Welcome to Hidden Gems of Queer Lit! This column is for those of you who found the first reflections of your desires in a dusty corner of the library, and for those of you who know that important histories and new ways of looking at the world are nestled in yellowed pages as well as flickering screens. Every two weeks I’ll profile a queer lit title that’s outside of the public eye for one reason or another: obscure, small-press, older, aimed at a different niche, or otherwise underrated. It’s my hope that you’ll connect with some of these books and treasure them as I have.
A new book is out that will speak to many the gender binary doesn’t quite fit, as well as others who have struggled to find the courage to live in ways that are true to themselves. A smart and eloquent memoir about becoming butch, Leaving Normal: Adventures in Gender will resonate if you have a proud copy of Stone Butch Blues on your shelf, or listen to “Ring of Keys” from the Fun Home musical on repeat. It’s worth noting that the author, Rae Theodore, has a great blog called “The Flannel Files,” and that the book’s title page pops — a young tomboy in a mask and cape soars through the sky, fist raised up.
It’s not often that narratives about female masculinity strike a universal chord. As Alison Bechdel, and later Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, did in the graphic memoir Fun Home and the musical based on it, Theodore has written a triumphant account of life outside “pink and blue” that seems to be clicking with, and reaching, readers outside of queer communities. While Theodore tells a very specific story, she also encapsulates a poignant sense of difference: “When you get right down to it, gender might well be the most basic external building block of man… Without it, we’re left blowing in the wind with our mouths agape. Let me guess. Is it a giant two-headed cat? …For the better part of my life, I have been the giant two-headed cat.” The book trades in the familiar — schoolyard games, family dynamics, and crushes — leading readers through a labyrinth of shame, recognition, risk, and ultimately, pride. If you want a book to help loved ones understand butch experiences and mindsets a little more, this one’s relatable tone and themes make it a good bet.
Theodore’s memoir moves in a spiral, starting with recent interactions that brought out pride or shame related to her gender presentation, then moving to origin stories that arc back and forth in time. It’s an elegant structure that makes readers feel, from the beginning, what it’s like to live “in-between,” and builds up layers of explanation later. “I see you,” the first line calls out, “looking at me with your mouth wide open and your eyes scrunched up like you just swallowed a pint of sour milk.” Readers experience the narrator’s discomfort interacting with people who aren’t sure what to make of a butch woman in their midst — memorably, it is a tiny girl “with a head of blonde curls and perfect enunciation” who causes the most anxiety — and the unexpected moments of affirmation that come from strangers who “get it” (“My grandson looks just like you!”).
Among the many sections that delve into the narrator’s past, the hardest-hitting one (for me) deals with her first wedding, to a man, before coming out to herself. She recalls a family story: “The morning that my mother was to marry my father, her Uncle Felix came to her mother’s house. Uncle Felix asked her one question. ‘Are you sure?'” Riding with her father to the church, riddled by years of questions about how the straight relationships in her life worked and how the participants knew they were in love, Theodore waited for someone to ask Uncle Felix’s question, but the question never came. Leaving Normal is full of such moments of discomfort and revelation. Some stories tell of Theodore’s childhood when she shared a special bond with her father, picked schoolyard “boyfriends” by calculating averages, and was pursued by boys who left love notes in her desk but didn’t expect her to answer them — “It’s the perfect relationship.” In another telling anecdote, a classmate presents the tomboy narrator with a macrame purse, and she becomes aware for the first time of just how much she differs from “normal.” Moments of triumph are present too. After joining a lesbian group for the first time, Theodore writes, “We felt like pioneers.”
The writing is spectacular, infused with a self-aware sense of humor. Theodore makes clever use of epigraphs and lists, such as in the macrame purse story where she lists ten horrible birthday gifts she would rather have received. Her figurative language dazzles: “The word ‘ethereal’ gets stuck in my head, and I can almost feel it melt on my tongue slow and sweet like strands of strawberry cotton candy.” This slim, gripping book is a perfect blend of subject and style. Theodore may struggle to find her reflection in the people around her, but you’re bound to find your own reflection in her story.