My very first Pride, I was dirt broke and with my first girlfriend.
We were both fresh out of the closet and too unsure of ourselves to really do anything fun by way of bars. So we stepped into a historically gay neighborhood’s bookstore. She broke off to look at nonfiction, I went into sci-fi.
The books in the sci-fi section were unapologetically queer; amateur photoshopped book cover erotica. They tackled every topic you could ever want—lesbian werewolves, lesbian bondage, lesbian aliens; it felt like I had pulled just the right book and landed in an alternate universe where there was joy and genuine love in queer fiction and erotica. In a literary history plagued by deaths, “corrections,” and madness, these slim paperbacks beckoned me to join them in a world where loving women was unquestioned and untouched by the homophobic world.
Sadly, I had no money to buy these books, and even if I had, I lived with family members who would have swiftly kicked me out for owning such texts.
I joined my girlfriend in her memoirs, too shy to read the entire text of werewolf erotica in a public place.
This year I went to BookWoman in Austin, Texas. It’s a gem of a spot with a huge lesbian fiction section, all brightly decorated with flags and employee recommendations. I picked up one of the erotic books there and fucking fell head over heels for it. The world that I’d been promised was here at last, and it was paradise. It was also only about 250 pages, which I swiftly finished on the airplane ride home (note the character development, now I have only half an issue with reading in public).
The Demise of a Queer Space
So, I decided to go back to the bookstore where I first heard that siren call of freedom. Instead of the oasis at the edge of the magical forest, I found the magical forest bulldozed and the pool turned into a hotel. It’s fine, it’s still an indie bookstore, just not the one my queer self needed.
I asked someone at that bookstore where the lesbian fiction was, because I wanted to spend money and read something wonderful and cheery in the age of the incoming rapture.
I was told there was no lesbian fiction section per se, but that lesbian fiction would just be found in whatever genre it belonged to. That sounds all fine and well on paper, but the mistake management has made is that it assumes that every gay person knows the right code words and phrases. Basically, the reader has to pretty much already know the title of what they’re looking for. It doesn’t allow for discovery, which is, in my mind, the antithesis of a bookstore.
Every part of Los Angeles is gentrified or gentrifying. This of course includes historic gay neighborhoods. The lesbian bars are long gone, and all we queer women have left to huddle around is Wednesday Night WLW night at one gay bar (which I never went to because i always, always, have work in the morning—who doesn’t?). There are events of course, there are always events, but I still mourn that little section in the bookstore, where I saw myself.
When you destroy queer-only spaces, whether that’s a bar or a bookstore section, and disseminate it amongst the masses of other, heteronormative spaces, all that says is “I am a performative ally.”
“We are all one,” the action proclaims from the rooftop, swinging the ally flag it undoubtedly has; “I have ended homophobia!” It’s all very good and well for the straight person who may come across the lesbian romance book that I wanted, who will look at it and go, “wow, how progressive of this bookstore,” before sliding the book right back into its space and not buying it.
I would have bought it. Just saying.
In a sea of rainbow colored mugs, pins and patches, I couldn’t find a single book of happy lesbian fiction to walk out of the store with.
Entering into Queer Literature is Tough (or at Least I Found it Tough)
By disseminating books into every genre, you make it hard for those who are new to the system to navigate their own coming out, and to find representation. I remember in undergrad, looking for medieval scholarship on lesbian women, and I was so convinced no one had ever written about it. Simply because I couldn’t find any academic sources. A professor finally looked with me and taught me about code words; Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages is a wonderful, amazing book, but the title doesn’t roll of the tongue.
We should not have to jump through hoops and have memorized the titles we want before going to a bookstore. As I said earlier, it is the antithesis of the bookstore ideal. Literature is a core method for an oppressed people to find themselves, and connect with themselves, why would we sever that connection in name of faux-progression?
You also make it annoying for store clerks who have to deal with me. The person who asks “do you have A…well do you have B…what about C” and all through the alphabet. Give me a gay fiction section, if not for me, and for all the baby queers out there who just want to read something that isn’t making a play at respectability politics, then for the store clerks who don’t deserve my lists.
I Don’t Mean to be Bitter, I’m Just Sad
Because I wanted to recreate that moment that baby queer me had, blushing in the bookstore, seeking covert looks at the words and then looking around all ashamed, as if anyone cared what I was reading. Only this time, it would have had a good ending.