Sunday, 24 April 2016

On Becoming That Person - Liz Kessler

Here’s a story. It’s set in early 1985. A girl is in her first year at university. Lots of things are changing around her. Politically, times are volatile. Margaret Thatcher is barely halfway through her time as Prime Minister. The miners’ strike is going strong. Clause 28 and the Poll Tax are only a few years away.

Inwardly, things are just as volatile for our protagonist. She’s been feeling confused about herself recently. Feeling things that she can’t quite put into words – or maybe she can, but she’s scared to.

She’s tried dropping hints to a couple of her friends about what she’s going through – but where to start? And does she dare? Sharing her theories about herself feels like a big risk to take on such new friendships.

And then she meets someone new, and the theory becomes reality. She meets a girl, and falls in love. Nothing has ever felt so right – but nothing has ever felt so scary either. The girls sneak around as secretly as they can, hiding their kisses, whispering their feelings, hoping that no one will guess. Of course, people do. Some are understanding. Others – like the girlfriend’s housemate who pours a pint over the girl’s head in the student bar and calls her disgusting – not so much.

The girl feels alone. Who can she turn to? She’s not ready to publicly walk through a door with a big ‘GAYSOC’ label on it yet. So she turns to books. It’s pre-internet, though, remember, so this isn’t an easy task, and involves building up the courage to go to the ‘Lesbian and Gay’ section of the women’s bookshop she’s heard about in London. But she does it. And there, she finds Rubyfruit Jungle, The Well of Loneliness, Patience and Sarah and a few others.

These books might be dated. They might be worlds away from what she’s going through. But at last, she is reading the words of someone who has trodden the path she is trying to navigate. Finally, she is not on her own.

You might have guessed by now, or you might not. (Which, incidentally, is a line from my first book, The Tail of Emily Windsnap, which my brother has always maintained is an allegory for coming out as gay, but which – well, if it is, it was purely accidental on my part.) The girl is me. Was me. The ‘was’ is important because of how different those times were. At least, in many ways they were different, and thank goodness for that.

If you spend a lot of time in certain circles, mixing with crowds who are cool, up-to-date, politically aware, cosmopolitan, you might be forgiven for thinking that we’ve advanced to a point where sexuality is no longer an issue. But that’s not the whole story.

In these advanced times, ‘That’s so gay’ is still commonly used as a derogatory term. In these advanced times, LGBT students and young adults still have one of the highest rates of suicide attempts. In these advanced times, a leading Cardinal in the Vatican feels able to go on record advising parents not to let their children have anything to do with ‘wrong’‘evil’ and ‘intrinsically disordered’ gay people.

So no, we are not there yet. But we're on our way. And I might be biased but I happen to believe that literature - and particularly Young Adult literature - is leading the way. 

Think back to the girl in her hall of residence, hoping no one had seen her come out of her friend’s room late at night, secretly reading books with lesbian characters and hiding them at the back of a drawer, hoping no one shouted insults as she drank in the union bar. Think about what she got from the books she found. The worlds they opened, the strength they gave her. The knowledge passed down from the generation that went before her.

And now think about this. I am that person. I’m not just the girl being called ‘disgusting’ by her girlfriend’s roommate. I am the person ahead of her too, the one further down the path, helping to light the way for the next generation. Because society has changed as much as it has, because my publisher wanted to be part of that change, not just watch it take place outside - my YA novel Read Me Like A Book was published. This month it came out in paperback.

I can hardly even put into words how much it means to that student back in the 1980s. In fact, I can, because I am her. It means the world. And I use that word on purpose. Because I am proud to be part of the world that has made these changes. And I hope to be part of the world that strives to make more, until a girl struggling to come to terms with her sexuality is such a non-issue that the idea of writing a book about it doesn't even make sense.

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Joan Lennon said...

"I am proud to be part of the world that has made these changes. And I hope to be part of the world that strives to make more" Me too! Of course we have a ways to go and talking and writing are tools for clearing the path(s).

Leila said...

Brilliant post Liz :)

Susan Price said...

Hold that torch high, Liz and let it shine far. You are rightly proud.

As for the creep who poured beer on your head - and that cardinal - what is their problem? idiots. If two people love each other - or are even just attracted to each other and want a bit of fun - and no one's being exploited or hurt - what the hell does it matter what sexes they are?

If the cardinal taught children that he wouldn't need to get his red knickers in a twist.

Penny Dolan said...

Wonderful post - so thank you, Liz!

Steve Gladwin said...

I think your last comment says it all Liz and thanks for sharing it all with us with so much honesty x