One of my earliest memories of the growing acceptance of People Like Me happened about 20 years ago at Barnes & Noble. There our authors were—on the shelves of a mainstream suburban bookstore, arranged just as nicely as the nearby rows of history and self-help books. I paced this special wall of GAY & LESBIAN books carefully, judging if it was some kind of bait for a trap-door. But the only person who approached me was a staff member reminding me that it was near closing.
That was my first purchase of a gay novel from a non-gay bookstore and I felt as though my receipt was a political statement. My sale counted; it would create an order for a replacement copy for another gay customer to buy, and keep our GAY & LESBIAN literature in circulation.
Looking back, it was also a turning point in how I saw myself, a validation that I’ve never forgotten. Life in The City still called, for I couldn’t imagine living as a gay man in the conservative suburb where I grew up. But the fact that I found myself represented at that mainstream bookstore gave me a little more hope for my future, that maybe The City wasn’t the only place I might eventually find acceptance. I don’t even remember fearfully looking over my shoulder on the way to the parking lot: representation without repercussion.
Much has changed in the world since then, including the term GAY & LESBIAN itself. Buying alternative books first went from in-store to online, offering privacy in the transaction but not the product. All books then still had covers, titles, and artwork that might make a reader think twice about pulling out her purchase on the train to work. But today, with e-readers, there is privacy both in the transaction and the product—that gentle, elderly lady two train seats away could be reading Emma or erotica. The e-reader offers endless options, and privacy for it all.
At one time, the friendly question, “What are you reading?” would have prompted someone to tip the book backward to show the cover. With a Nook, someone will tip the device forward and show the words. How do you judge a book, and a reader, without a cover? You don’t.
And therein lies the potential in the LGBT market—it’s not solely about the intended reader, but the read. Movies and television shows have expanded their casts to include more “diversity” not as sidekicks but as central characters, reflecting the everyday interactions many people have with LGBT folk in real life. Our stories, and lives, are in the news almost daily and our marriages are celebrated in the Sunday New York Times.
This niche market, GAY & LESBIAN, has grown to include bisexual, transgender, intersex, questioning, and ally voices—visibility that transcends gender, age, class, race, and sexual orientation itself. I have received responses to Gaybash from heterosexual women in their 70s as well as from gay men in their 30s and 40s. All drawn to the same book with primary characters who are gay, all finding something in the story that speaks to them.
Readers crave authenticity from fresh voices—of lived experiences, of fantasy, of tragedy, of science fiction. While there are some technical barriers to entry in the formatting of an e-book, these barriers are nothing compared to the sentinels who decided what did and did not get published, and largely still do. But sharing a personal journey has never been easier and blogs abound, just a few search words away. Though there are still biases in how traditional media covers e-books, e-publishing has expanded to the point that it’s no longer “suicide” to DIY. And with the wide reach of social media, I can’t predict precisely who my readers—and champions—will be. What fun!
This is an exciting time for indie authors, particularly those who don’t see themselves, and their lives, represented on today’s bestseller lists. The marketing of LGBTIQA e-books, whether fiction or nonfiction, proves that the hard work comes after the writing. But to tell your story, personally and honestly, and have it “out there” for others to read and absorb is a feeling of true liberation.
It’s the same feeling I had when I purchased that book so long ago at Barnes & Noble. Except now, the words are mine.
David Collins lives and works in Chicago. Gaybash is his first novel.
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