Pride Month Blogathon: Day 3 – Introduction to Pride Month Blogathon
by Rebecca Podos
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
—Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
Whenever I read this poem, my very favorite, it feels like release. From self-blame, from self-imposed atonement, from the impossible trap of trying to be “good,” whatever that abstract concept means to you.
For teenaged me, “good” meant “normal.” Normal was defined by the information I had access to, the stories I pored through searching for girls just like me, who kept an anxious and exacting math of something as unquantifiable as their own sexuality. Girls who lay awake at night, awarding themselves points for their attraction to Freddie Prinze Jr., while subtracting points for Michelle Rodriguez in Girlfight. For a large part of my life, I couldn’t find girls like me.
My hometown—a former mill town, home of the world’s first condensed milk factory, and birthplace of a famous and famously incompetent abolitionist—wasn’t ultra-conservative or close-minded, though it did go red in the last election. I was just growing up in the end of one millennium, and the beginning of another. We didn’t learn about queer history in classrooms (though we did watch a rippled VHS of “And the Band Played On” in art class.) In our one year of high school Sex Ed, we didn’t discuss queer sex or the gender spectrum, focusing instead on passionless cartoon drawings of ovaries and the epididymis.
Nobody led a moment of silence for Matthew Shepard.
Honestly, the most zealous discussion of queer subjects I can remember was a lunchroom debate over Leonardo DiCaprio, and whether or not this picture of him wearing a girl’s headband in TigerBeat meant he was secretly gay.
When I first started to wonder about sexuality, I guess I could’ve struck out and found the information for myself. We had internet—I’m not that old—but mostly, it was characterized by the crackling of our fickle dial-up, and the slow torture of the Neopets website downloading cubic centimeter by cubic centimeter, long enough that you would go to the kitchen for a Capri Sun and a pack of DunkARoos while you waited. But I would’ve had to know what questions to ask the internet, or where to ask them. It never occurred to me to Ask Jeeves, “what is a bisexual?!” and wait while the all-important answers loaded agonizingly, pixel by pixel, as I dunked my Roos.
And if there were books starring queer characters in my small school library—maybe there were a few “very special episode” style novels featuring one L or G character, though never BTQIAP+—I had no clue how to find them. We sure weren’t assigned such books for school reading, and there were no gorgeously decorated Pride Month displays. Not in our classrooms, or our small public library, or the Borders which was briefly open, but closed before the teen section became A Thing (side note: my hometown has a population of 35,000, but hasn’t had a single bookstore in years.)
Now, the landscape of YA literature has changed, and I’m so grateful. It’s been wonderful to witness the influx of LGBTQIAP+ books, from the advance guard of highly emotional coming out stories, to novels that span genres and feature young characters all across the queer spectrum, some of whom are lonely, soft, and despairing, and some of whom are and always have been totally fine with their sexuality and gender identity. Thanks to blogs like GayYA, We Need Diverse Books, Bisexual Books, and so many more (never mind the invaluable Twitter recs) these stories are more discoverable than ever. Even though I didn’t find them until my mid-twenties, when I was writing and representing YA, I owe so much to books like these.
Self-acceptance also came with my own small contribution to the genre, while I was drafting Like Water. In Vanni, my main character, I wanted to write a teenager whose world isn’t upended or even troubled by the realization of her bisexuality. It’s simply expanded. There’s no angst attached to her discovery. Too busy falling in love and Googling “Bi things to do in Albuquerque,” she’s not particularly concerned about coming out, or its repercussions. Vanni’s far from the first queer character of this mold, but even so, there was a moment when I wondered, remembering my own search for identity, is this realistic? Can the process really be so painless?
To which I thought, fuck it, why can’t it be?
Reading and writing queer YA has helped me grow comfortable with myself, and with the teenager I was. The relationships I hid out of guilt growing up, and those I denied myself altogether. It’s helped me come to terms with my regrets—not for the life I’m living, because I love my marriage, my career, my friendships, and I consider myself extremely lucky. I only regret the time I wasted when I was younger, floundering around without a reflection, measuring myself against who I thought I should be, how I was supposed to feel, who I was meant to be attracted to, and whether or not I was “good.”
But as glad as I am that these stories are available to today’s teens, to you all, still this message persists in 2017: that you’re not normal, that because of who you love, because of the sex you want to have or don’t want to have, because of the gender or genders you know yourself to be, you have no place in this world. This message persists in the rhetoric of the last election season. It’s delivered by politicians who twist violent anti-LGBTQIAP+ tragedies like the Pulse shooting toward their own Islamophobic ends, while shoring up their power by leading crusades against transgender children in public school bathrooms. They work to erode our civil rights, state by state, because supposedly, it infringes upon the rights of the ignorant and the hateful and the frightened to discriminate against us. Our 45th president proposes to gut funding for HIV/AIDS prevention, reverses Obama-era protections and anti-discrimination ordinances, and surrounds himself with homophobic allies who spread this message to their bases so that he doesn’t have to, at least in so many words.
Maybe times have changed, and the internet has changed, and YA literature has changed, but the message being broadcast by the loudest and most inescapable of hateful voices remains as ever: utter bullshit.
Listen up, queer kids. I don’t know your stories yet. I don’t know about your particular loneliness, but I know with all my heart that you are not alone—there is a whole community waiting for you, with its own rich history, even if you haven’t learned it yet. And I know that the world, with its prairies and deep trees, its mountains and rivers, is so much bigger than small minds would have you believe, and that you do not have to be “good” to earn a place in it.
It already belongs to you.
Rebecca Podos is the author of THE MYSTERY OF HOLLOW PLACES, with her second YA novel, LIKE WATER, an LGBTQ contemporary, coming 10/17/17. By day, she works as a YA and MG agent at the Rees Literary Agency in Boston.