When I was a teenager, in English class, we were discussing EM Forster’s classic novel Maurice, published in 1913, about the journey of a young gay man to find love in repressive Edwardian society.
Then our teacher dropped (to my mind at least) a bombshell. “You realise that the law prevents me from saying anything positive about homosexuality,” she told us, her hands picking anxiously at the bobbles on her grey fluffy cardigan. “I’m not allowed to tell you that it’s OK.”
When I was growing up, I hadn’t even heard of the word LGBT – I doubt it had even been invented. I remember as a child asking my mother; “Mummy, why can’t two ladies get married?” – to be honest, the context escapes me – and being told “because it’s against the law.” Later on, when I became a teenager and started to identify as the “B” in “LGBT” I started to look around for representation in the books I was reading. And very little there was too. OK, I was at school in North Wales and it was right at the end of the bad old Eighties – Margaret Thatcher was on the way out, but Section 28 of the Local Government Act (which prohibited “the promotion of homosexuality as a pretend family relationship”) was still in.
Now as it happened, Section 28 never applied directly to schools, only to local authorities, and many teachers such as ours were confused about what they could or couldn’t say. But such was the media blackout in those days, that any information seemed to be confined to the bad-news pages of the newspapers (hey, this was pre-Internet! Dark Ages!) such as (rather plentiful) stories of LGBT people being beaten up and murdered.
However, somewhat to my surprise, a few LGBT-themed teen books suddenly crept into our school library. I came across them by accident – God knows how they got in there, either a forward-thinking teacher had ordered them (the same English teacher perhaps? We’ll never know!) or they’d just slipped in as an oversight. Anyhow, I quickly squirreled them away, and read them from cover to cover. My favourite was The Other Side Of The Fence (1986) by Jean Ure, about a friendship between young runaway Bonnie and posh Richard, a gay teenager who has been thrown out of his house by his homophobic father and their journey to find somewhere to live together.
The second was Dance On My Grave (1982) by Aidan Chambers, about Hal’s search for “a friend”, where sex was rather euphemistically referred to as “giving him a present from Southend.” (Yup). The title of the third escapes me now (and even asking around on the Internet hasn’t yielded any fruit, hit me up on Twitter though if this sounds familiar) – was about a teen lesbian couple who had to break up because one of them was raped (the causation between being raped and having to break up with your partner was taken as so evident as to not warrant any explanation in the book).
So there were characters like me in books then! Unfortunately, with life mirroring art, the situations encountered by characters were often rather upsetting or depressing. Despite the relative doom and gloom though, these finds were somewhat exhilarating – contraband! forbidden fruit! – and I’ll be honest – the idea of possessing something AGAINST THE LAW was kinda exciting. I searched around in community centres and classified ads at the back of magazines and found a whole new hidden world, of photocopied flyers to club nights and books of hand-drawn cartoons. I also came across Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit which again started with a bleak picture of the journey of a working-class girl but slowly blossomed into hope. Despite my differences, I still came from a middle-class, arty family where tolerance was the norm, and reading about the hardships other people in different situations had to bear was enlightening.
For this article, asking around my peers who grew up the same time as me for other LGBT-themed books of our schooldays bore little fruit. Many didn’t come across anything at all until their early twenties when they discovered Tennessee Williams and Oscar Wilde. “There was none o’ that round Dorset way!” quipped Matt, a friend from the days of our university GaySoc (well, it was the Nineties.) “There’s no queers up north, y’ know!” replied playwright Leon Fleming. “I didn't read any LGBT fiction growing up at all. I don't think I ever saw any. It’s unlikely there would have been any around in school or the local library to just accidently drop on anyway, and with no internet then (I feel really old now) searching for such things without giving myself away would have been impossible as well.”
Others managed a couple of suggestions from more recent years – actor Jack Holden mentioned Hero by Perry More, a fantasy story about a teenage superhero, and writer Paul Hewitt found a parallel in the inequality and social discrimination referenced throughout the Harry Potter series: “Whether it be Muggle hating, disrespect of muggle-borns, societal acceptance of half humans or the treatment of non-human magical creatures, hopefully the generations after me that have loved those characters and stories will learn something about equality and community, too.”
These days of course, years after Section 28 was repealed and with the introduction of equal marriage, British society has become far more accepting of LGBT families. A brief search on Google reveals hundreds of strings of “LGBT books for children” and “LGBT Youth Fiction.” Parent friends, both gay and straight, reeled off lists of LGBT-friendly children’s stories – among them King and King, by Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland, about a prince whose parents want him to marry. They bring him princess after princess, but he eventually falls for the brother of the last princess.
For young adults, there’s countless options – amongst which only a few are Boys Don’t Cry by Malorie Blackman which features homophobia, Luna by Julie Anne Peters about a girl whose sibling is a closeted trans girl, Beautiful Music For Ugly Children about transgender teens by Kirstin Cronn-Mills and virtually everything by David Levithan (start with Boy Meets Boy if you haven’t already). Don't shoot me if I haven't included your favourite - you can add it in the comments section.
Forster’s dedication in the frontispiece of Maurice, over a hundred years ago – “To a happier year” – has finally come true. The question I asked as a child to my mother – “Why can’t two ladies get married?” will never have to be asked – or answered – again.