by Charles Payseur
Stories have always been the center of my universe. An awkward, shy, and lonely child, they were my way of coping with something I didn’t even really understand, that for the longest time I didn’t have the words for. That, in many ways, those very stories I was reading made even harder to understand because, by and large, all they did was reflect back the manicured and false monoculture that I saw gazing around the suburbs where I grew up. They provided worlds to escape into, but never one that really helped me figure out who I was or why I felt so out of place. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t devour them.
I read The Wheel of Time and The Sword of Truth and The Dragonriders of Pern. If it was in the Legends collection from Tor, you can be sure I either had read it or wanted to. These were the books that I was told I should enjoy, that I should read. And, in a way, I did. Certainly, I read them. Over and over again. Checked out from the library, given as gifts for birthdays or Christmas, I read so many of the same kind of book, the same kind of character. And it’s very possible that they kept me alive. But they didn’t really help me to live.
The truth only really started to dawn on me much later. Not in college, unfortunately, because even there the curriculum didn’t offer much that pushed me in the right ways outside my comfort zone. I read some amazing works, don’t get me wrong, but I was still rather miserable, still not comfortable in my own skin. But I still read. And read a lot. Still focused on the books I was supposed to read, those recommended by friends, by professors, those that seemed to lead one into the other, huge series that replayed the same fantasies over and over and over again. A young man escapes a stifling life and becomes a hero, goes out and does…something!
Sometimes I wonder how I could have missed what seems so obvious looking back. Hello, yes, I’m bi, and it took until I was in my mid twenties to figure out and come to terms with that. And stories. It took a lot of stories. Just…not the ones that I had been reading. And I wonder what it would have been like to read the stories that ended up really opening my eyes at a younger age. At twenty, or eighteen, or fifteen, or younger still. If they had been normal, so I could have seen myself as normal. Sometimes the past is full of the ghosts of what might have been. Different versions of myself who got to grow up with the stories I needed, when I needed them.
The problem, it turns out, isn’t that these stories didn’t exist. They’ve always existed. It was that I had no idea where they were or how to find them. I didn’t even know that I might need them. They weren’t recommended in the right places, weren’t promoted, weren’t shared. There was no visible queer presence in my hometown, or else I was effectively shielded from it. Without much of an internet until college (and by then not a great idea of how to best use it), finding the stories that might have helped me was…well, it didn’t happen. And there’s no rewind on that. There’s no getting to find out what might have been different. For me. But for others, getting that right story at the right moment is still possible. For them to find a language to give voice to their identities. To push back against the pressure to self-erase. To connect with community, and with hope.
Which is why I feel projects to find, collect, and shout about queer SFF are so vital. Not just because I, now, continue to grapple with myself and my identity through these stories. Not just because they’re fun and frightening and sexy and inspiring. Not just because they have the power to offer people a world in which they exist and have presence and can see themselves. But for all these reasons and more. Because too often queerness is defined by loss. Loss of childhood, or loss of hope, or the loss of all those who history and injustice have erased, or tried to erase.
And so one thing we can do here, now, is help people to find these stories. And maybe, though fiction, find much more as well. So let’s not just talk about queer SFF. Let’s get the word out. Let’s be heard. Let’s shout.