The book that beckoned me from the closet was a bittersweet memoir by J.R. Ackerley, My Father and Myself. Books have been my retreat, my instructors, since I was a good churchgoing boy at my public library, nervously flipping through What's Happening to My Body books for the dick illustrations. Later I had the luxury of working for one of the best bookstores in the world, Elliott Bay Book Company, at a pivotal time in my life. Ackerley, with his pink spine and iconic New York Review of Books cover design, practically reached from the shelf and tapped me on the shoulder.
I read his memories urgently, escaping into his life when my own threatened to overwhelm me with religious baggage. The casual nature with which he says to his father, "I don't mind telling you. I went to meet a sailor friend," and his father replies, "It's all right, old boy. I prefer not to know. So long as you enjoyed yourself, that's the main thing"—in the 1920s no less!—finally opened me up to the possibility of having that conversation myself.
I've been out for five years now. I wouldn't be if not for books, and ever since I have been astonished by how much there is yet for me to learn. Marriage equality was all anyone talked about when I made my debut, and so I assumed that's what people like me were supposed to care about. It was easy for a time to just spout the rhetoric I'd heard here and there, as if it were the formal position of the gay voting bloc.
What I lacked, however, was context. To my ingenue's surprise, LGBTQ politics are not the monolith decried by those who had warned me of the "gay agenda" in my youth. My employment afforded me the opportunity to host authors, and I leaped at opportunities to work events with myriad queer writers who would broaden my understanding of what people like us care about—who would show me how gay priorities have often superseded those of the trans community and how violence, misogyny, and racism still corrode relationships among queers.
Those writers included Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, whose memoir The End of San Francisco was a revelation. Her radical politics and work with groups like ACT UP and Gay Shame brought into relief the methods queers use to resist not only repression but also complacency. She writes about a 1990s that feels galaxies away from the 1990s of my sheltered childhood. Her gender defiance and anti-assimilationism lifted the curtain from the gay mainstream I had presumed to identify with and urged me to consider a more robust critique of how sex, gender, race, money, and politics interact.
Where did I fit into all of this—a cis white man with a meek disposition? And how did we even get to this new era of vociferous public activism from the timid Ackerlian love that preferred to remain unknown at the century's outset? Frankly, I still haven't figured out the first question, but I knew even then that HuffPo headlines and Salon think pieces weren't going to give me the answers.
As for the how we got here: It didn't take me long to learn the significance of Stonewall as a catalytic moment of resistance to abuse. Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were fearless trans women at the forefront of liberation in the 1960s and '70s. As I read my books and learn my history, I'm humbled by the bravery of people who were fighting for gay guys like me and trans women like them long before it was safe or acceptable—all the work that has been done to offer me the relative ease of coming out and living my queer life. Where would I be if those before me hadn't acted? If not for Johnson and Rivera rousing the riots at Stonewall, I wonder where any of us would be.
I was fortunate to have a workplace with a seemingly unlimited inventory—and some killer old-guard queers eager to point me toward the good stuff. (And lemme say here: Libraries and so many book events are free. Dig in, honey!) They recommended the recent memoir by trans activist Kate Bornstein, A Queer and Pleasant Danger, as well as Justin Spring's biography of the academic, tattooist, and pornographer Samuel Steward called Secret Historian.
Secret Historian lays out Steward's exceptional record keeping, particularly his Stud File of sexual encounters from the 1930s, 1940s, and onward to his death in the 1990s. A preponderance of letters and diaries, too, illustrate Steward's close friendships with Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, his fling with Thornton Wilder, and other juicy mid-century details. Spring's writing is delectably readable and gratifyingly voyeuristic. As dangerous a time as it was for queers, it makes clear that Steward was anything but sheepish about his sexual identity and literary ambitions.
Timidity is not a common trait of the queer men, women, and others whose work lasts. Bornstein's taut, potent memoir made that clear to me. Her journey is wild and audacious as she transitions across religious barriers, gender barriers, and political barriers. She takes readers from L. Ron Hubbard's Sea Org ships to the forefront of LGBTQ movements and eventually to Seattle, where, as I read, I finally began to recognize places and names I was familiar with in an intimate rather than academic sense. Though our paths differed, I found flashes of my own story in Bornstein's escape from a religion that didn't respect her, and in both of us eventually finding a sense of stability on Capitol Hill.
With that firm footing, I then began to read James Baldwin, David Wojnarowicz, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Tom Spanbauer, Dean Spade, and Janet Mock. Learning my roots continues to be a joy—especially with Justin Hall's formidable compendium of queer comics, No Straight Lines, "a unique window into the hopes, fears, and fantasies of queer people for the last four decades." Much like the memoirs and biographies I've read, these comics reveal the intensely personal as insight into the public and political—how intersectionality is a far more constructive approach to progress than single-issue voting.
I recognize my position of great privilege as a cis white man, much of it afforded to me by dangerous work done by trans women of color, lesbians, and countless others. As I continue to read, I aim to grow beyond the wispy politics of self-interest so that I can put a book down and set to work in support of those resisting trans-discriminatory legislation on matters of health care and fucking bathroom access, and sexual violence in prison, and the military industry. Reading is the way I know how to learn from my elders, the ones who were breaking glass long before Stonewall and those who've been rioting since. I'm indebted to all of them and humbled by their sacrifices, and so I keep reading across the LGBTQIA spectrum in order to fortify myself, aspiring to contain multitudes. Because I'm no expert, darling—not alone.