I read a lot of queer books in high school. (I mean I read a lot of fiction that centered gay men.) I read them on family vacations. I read them during lunch when my friends had clubs. I read them when my homework was done at night. I decided without deciding that for every Giovanni’s Room and At Swim, Two Boys and Kiss of the Spider Woman and A Single Man I had to read two books that didn’t touch on gayness at all. Star of the Sea. The Gathering. When these interim books whispered queerness, my whole head buzzed like I’d gotten away with something.
It didn’t occur to me to be bisexual. It didn’t occur to me that I already was. All I knew was that I was different than, outside of. It was easier to assume that I was unattractive or standoffish than it was to scrutinize why I was holding myself apart. Very little of my high school journal reveals anything of the person I was then. It’s easier to find me between the lines of my creative writing assignments. There, I grappled with shyness, with inability to give voice to fear or desire. Only now do I realize just how loudly my writing echoed my reading.
A handful of my parents’ queer friends, noting my reading habits, recommended titles. Usually I’d read them already, though I downplayed this. I was afraid, though I didn’t have the words then, that I would be seen to be appropriating an experience that wasn’t mine, that even by reading and loving these books I would encroach. The books I read did not tell my story, and I didn’t identify with the wobbly shoes that best fit: those ostensibly straight girls shrieking about their gay best friends.
College. I’d never had a boyfriend. I’d never had a girlfriend. I’d never had a conclusive crush on a girl. All I had were suspicions, but I convinced myself that every girl also felt like this: like feelings for a boy might be all-consuming but also might not be the beginning and end of desire. I read Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, its spine and cover pressed to the table. That wasn’t me, either, but for the first time in my life I’d found something that could be. I sat in Small World Coffee worried about what anyone who saw the cover might think.
At some point I stopped referring to myself as straight, and long before that, whenever I threw out a self-deprecating smokescreen like, “Who’s this straight girl taking all these queer theory classes?” I would start to itch. Shit. Shit. I shouldn’t have said that. Now I have to start all over again. Hoping that when I found words, I wouldn’t have to fight even harder out of false impressions of my own making.
When I came out to my parents this January, my mom asked, “Have you been dropping hints?” and I said no because I hadn’t been, not in the way I thought she meant. But what was this verbal switch, trading “straight girl” for “girl,” if not a kind of hint? Or maybe not a hint but a code, the kind a close reader, an invested reader, a reader angling for reassurance, might understand. I yearned for someone to pick up the book of my life and read my queerness there, but finding the words didn’t come easy. They never have. I remember being four or five years old and standing in the kitchen doorway emitting frustrated grunts. My parents, equally frustrated, although with cause, stood in front of me. “Use your words,” one of them said. “Jackie, use your words. We can’t read your mind.”
The fact is there was some of Judith Butler’s performative language in my subsequent early-summer 2017, wide release, Pride parade-induced Facebook declaration. Writing it felt like launching myself out of a plane, and knowing that having done so I would have to open my parachute, ready or not. It was some clearer version of what I had not quite found in all those books: validation, relief, the knowledge that I would no longer be so misread, a certainty of an identity that has never come cheap. I stopped asking everyone to read my mind, and wrote it instead.
I could tell the story of what allowed me to use my words in a lot of different ways. Most of them involve Adam Parrish, one of four central characters in Maggie Stiefvater’s YA fantasy quartet The Raven Cycle. Fiction’s heritage is a stealth how-to, a model of ways of being less threatening and fraught than nonfiction. I found a little of myself in The Raven Cycle, pieces I had never investigated or questioned, when I started re-reading it this May. My weeks stretched out cold and rainy. I slept too late and awoke exhausted and spent the day hunched over my computer, applying to jobs. At night, I made dinner and watched YouTube. It was shaping up to be a repeat of two summers ago, when I felt adrift and untethered and really came into my own as a person predisposed to anxiety. That was the summer my friend Tanya, perhaps sensing that I would find them comforting, sent me three sketches of characters from The Raven Cycle as Russian icons, a faithful triumvirate. This May, I found myself examining these sketches closely. “We’re with you,” they seemed to say. “We’ll keep you safe.”
Adam Parrish is not my favorite character. He is prickly, hard on himself and on others, and on my first read-through this was difficult to embrace. Nonetheless, Adam Parrish haunted me between books. He haunted me between re-reads. Now he haunts me to a lesser extent. For the years that I read him, Adam Parrish represented the greatest of my unfinished business. The dawning of possibility, the trying on of selves. Over the course of The Raven Cycle, Adam dates a girl and then begins to date a guy. Within the context of the series, this is no big deal. The Raven Cycle is not a coming out series any more than it is a coming of age series, which is to say, it is not at all and nothing but. The characters are constantly coming out, just as they are constantly coming into themselves.
No one says “bisexual” in The Raven Cycle. Your mileage may vary, but for me, the absence of the word seems to come from a place not of baiting and erasure, but of possibility. Adam is in flux. His second relationship is a paradigm shift, but it also comes easily to him, as few things have. Adam struggles mightily to balance the forces of his life over the course of the series, so there is a quiet beauty in his casual acceptance of this lovely chance.
Reading The Raven Cycle for the first time, the fourth book still unpublished, I found myself very invested in the idea of a bisexual Adam Parrish. The text seemed to be moving in that direction, but I couldn’t be sure whether my reading was canon or fanon. New in this was the fact that what I wanted most for Adam was not one particular same-sex relationship, but an identity to house it. Many, many times in my reading life, I had thought, I need this character to date x. Never before had I read a book and thought, I need this person to be x.
I still wonder why the story of a bisexual teenage boy is the one that allowed me to explicitly consider my identity as a bisexual adult woman for the first time. I recall reading Fingersmith, the danger and hyperawareness in it. It could be that the distance between my life experiences and Adam’s is precisely what enabled the connection. My defenses were lowered against him. It is also true that I am practiced in reading the stories of boys, of men: my BA in English is a literal degree in decoding their experiences. Although I wish it were not the case, redolent as it is of internalized misogyny, I am most at home in their narratives.
Whatever the reason, the first time I read it, I put down the fourth and final installment in The Raven Cycle in a haze. In receipt of what I’d hoped for, I was left with was the memory of the hoping. What was that about? I sat down with myself and asked again. What was that about? Then, like time lapse vines, connections I would have thought self-evident began to knot themselves together: all the books I read in high school, but also the dreams about women. The time I started crying and couldn’t stop. The feelings for men were still there, but somehow dependent on being outside patriarchy; I wanted to open the door for them; I wanted to hold the door open.
I’m not sure I would have seen myself in an Adam who defined his relationships more clearly. Where I see myself in him is a partially aspirational recognition of how he allows himself to remain open to and unafraid of previously uncontemplated possibility, how he lets himself make new sense of his past.
Representation does not always — should not always — look like this. YA carries an added imperative to provide its characters with labels, the better to open its readers’ eyes to potential. This is as it should be. Nonetheless, breadth and diversity of representation is important, even in this decidedly dystopian world. We may as well provide as many paths, experiences, trajectories, words, and non-words as possible, and ground them in people who feel true enough to trust.
When I did come out, I came out as a step along the way to future journeying. In June, I went to the Columbus Pride Parade (my seventh in my third city) wearing a teal tank top under a white lacy shirt. This was not the first shirt I put on that morning. The first was black, printed with “Post Subtext Queer,” as though I was a narrative myself. My friend Molly designed and sent me this shirt, a reference to our conversations about Black Sails, a show where queerness is manifold and incidental. Post Subtext Queer narratives are not centered on coming out, but rather celebrate the diversity of what queerness is and means. Adam Parrish is a Post Subtext Queer, and we may not yet be at a place where that is the only representation we need, but there is still value in its expression.
I am not yet a Post Subtext Queer. I almost wore the shirt to Pride, but at the last minute I chickened out. I feared running into someone I might know. I feared having to explain it and stumbling over the words. I wanted to wear the shirt (I wanted, I wanted, I wanted), but to do that, I had to set the record not so straight.
At home, after the parade, I sat down and edited a split screen photo of my two outfits, the worn and the rejected. I composed a message. The words I used were mine, free of literary reference. I hit post. I could see the front of my t-shirt vibrating with my heartbeat. The moment was cathartic. I turned the sound off on my phone, flipped it over, and fled the room. I sat, fully clothed, on the toilet for a long time. Then I strode back over to my phone, never ready but determined to see how my words, my self, had been received.
Adam Parrish is a work in progress, trying not to be terrified of his own unfinished nature. So am I. Since coming out, I have continued to consider what being bisexual, or queer, or whatever, means for me specifically. That is something no single text can tell me. One thing I know has shifted already, however, is this: I have stopped rationing the books I read. There is a reason I prefer queer narratives. These books are mine to read. These books have been mine all along.
jackie, i love this—your last paragraph in particular really kicked me in the heart. i’ve done the same thing my whole life with queer YA and only over the past few years have i stopped rationing it. loved trc, too, and glad it gave you a home for your identity.
Thank you so much! And cheers to no longer rationing. Life’s too short to not be reading what we want.
Ooof. This is so good, I want to quote all of it. I resonate with this so much. I may have to come back later and share more thoughts, after I have time to collect them.
Wow, what an incredible essay! It made me put some of my intense affinity with these books in context.
Much of Adam’s character is his longing for the effortlessness with which his friends have fallen into being loved. I can feel the connection in my longing for the same unabashed queer narratives and bi communities you so evocatively describe.
You are so, so right about Adam’s longing for ease of connection. I’m happy pieces of this resonated with you.
Loved this – TRC are my favorite books, the characters and the narrative just feel like my soul. And I’ve read every queer YA book I can get my hands on (and not much else) since 2015. These are the stories I deserved to have when I was younger and needed them – I am not denying myself now.
Yes!!! Let’s all just read what we want/need/deserve!
This is so relatable, thank you, you’ve given me words for how I felt, what I experienced. So much of doing these things, not understanding what or why I was doing, until I finally did. Oh.
My book was Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. The reading, the falling in love with the story, the characters, and even till today not exactly sure how, but the catalyst for me finally realizing, oh wait, I’m queer.
Had to comment b/c omigosh Aristotle and Dante is such an amazing book!!!
Ari and Dante is such a beautiful book about identity, love and family! I fell in love with it and cried every 5 minutes while reading it. I think what is so good about this book is that between the lines you can see Aristotle repress his feelings and thoughts and if you have ever done that you cant help but relate. And Benjamin writes so beautifully! One of my favorites.
Aristotle and Dante is so great! Like a warm bath on a long day. And thank you! Sometimes (more than) half the battle is articulation so I’m really glad you found pieces of this relatable.
This is really lovely and it reminds me of how important representation is, lots of representation. And how we can’t predict what art will be meaningful to us or why.
There wasn’t queer ya when I was a teen in the 80s, or if there was, it didn’t find its way into my midwestern library system. And while some of the books we read in school had queer subtext, so one mentioned it and I sure missed it.
After I came out to myself in college, I looked for queer fiction but I gave up on lesbian fiction pretty quickly – what I tried was so grim.
And then I discovered mm romance in 2011. And it was so much fun to read. I originally was very skeptical – I couldn’t imagine how a genre about gay men written by and for women could be anything but exploitive and bad. And yeah, there’s some (maybe a lot) exploitive and fetishy but there’s quite a bit that’s not. And I just gobbled it up. I don’t exactly know why reading about queer men falling in love was more compelling to me than reading about queer women, but for a few years that’s mostly what I read. And during that time period I slowly re-owned my sexuality and realized that it’s possible to be a queer woman married to a man because I am one and then slowly figured out how to come out again.
Today I’m still married to my awesome husband (16years) and am much more connected to my queer community and am more out in my life and I read a lot of joyful queer romance with lots of pairings between and across the gender spectrum. And I’ve also owned that I am queer and queer romances and queer narratives are mine to read.
I love this comment so much! Yes! That process of holding up selves and trying them on, sometimes many times, for the right fit.
Such a beautiful meditation on what fiction can mean to us… I, too, remember wondering whether these stories were really mine, if it was okay to love them so much. But they spoke to me on a level I couldn’t begin to explain. I was SO deeply attached to the first queer books I read, Mercedes Lackey’s Last Herald Mage trilogy, despite their many regrettable tropes. I clung to those books throughout my teens and into my early twenties. It took me a very long time to understand what I saw in them, maybe because their vision of queerness didn’t quite leave room for my (bi, trans, ace) identity. I’m glad that young people today have so many more resources–and so many more good books.
Mercedes Lackey’s books were basically how I learned about gayness ??? I read them as a 6th grader in a middle of nowhere town in the 90’s and it was the first time I saw same sex couples depicted pretty much anywhere.
I put off reading the Last Herald Mage books for soooo long because I was afraid of how much I related to them…and then once I finally read them a year later they became my favorite books.
When I look back it makes me a little sad that those books were the closest thing I had to queer storylines I could relate to. I’m really excited that kids today have more narratives to look towards
I love this, and (obviously) am really delighted by the notion that our reading selves can catch on to something much sooner than our thinking selves.
This seems very familiar to me in the way that I devoured queer media (movies in particular) but took forever to let it connect that I was seeing/looking for myself in them
Right?!? It’s delightful and frustrating how that works. (Thank you!)
Had to comment because hooray for The Raven Cycle!! I devoured those books last year!
And also, as a queer person in my 30’s whose only queer references as a teenager were what few scraps I could glean from mostly male centric novels (and fanfiction ?) I feel this on a deep level.
I think the draw for me was that stories like that allowed me to disappear from the narrative and disassociate completely and kept me from probing too deeply into why I might be drawn to those queer romances in particular.
When reading The Raven Cycle I picked up on Adam’s queer subtext immediately…but the fact that it was allowed to become text…that would have meant so much to me as a teenager. And it still means so much now. We’re giving ourselves the stories our younger selves were denied.
YES! This! I still can’t quite believe the subtext became text, and in that quintessential fannish no big deal way.
“Nonetheless, Adam Parrish haunted me between books. He haunted me between re-reads. Now he haunts me to a lesser extent. For the years that I read him, Adam Parrish represented the greatest of my unfinished business. The dawning of possibility, the trying on of selves.”
Wow, just… wow. I relate so much to what you said. The Raven Cycle were the first YA books I have picked up since I was 16 (I’m 21 now), and I was surprised at how much it affected me and the way I see my identity.
I have struggled on putting a name on my sexuality for years, but that also had to do with my on-going questioning of my gender identity. Even if my favorite character is Ronan, Adam haunted me in a way I couldn’t describe.
“Adam Parrish is a work in progress, trying not to be terrified of his own unfinished nature.”
I never truly considered it, but Adam not only made me come to terms with accepting my bisexuality, but he also made me come to terms with my gender identity.
Adam was hard headed and I wanted to punch him sometimes in the first few books, but his development was one of my favorite things in the books. He learned how to trust that people could love him no matter where he came from and no matter where he was going.
Thank you for this essay! You made me consider many things I hadn’t before.
Gosh I love this. Thanks for reading and sharing your own story! It’s amazing how these moments of seeing pieces of yourself outside of yourself can trigger revelations (even slow dawning revelations). I love it.
<3 <3 <3
And <3 to you for reading!
Whoa. I’m going through so much of this right now. The affinity to queer media, the fear of appropriation, the delayed coming out to myself as a grown ass adult, the remaining trepidation and the intense anxiety about setting the record ‘not-so-straight.’
I’m still trying to teach myself that this space is mine to occupy. As I am now. It still feels off. I was so embarassed that I’m struggling with it* and you have just helped me put so many words to so many things. Thank you.
*(if that makes sense? No one cares! Everyone’s cool about it! But I’m not! Why am I not!? I must be broken!)
I’m really lucky to have been able to write something that has resonated with so many people that came out of (for swaths of time) feeling so alone. You are so intensely right: you can be surrounded by chill, potentially supportive people and feel scared. And you can also know the (accurate) platitudes like “in your own time” or “when you’re ready” and still feel off. Solidarity to you, seriously. It can be hard to know intellectually that a thing is better off done when it feels so foundation-shaking. I definitely had to repeat my post-on-phone-then-go-hide maneuver when I shared this essay, but it was very worth it. Excelsior, right!?