was validating above all else.

I have no particular claim to expertise about LGBTQ+ literature, but with Pride Month now behind us, I wanted to pay tribute to the stories which, for me, served to create a form of context before I found community.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – Jeanette Winterson

Language gives the tools to share the experiences and emotions of LGBTQ+ people, and to communicate this aspect of personal identity. I think there is an assumption that we are all born equipped to express feelings of romantic (and platonic) attraction. However, as hollow and clichéd as it sounds, representation is so important in facilitating this. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a story which does a lot of things, but, crucially, it shows the innocence of loving girls. A semi-autobiographical work that celebrates the power of literature, Oranges charts the transition, from youth to adulthood, of a lesbian girl growing up in a working-class, evangelist community. Her blossoming attraction to women is shown as part of this journey, and so, in a sense, the book allowed me to read my self-discovery before I had publicly named it. It is clever, moving, and, at moments, deeply sad. Another important aspect of the work is that its central theme – the rejection of single-mindedness – is treated with a wittiness that surpasses bitterness, so that reconciliation is charted as much as betrayal.

The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

I am aware that my ‘passing privilege’ as a bisexual women has allowed me to adopt a language of pragmatism when discussing sexuality. In the past, when I talked about my love life in new social settings, I would use, truthfully but disingenuously, only male pronouns. This was purely for comfort: there are, of course, many environments, both within and outside of the UK, where disguising sexuality is a matter of life or death. A tragedy of the particular nature of this silence is that it goes unrecorded. But in the sprawling, stylised speech of the three main, male characters in Oscar Wilde’s only novel, homoerotic themes are explored and celebrated. Wilde’s invocation of aestheticism and Hellenism were intended, I think, as a code for other closeted men to recognise: designed to be hidden in plain sight from those who would (and, ultimately, did) persecute Wilde for the contents of the novel.

Orlando: a Biography – Virginia Woolf

This was described by Vita Sackvile-West’s son as the “longest and most charming love letter in history”. Indeed, this is a book so much the product of the author’s love for another woman that, had Virginia not met Vita, it surely would have never been written. Woolf places her lover, ‘Orlando’, in Elizabethan England, and creates an epic biography for him/her, spanning over 300 years. The protagonist’s sexual orientation and gender shifts over the course of the book, and this fluidity of gender throws into sharp relief the restrictive binaries of sex in the eyes of the law and social mores. Woolf worried that the work’s fantasy elements would cause it to be seen as a ‘romp’, and that it would be taken less seriously than her other novels. However, to do so would be to neglect an important aspect of the novel: this is a piece of LGBTQ+ literature, which sacrifices neither the promotion of a political agenda, nor the celebration of intimate and joyous queer love, in its expression.

The Colour Purple – Alice Walker

“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the colour purple in a field and don’t notice it.” Set in 1930s Georgia, The Colour Purple depicts the lives and remarkable resilience of young black women born into poverty and segregation. It is impossible to draw a single message from a book which deals with a number of complex issues, but it is striking that it is the only book with a lesbian protagonist for which a woman has won the Pulitzer Prize. ‘Powerful’ does not do justice to this story of self-actualisation and emancipation, in which colour runs as a thread to mark moments of liberation throughout the text. The title itself is a profound signal of Celie’s changed relationship with God, transforming from a white man who has power over her to a non-gendered touchstone of strength and spirituality. I think some WLM suffer from anxieties about taking on the male gaze, but there is no hint of this here. Walker is trailblazing in her exquisite depictions of female love, and her portrayals of lesbian sex carry a lack of self-consciousness which only adds to the intimacy of the scenes.

Twelfth Night – William Shakespeare

I think of this Shakespeare play as the first piece of LGBTQ+ fiction that I read. Aside from the most bad-ass of female comedic characters, it is just so much fun. Viola – disguised as a young boy – becomes the focal point through whom heteronormative expectations and conventions are manipulated, to the point that the audience must question whether Orlando falls in love with a girl dressed as a boy, or simply the boy that he believes her to be. I like to think that Shakespeare can’t have intended Twelfth Night to be watched or read as anything other than a joyful exploration of love for multiple genders.

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