I remember being the boy who pushed his radio into the corner of his childhood bedroom so he could have a chance of hearing Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy” play on the nearby college radio station, and for that year, that was the one place I could hear it, on that station. In that corner of my room.
Yes. I was, I knew, the small-town boy in the song.
I was 12 the first time I looked up the word "homosexuality" in a library card catalog, and I couldn’t have told you what I was hoping for other than a larger world than the one I knew. I found two entries in my small-town Maine library, and I stared at them like they were the tiny doors to the rest of my life. I had known about what I could barely have called my “feelings” since at least a few years earlier. All I could tell is that I was someone who didn’t fit into the life the world expected me to lead.
This is what I found, away from the card catalog.
In middle school and high school, the secret and even illicit books I didn’t dare let people see I was reading: Fire From Heaven
and The Persian Boy
by Mary Renault. Falconer
by John Cheever. The novels of Gordon Merrick, especially The Quirk
and Perfect Freedom
. The Joy of Gay Sex
, which was the first book I read by coauthor Edmund White. It still moves me, now that I know him, to know he wrote this.
I came out in college, at Wesleyan University. In 1985, my first year there, I found David Leavitt’s story collection Family Dancing
. The next year, Girls, Visions, and Everything
by Sarah Schulman. The anthology This Bridge Called My Back
introduced me to many new writers like Gloria Anzaldua
, Cherrie Moraga
, Barbara Smith, Audre Lorde,
and for me, perhaps most importantly, Theresa Hak Yung Cha
. I took classes where these books were assigned, but I also loved skulking around the college bookstore, looking over the books other professors were teaching in other classes. I found Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
, the poetry and essays of Adrienne Rich
, and June Jordan
Somewhere there is a writer like me as I was then, someone who doesn’t see yet what they need to see.
I eventually stopped reading men in college, and so the queer writers who influenced me the most were women. At Bennington’s Summer Writers’ Conference, I met the writer Blanche Boyd, and while she was not my teacher, hearing her talk about her work stayed in my mind for a long time after. The Revolution of Little Girls
, and her story, “The Black Hand Girl,” remain intensely important texts to me. I graduated and left for San Francisco, and there I was reading Becky Birtha
, Dorothy Allison
, Kitty Tsui,
and Pat Califia
, for example, and I even met three of these women. I had taken a job at A Different Light Books, the LGBT bookstore, and it was an amazing thing to have Dorothy Allison drop by your work. I started reading men again: James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room
, The Fire Next Time
, The Evidence of Things Not Seen
. Tom Spanbauer’s The Man Who Fell In Love With the Moon
, John Weir’s The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket
, John Fox’s The Boys on the Rock
, the stories of Sam D’Allesandro, and the work of Kevin Killian
, David Wojnarowicz
, Paul Monette
, Essex Hemphill
, and Richard Rodriguez
. I became friends with the incredible Mx Justin Vivian Bond
, who introduced me to the trans lesbian playwright Kate Bornstein
. I took an internship at the LGBT journal Out/Look
, wrote my first cover story for them, and began a freelance writing career writing for The Advocate
. I moved to New York and while still working for A Different Light, in their West Village store, discovered the works of Christopher Coe
, Edmund White
, Ethan Mordden
, Robert Ferro, Andrew Grumley, and became friends with Dale Peck
, who worked around the corner at a clothing boutique. He would come by on lunch breaks and we would talk about Dennis Cooper
. I met Sarah Schulman
, and studied with the lesbian poet and publisher Beatrix Gates
who introduced me to the poet and memoirist Kenny Fries
. I then took a job at the startup of Out Magazine
, and wrote my first story for them in 1992 about a middle-grade writer named Jacqueline Woodson
I left for graduate school at Iowa, where I was a student, and met the late Reginald Shepherd
and Chris Adrian
. I kept looking for and finding queer books and writers. I began reviewing, and wrote my first published reviews about Kate Rushin’s The Black Backups
, and Mark Doty’s My Alexandria
. When I returned to New York, Dale Peck
introduced me to the editor Patrick Merla, who published my first memoir, “These Trees Were Once Women,” in his classic anthology of coming-out stories, Boys Like Us
, which, after it was published, led to me meeting Quang Bao and Hanya Yanagihara
, who were editing the groundbreaking queer Asian American anthology, Take Out
, for the Asian American Writers Workshop, and they included a story of mine.
I’ve written about some or all of this in various ways in my essay collection, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel
, but as I approach this year’s celebration of Pride, and I look at the incredible mix of books appearing, even this year, much less next, I find myself thinking about the young and emerging queer and Asian American and mixed race writers who have spoken to me about their work in the last year. I am thinking about what got me through to this place. How it was a conspiracy of many parts. The ways in which a story or essay in an anthology would or could lead to more publications. The books that were in print but are no longer. The independent LGBT bookstores, queer booksellers, friends who would become writers, friends who were writers, editors who were putting together anthologies — editors who looked for me before they knew I existed, hoping I did. The someone I met in graduate school or college who became one of my favorite writers, or would teach me more than I knew about what I needed to do or be next. The teacher who would take me to the next teacher. Or how I would or could become one of those teachers. How I am one, now.
In 2019, we are in a strange place, a place I never imagined. I can play “Smalltown Boy” on my phone as much as I want. I am in the larger world now. I say “my husband” in social and professional situations and like to watch as some people’s heads jerk back. And yet in some states I could be fired for saying that, or denied housing, or denied healthcare. But I still say it just like I used to put “gay” on my resume in 1991, no matter the job I applied for. I don’t know who picks up my books, or what happens when they do. It’s just my job to write them. It’s my part of the conspiracy, the one that made me. Somewhere there is a writer like me as I was then, someone who doesn’t see yet what they need to see. Who is walking forward in the dark, looking to prove something to themselves and the world. We have a meeting I can’t guess at somewhere ahead of us both. I only know I have to be there with whatever I’m doing next. And so do you. Keep writing and reading. Happy Pride. See you soon.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the bestselling author of the novels The Queen of the Night
, and the essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel
. He is a contributing editor at the New Republic
, and an editor-at-large at Virginia Quarterly Review
. His work has appeared in The Best American Essays 2016
, The New York Times Magazine
, The New York Times Book Review
, The New Yorker
, T Magazine
, Slate, Vulture, among others. He is winner of a 2003 Whiting Award, a 2004 NEA Fellowship in prose, and a 2010 MCCA Fellowship, and residency fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the VCCA, Civitella Ranieri, and Amtrak. He is an associate professor of English at Dartmouth College.