Reading My Way to a Gay Life

by Lucian Childs

Cross-posted from 49 Writers

Being a gay boy in Texas in the 1960s was pretty bleak. I survived by reading. I poured through books in my room: Dickens for fun, the classics for prep school. There were no gay role models in those books. Still, entering the private lives of their characters, I felt less alone.

I came out in Austin, Texas at the age of twenty-six. It was 1975 and people had only just begun to use the gay bar’s front door instead of secreting in the back and disco hadn’t yet been invented. Neither I, or anybody else it seemed, had a clue how to be gay. We tried on new roles, using old ideas of masculinity: lumberjacks and cowboys. I wore a lot of flannel shirts in those days, but I also fell back on my old habit—reading. At last, I saw myself reflected in the gay books I read.

I was drawn to the sentimental romances popular at the time. After surviving the wasteland of my childhood, I yearned for the love described in melodramas such as The Frontrunner and the glitzy novels of Gordon Merrick. 

Romantic yearning lead me to Mary Renault’s historical novels, The Charioteer and The Persian Boy. I inhaled them both, practically at a single sitting, imaging a dreamy Alexander the Great to be my lover.

I won’t be disingenuous. Though I was pining for love in Central Texas, I was also hounded by its doppelganger: sex. I greedily read John Rechy’s City of Night and Numbers, tales of hustlers and sexual athletes, not only for their prurient interest, but as a window into a world outside the comfortable one I’d always known in Texas.

In 1981, I made the journey to that world, one that many gay men had made before me. I filled a U-Haul and drove to San Francisco. The City was at the height of the party, when men reveled in the freedom so long denied them. It was not a time conducive to clarity. That yearning for true love was often waylaid by baser instincts and the literature we read reflected that. 

Larry Kramer’s Faggots was a searing satire of the shallowness of the new gay culture with its worship of beauty, social status and money. The writers that followed marked a Golden Age of gay literature: Andrew Holleran, Edmund White, David Leavitt, Alan Hollinghurst and others.

Holleran’s The Dancer from the Dance devastated me with its poetic language and vivid celebration of New York and Fire Island gay life. This was the life I was, with some difficulty, attempting to navigate and to see it so artfully rendered was at once to ramp up the alienation I felt from it and to give me hope.

The prose in Edmund White’s earlier books thrilled me, but his 1982 release, A Boy’s Own Story, read as if it were my own biography: that of an alienated young man taking refuge in literature. It was a painful, but necessary read with its powerful depiction of shame and yearning, the primary feelings of my boyhood.

Other classics followed at a quick pace. The Lost Language of Cranes by David Leavitt. The Beautiful Room is Empty by Edmund White. The Swimming Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst. These coming-of-age stories paralleled my life in San Francisco with its challenge to create an authentic life while subject to the tidal forces of sex and the social mores of the new gay culture. My life was a string of words on each page: the varieties of sex one had at one’s disposal, the entanglements they brought, the joy and the confusion. 

As my time in San Francisco came to an end, this deluge of classic gay fiction seem to ebb. At least for me. Holleran, White, Leavitt, and Hollinghurst continued to chronicle gay life in New York, Paris and London. But in 1992, as I packed my Honda and prepared to drive up the ALCAN to a new beginning with my partner in Alaska, that life had lost its relevance.

My reading of fiction slowed to a trickle with infrequent dips into work by Michael Cunningham, Colm Tóibín and others. It wasn’t until 2005 that I began to read in earnest again. That year, The New Yorker published a story that changed my life. It didn’t describe fabulous nightlife, beautiful men, drugs, or the pursuit of gay sex and bold experience. It was a cramped tale, of longing and denial. Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain woke in me the need to read deeply again, and to write.

Now, eleven years later, I and my co-editor, Martha Amore, have brought all this reading to bear in crafting the anthology, Building Fires in the Snow. It collects the stories and poems of twenty-six contributors to open a window for the first time onto the lives of LGBTQ Alaskans. 

But enough of that for now. Let’s save something for next week’s post. Until then everybody, let’s keep reading!