by Amy Dunne
Are coming out stories still relevant in 2014? It’s a question that can divide opinion.
A little while ago, I attended a literary event that was full of people I didn’t know. A little group formed and I was taking part in their discussion. When asked what I do for a living, I experienced the usual moment of panicked hesitation that I’ve come to expect and struggled to decide on my answer. Should I have been honest and upfront, or should I have given the half truth answer that avoids potential awkwardness. The dilemma I’ve found with openly saying I write lesbian fiction is very much dependent on what the person or group perceive it to mean. For example, in the past people have automatically come to the conclusion that it means I write smut or porn. Some people have never heard of lesbian fiction and question everything—which is fine by me. Some are clearly uncomfortable with whatever they’re imagining it to be and struggle to grasp what exactly I mean, when I say, “they are basically like any other story, but with a lesbian protagonist. That’s the only difference.” I suppose it comes down to knowing your audience, but that is sometimes impossible. On this particular occasion, I was honest and said, “I write lesbian YA fiction.” I was immediately set upon by an infuriating person who knows-it-all. “Please don’t tell me you write coming out stories. Ugh! They’ve been done to death and there’s no need for them anymore. Gay people are accepted these days. It’s so much easier for young people to come out nowadays, than what it used to be.” I was so stunned, I couldn’t actually speak. Thankfully the person was called away before I exploded with my fiery retort. I should probably also mention that the same person stated that, “young people don’t even read nowadays.” I always try to respect other people’s point of view, but sometimes it can be difficult, especially when their opinions make huge sweeping generalisations and come across as very ignorant.
As it happens, I’m proud to say that my debut novel Secret Lies is a YA lesbian novel that includes a coming out story. It was published by Bold strokes Books in December 2013. It won a Golden Crown Literary Award in the YA Category in 2014. I would also like to point out how incredibly popular YA fiction is which begs to differ with the opinion that young people don’t read nowadays. (Although it isn’t just young people that read and enjoy YA fiction).
Last week, I was invited to do an author reading, signing, and Q&A session. Two of the women who came along were from Zimbabwe. They opened up to the group about their experiences of identifying as lesbians while living in Zimbabwe. They experienced negative comments and actions directed towards them on a daily basis from family, peers, members of their community, and the church. A whole host of obstacles were constantly set against them. Their homosexuality was believed to be caused by possession of evil spirits. And yet, both women have persevered and remained together in their relationship. They described the harrowing experiences that are faced by other LGBTQ people in their community, who are not so lucky. They also mentioned how little support there is for LGBTQ people. They felt that a novel addressing coming out and the many pressures: social, family, peers, society, and religious beliefs could really help others in their community. I have to say that meeting and talking with them was an absolute honour. It really struck a chord with me.
I appreciate why some people feel that coming out stories aren’t needed anymore. On a worldwide scale, the LGBTQ community are making huge strives towards equality whilst celebrating our diversity. The hope for the future is that one day coming out stories won’t be needed because coming out won’t be an issue. It will be accepted as a normal part of who a person is. I think it’s a very positive outlook and shows hope for full equality. My only issue with it is that we are not at that stage yet. In fact, I think we have a while to go and an awful lot more hard work before we even get close to that desired reality.
I enjoy reading coming out stories. If I could have read one when I was a young adult, I have no doubt it would’ve changed my life for the better. That was the deciding factor and inspiration for my decision to write Secret Lies. It’s basically the YA book I wish I’d had access to back when I was a teenager.
Coming out stories give a unique perspective and can offer solace and hope for a happy future. I think to claim that coming out today is easier, is somewhat ignorant. Perhaps in general, it’s easier for the LGBTQ community to come out and it is wildly more accepted. Legislation is changing, LGBTQ rights are improving, there are a host of same-sex celebrity couples that are famous, and the internet allows for positive LGBTQ media to be accessed easily. But these alone, aren’t enough to battle against communities that hold a strong religious or social belief that homosexuality is wrong.
What about the individual young person who is living in a small town, or whose family is devoutly religious? Young people are often solely reliant on family / caregivers for financial support and basic needs such as food, shelter, clothing, medical treatment, and love. They have little choice in the school they attend, the community they live in, and the rules and legislations that are forced upon them. An adult has significantly more opportunities to escape from a difficult situation. They can move state/ country, get a new job, actively seek out LGBTQ friendly communities, and decide if they want to practice religious beliefs. This isn’t possible for a young person who is dependant on their family / caregivers, peers, school, church, and community. It can be unbearably isolating and harrowingly stressful for a young person who feels that they are different to the norm. For these young people, their situations are unable to change dramatically for perhaps a few years and a coming out story can offer comfort in an otherwise bleak and lonely world. It can help instil the belief that life does get better. That you’re not alone. They can be a lifeline.
The high rates of young LGBTQ people who are homeless, self-harm, or feel there is no choice but to take their own lives, shows that we are still far from achieving the ideal utopian world that I mentioned previously. That is why I’m so passionate about coming out stories. We only have to look at countries like Russia and Uganda to see that the fight for equality is ongoing and taking place on a global scale. To believe that it’s easier today for an individual to come out is a huge generalisation that ignores each individual’s right to their thoughts, feelings, and unique personal experiences. Coming out is a hugely emotional, psychological, physical, and sometimes spiritual experience. Who are we to determine it’s nothing special? Especially, if it feels significantly special to the young person. My coming out impacted greatly on my life. In fact, I’d go as far as to say without those experiences, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.
If in the future, coming out stories are no longer needed or written, I don’t believe that will detract from the historical importance or the reader’s enjoyment of those stories. Even though they are often works of fiction, each story still gives an insight into what the protagonist is experiencing, thinking, and feeling. Love is universal. We can all empathise with the thoughts, fears, and feelings that are invoked when we fall for that very first person. The excitement, the potent desire, and the way our bodies seem to react of their own accord, are powerful enough to often stay in our memories for the rest of lives. These stories describe a specific time, place, social setting, ideology, ethics, and technological advancements, that become a written record of what life was like for LGBTQ people at that time. They describe the fight for equality (on a personal level, but also on country /global level) and the reasoning and beliefs that battle against it. In years to come, they will show a very specific time in history. Future generations may look back with the same disgust at the abhorrent inequality and treatment of the LGBTQ community, as we now look back on slavery, child labour, and the treatment of women throughout history. We wouldn’t refuse to read literature that depicts the history of other minorities on the grounds that we no longer live in that era. The same should be said for LGBTQ history.
I believe that coming out stories are still important, but also that they don’t take away from other stories that feature LGBTQ protagonists without a coming out theme. Sometimes it’s nice to read a novel where the main protagonist is already out and proud, and their sexuality is just another aspect of who they are. I would argue that there is a need for both.
To sum up, I feel that coming out stories are needed today, as much as they ever have been. In the future they will offer a different perspective that details part of our LGBTQ history and for that reason they will always be important. YA fiction is a genre in its own right, and not just a reading age. I’ve heard from a reader aged fourteen and a reader in their seventies who both read and enjoyed Secret Lies.
If you’re not keen on reading coming out stories, that’s perfectly fine. There is a tremendous variety of LGBTQ fiction of varying genres just waiting for you to pick up and read. We all have different tastes and that is celebrated by the diverse high quality fiction that is out there. But for those who want to experience a different perspective or relive the trials and tribulations of self-discovery and first love, a YA novel will do just that.
I wish you happy reading.
Amy was raised in Derbyshire, England. She attended Keele University and graduated in 2007 with a BSc in Philosophy and Psychology. After graduating she worked for a while with vulnerable young people. Her debut YA novel, Secret Lies won a Golden Crown Literary award in 2014. She is married to her beautiful wife, Lou. They share a love of Dolly Parton, have two gorgeous cats, and a very mischievous little dog.
Coming this December– Season’s Meetings by Amy Dunne (adult but YA-friendly!)
Could the festive road trip from hell actually lead to love?
Catherine Birch is a lonely workaholic who hates Christmas. This year, she is being forced to celebrate with her best friend’s family in the Highlands of Scotland. Having missed her flight, Catherine reluctantly ventures on a road trip with beautiful stranger Holly Daniels.
Although polar opposites, the intense attraction between them is unmistakable. Just as Catherine begins to think spending Christmas with Holly might not be so bad, a raging snowstorm leaves them stranded in the middle of nowhere. Huddled together, with little chance of rescue, they forge a pact: if they escape, they’ll make this a Christmas to remember. But will it be remembered for the right reasons?