the importance of being represented

Friday, 18 October 2019

I remember searching desperately for characters who looked like me (or rather, looked like the thing that I might be but was too scared to admit yet, even to myself.) I stared at every blurb I found, scanning the shelves at the school library, the public library and the ones in the bookshops in the hope that suddenly there would be a bright beam of rainbow light and any potential queer book there would launch itself into my arms. Unsurprisingly, that didn't happen.

I admit that I didn't go out of my way to look further than the shelves right in front of my face. I also admit that if I had found a queer book I probably would have been too scared to check it out anyway, worrying about what people would think, whether they would guess something I wasn't ready for them to guess. No, I wouldn't have checked it out. But I would have known it existed. I could, and most likely would have, crept back to the library and returned to the shelf again and again, sneaking glances and slowly reaching my hand out until I could touch the cover, flip through the pages with an air of 'just skimming' while desperately taking in every single word. I would have known that there was at least one other person (the author) who had considered the idea of two girls together. But I didn't find it despite the fact that I was reading everything I could get my hands on. I always had but now it was tinged with a desperation to not be alone that took over everything, including my enjoyment of reading.  This wasn't the only factor but it was the main contributor to my three year long reading slump.

Before that happened I was reading everything. Magical schools, ordinary schools, dragons and demons and fantastic adventures. Children's classics and Jacqueline Wilson's entire early career. By the time I was in my early teens I'd already read the entire teen section at the library and I moved into adult. Chick-lit and pink covers took over my life. And in every single one the girl ended up with the boy. It was devastating.

I'd let myself believe that the reason I wasn't finding any young teenage girls with girlfriends in the kids section was because the relationships in those weren't very good. But the women's fiction section was different. These were by adults for adults and obviously represented the world accurately. If all the women still ended up with men then that must be how it was. It must mean that other kids were right when they used the word "gay" instead of "bad." After all, if no one was writing about it then there must be something wrong.

Gradually I gave up searching for something I would never find and pretty much stopped reading altogether. I still had my favourites that I would pick up and re-read but new books just didn't interest me as much as they had done before. In this time I came out, first to my friends and then to my family, and then to more friends, and more family, and classmates, and a couple more friends... the list goes on. The point is that I felt comfortable-ish with my identity as a lesbian. Comfortable enough to say it out loud, even if my voice did shake for the first twenty or so people. Feel the fear and do it anyway sort of stuff. This October marks six years since I first came out and I just want to say that I've never felt happier or more comfortable in myself as I do right now. If you're reading this and feeling even slightly similar to how I felt ten years ago then please, please, know that it gets better. It's not just a cliche saying. It's the truth. It doesn't happen overnight, it's a change so gradual you barely even notice until you're wandering around wearing a pride flag as a cape and you suddenly realise that your face literally aches because you're smiling so wide. But however slowly it happens, it does happen, it does get better and it will.

Back in 2017 I posted about a mini book haul I'd gotten over the Christmas period that consisted entirely of books about women falling in love with other women. I'd read Carol a couple of years earlier and had absolutely fallen in love with it (I actually ended up having to buy a second copy because the pages were actually falling apart too much for Sellotape to help) but ultimately I was still too lost in fear that I would never find love, that my early experience with searching for any other queer books would only be repeated should I try again. I'm honestly not sure what made me finally click buy on those books but I'm forever grateful to past me for doing so. Because queer books do exist and they always, always have.

If you've been around my social media for a while you'll probably know that last year I read only queer books, and mostly F/F ones at that. While I did read several newer books I also read much older ones. Books published in 2009, 2008, 2002 and some from even earlier. Nine years after I needed them I finally found the books I'd been searching for so desperately and it was only then that I realised how much I'd needed them. How much I still did. I still do. Reading it Queer was the best reading experience of my life; and whilst I've expanded my reading back out to include non-queer books this year I have still managed to make over half of my books-read queer ones. But despite how many queer books I read and rainbow stacks I make there's still a part of me that doesn't quite believe how lucky I am. It's the small piece of teenage fear that lodged itself inside my heart when I was fourteen years old that I've never quite been able to shake. I can't do it alone but sometimes, unexpectedly, something lends a helping hand to shrink it down a tiny bit more. Recently I read The Deepest Breath by Meg Grehan and came across this passage:


That fragment of teenage fear is even smaller now.

I've read over one hundred queer books. I'm privileged enough to be able to own enough to have over an entire shelf of them on my bookcase. I've been out for six years and I'm twenty three years old but reading that page was like Meg had opened a doorway right into my own past. Because that is me. That is me at age fourteen as I desperately wished for a rainbow beam of light. That is me at age seventeen as I logged out of the library page in tears. That is me at age twenty as I searched up and ordered my little stack of gay books.

That is me. That is my representation. Scared and searching for something I didn't dare put a name to. My question. My answer. Whole and unguarded and absolutely honest. Black and white on the page in front of me; nearly ten years after I first started looking.

This is why representation is important. Because, despite the past six years and all the other queer books I've read during them, I sat on the sofa at 11pm and cried happy tears for longer than I care to admit. Fourteen year old me needed to read these words almost more than I needed oxygen and I honestly think that twenty three year old me did too; I just didn't realise until I turned that page. Would this passage have changed my entire life, made my lump of teenage fear shrink right up and vanish when I was actually a teenager? Possibly not.

But it might have made a small difference. I might have felt calmer, less like I was wrong and freakish. I definitely would have at least known that one person (the author) had considered the idea that two girls could be together, that a girl from a small village could have a crush on another girl from a small village and it wouldn't break the universe.

Thankyou to Meg Grehan for her beautiful words and to Little Island books for publishing them and sending them out into the world with such a gorgeous cover.

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