Growing up, I lived inside my head. When I wasn't creating worlds with Legos, I spent my time reading, slipping into the lives of the characters in my books. So often on my own, it was through these substitutes that I set out on adventures, that I discovered my heroes. Given today's youth -- overstimulated and overindulged -- it's easy to understand why mainstream portrayal and development of gay characters is mainly seen in music, television, film, children's books and even comic books. It's important to represent gays as individuals in the media to which young people most often turn. For me, however, as I began to discover my same-sex attractions, it was in the pages lining my bookshelves and the men and women behind their words that I sought guidance.
I uncovered traces of what I was looking for in E. M. Forster, Christopher Isherwood and Oscar Wilde, but I found it impossible to extricate the men and their stories from their real-life tragedies and disappointments. Living through times of unbearable stigma and oppression, their work is heavily imbued with echoes of a much darker time in our history. Even Maurice, which ends happily, is overshadowed by a hate-filled society with legal repercussions for homosexuality, and by the sad fact that Forster didn't dare publish the work during his own lifetime.
We all need role models with whom we can identify, to whom we can look for examples on how to live. Of those I look up to most, some I know personally, some are fictional, some I follow from afar, and some are gay. As gay men, we come in all shapes and sizes, with every conceivable interest, phobia and disposition. At this pivotal moment of our civil rights, it's often necessary to loudly proclaim our sexuality, but we are so much more than the clichés that surround our orientation. The one thing that we necessarily have in common is that we're all attracted to men. While all our role models need not meet that characteristic, we do need people to look up to with whom we can relate on such a central facet of our being.
Young people, gay and otherwise, need to see gay people as no different from anyone else, to see them in scenarios that characterize the lives of human beings as a whole. Such examples can be found anywhere -- and increasingly are -- and ought to be found everywhere. Unfortunately, for those like me, who looked to literature for a guiding light, the terrain was too often depressingly barren.
When I read, I lose myself in the world the author weaves -- but only to an extent. At the turn of every page, I'm confronted with the fact that I'm different, that I don't fit into the heteronormative narrative. To fully relate, I need to consciously change the situation to fit my own homosexual life experience.
The beauty of literature is the freedom it gives the reader to imagine, but the demands upon my imagination are necessarily tougher on account of my sexuality. I can of course identify with straight people, but the lack of quality work depicting gay characters meant for a long time that I wasn't given the opportunity to place myself fully within the story. I want to experience the love-fueled delusion that drove Gatsby's life; I want to feel the devotion that kept Sofia by Raskalnikov's prison gates; I want to breathe Emma Bovary's euphoric daydreams of marriage, and the turmoil that drove her to adultery. I want to read a story not about gay people but one in which the people happen to be gay. I want to read a story about the struggles not of gay life but of life in general. No clichés, nothing stereotypical. Sexuality need not affect the plot any more than the object of love and loss. I want literature in which gay people are portrayed as we truly and simply are -- men who like men.
It's been inspiring to see the way things have begun to change. As organizations like Lambda Literary raise the visibility of LGBT literature, authors have been simultaneously stepping up to fill the glaring void. Writers such as Caleb Crain and Damian Barr have amassed international praise, and in works like theirs I've finally found what I needed in my adolescence. Print isn't dead -- there will always be people like me who look to it first and foremost -- and we can't forget the need for gay literary role models, whether within the pages of a novel or as driving forces behind the keyboard. We need literature with which we can identify on the single factor that happens to unite us all.