Claire Heuchan: 2022 – My year of reading lesbian and bisexual women’s books

2022 might just be the time I manage to keep a New Year’s resolution. This year, I’m reading books by lesbian and bisexual women. I won’t say “only”, because that implies a limitation. In fact, I can imagine few things more liberating and delightful than a year spent eating on Sapphic stories.

The idea came during the holiday season. I was looking Single until the end – a cute gay Christmas romantic comedy – with my grandmother. It was, as Craig Revel-Horwood might say, “Fab-U-Lous, honey.” And even. After five minutes, I considered turning off the movie. Neither messy love lives nor references to gay culture are what could accurately be described as my Catholic grandmother’s cup of tea.

I was about to chicken out and suggest love, in fact instead when she was laughing. Really laughed. Not his polite laugh, but the real one, filled with surprise and delight. And that’s when I realized: in my panic, I was doing both of us a disservice.

As a lesbian, I don’t see myself in the endless stream of straight stories revered as classics. They do not reflect my life, my culture or my community. And yet I watch. Partly because straight culture is inescapable. But also because the characters’ lives don’t need to mirror our own for their stories to entertain and transport us. I’m not a middle-aged alcoholic horse-human hybrid, but I will forever feel a kinship with BoJack Horseman. And if I can hook up with a jaded millionaire horse who has a brand of heroin named after him, why shouldn’t my grandma hook up with a chaotic but wholesome twink?

I began to think very seriously about why, for all the joy they bring, I had assumed that queer stories couldn’t have universal appeal. What am I clinging to, that part of me still classifies gay media as lesser or niche media? The obvious answer is internalized homophobia. And if there’s one thing Grey’s Anatomy (that pinnacle of straight television) taught me is this: when you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras.

This revelation was surprising. And uncomfortable. Having founded an international lesbian book group and cherished every book we read together, I thought – perhaps naively – that I had moved past homophobic complexes.

So many authors apply incredible insight when writing about women navigating patriarchy – yet still can’t create stories undefined by heterosexual norms.

Over the past few years, as I have engaged wholeheartedly with lesbian culture and feminist politics, my tastes have changed. Books that once wowed me because a male author wrote a compelling three-dimensional female character now seem like the bare minimum. And they’re far less interesting to me than any female writer on the experiences of femininity.

Previously, I was primarily drawn to literary fiction – stories of smart, sharp, invariably straight heroines going through dysfunction. But now I find these books frustrating. So many authors apply incredible insight when writing about women navigating patriarchy – yet still can’t create stories undefined by heterosexual norms.

For decades, lesbian and bisexual writers have dreamed up other possibilities for female characters. Octavia Butler redefined science fiction and fantasy to construct worlds so far removed from our heterosexist schema. With his first novel Jumped up, Emma Donoghue questioned possessiveness in romantic relationships and dared to ask what is possible when we give equal importance to friendship. In her Stories of Gilda, Jewelle Gomez strips away the violence that has defined vampire lore; created a heroine whose unlife work sustains a community of equals.

These ideas and the interwoven policies are exciting. They entertain as much as they challenge. If there are any books that have the power to undo the remaining threads of internalized homophobia tied in my mind, it’s the lesbian books. And I’m excited to find out how this year of Sapphic reading will change me.

Granted, my resolve might waver if JK Rowling publishes a new Cormoran Strike novel this year. I want to know if A) Matthew dies B) Robin and Cormorant finally get together. But the only exceptions I allow are professionally edited books (like most writers, I don’t make that money from Rowling) and books read for self-study. While I’d love to reach the reading age required to understand French lesbian fiction, I’m still struggling as a woman through the translated Harry Potter series. It’s life.

You cannot rush growth. But you can feed it. If we stop doing work, we stop developing. We are stagnating. We never come to know who we could have been if we hadn’t dared to try. Yes, it is humiliating to acknowledge any bias or internalized prejudice. But it’s also liberating; an opportunity to grow, so that we can better serve ourselves and, more importantly, our communities. Since books develop empathy and imagination, they are the ideal starting point.

Claire Heuchan is an author, essayist and black radical feminist. She writes the award-winning blog, Sister Outrider.

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