Personal Essay: "When We're Not There, We're Not Here" by Jerome Stueart
When we set out to destroy science fiction with this Kickstarter, we didn't want it to be your ordinary, run-of-the-mill campaign. We wanted it to be full of smashing, crashing queer voices, telling what it really means to be queer reading and writing science fiction. One of the ways we hope to do that is by sharing a series of personal essays about the experience of being queer in science fiction.
Personal Essay: "When We're Not There, We're Not Here" by Jerome Stueart
I used to say I didn’t need to see gay characters in novels or TV or movies growing up—but then, I didn’t have a gay life growing up. Those two are related.
I didn’t know I was gay until I was 34.
I grew up in two worlds: the world of religious Southern Baptist culture and the world of 70-80’s pop culture and science fiction/fantasy. You can say all you want that it was my religion that gave me the smokescreen, that I stayed too much in my faith-filled rural world to know what being gay was, and I'll give you part of that—but I wasn’t Amish. I read extensively: fiction, nonfiction, science fiction, fantasy, and comics. I also listened to popular music, watched hours of TV every day, all the movies I could. I can best anyone at 80’s trivial pursuit. The only trivia where "gay" comes up is about Rock Hudson, Freddie Mercury and AIDS.
This is not an indictment of a culture that would not talk about gays. It’s a reminder of the power of absence. The absence of gay characters can produce an absence of gay identity. As much as the negative stereotypes that pummeled me from the other side—that “being a homosexual” was a sin—it was also the absence of gay models that helped keep me in a perfect fog of disconnect.
I remember dreaming of kissing Wojohowitz on Barney Miller and waking up feeling as if it were the most amazing experience of my 11-year-old life and fearing telling anyone. I knew boys weren’t supposed to kiss boys—but not what that meant. When, in my 20s, I did confess it, once, to a girl I was dating, she kissed me, and when I didn’t react, she said, “I can make that better than Wojo. Just give me a chance.”
I remember how important “buddy” shows were to me: Batman and Robin, Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Simon & Simon. I remember writing in my diary when I was maybe 8, “I love Patrick Duffy” in Man from Atlantis. I wished Mr. Spock would find me and take me to live with him on the Enterprise. I wanted to be Steve Austin’s son. None of this ever woke me up to the fact that I was gay.
I remember in my room, at 14, having just finished a drawing of a werewolf, and stopping—staring at it for maybe an hour, and crying, and not knowing why—that this drawing—a werewolf with his arms open—was something important. I said that to myself, “This is something important.” I wanted something in that picture—but it wouldn’t coalesce in my head. I was clueless.
So perfectly erased from my world were any signs of gay men that I claimed never to have met one till I was in my Masters degree in college. After a night of sitting across from each other in wingback chairs exchanging stories of our childhoods, he leaned towards me and said, “I think you’re telling me a story about growing up gay.” I laughed and said, “If I were gay, I would know it.” No, I wouldn’t.
My first “almost” encounter with a real gay man was an “ex-gay” bear working at my church, over at my house for dinner, and all I wanted to do was hug him (without his shirt on) and I was 28, and he said, “I think you’re gay.” And this time I burst into tears and said, “Everyone thinks that.” Because I still couldn’t see.
What did I even think a gay person was? A dirty, thin homosexual in an alleyway behind a bar in the sleaziest part of the city sinning, sinning, sinning, in the grip of Satan’s minions? I could not see myself in that. All the data I knew was coming from one biased source. Had I read a story about a real gay person? Seen a movie? Anything to counter that?
Absence of truth will make the lies stick.
I didn't know how to translate these experiences into “being” gay. I had no language, no concepts. All the signals were there, but they were being mistranslated because I didn’t have the model. Imagine getting all the parts to a bike, having never seen a bike, or known what a bike was.
Gay role models would not be able to show up in my religious faith until recently (thank you, Ray Boltz), but I had my eyes open. I just didn’t know what I was looking for. Because I didn't know I was gay—only different—I couldn't seek it out by name. I was not in Greenwich Village or San Francisco. I was Midwest. I was Texas rural. I couldn’t get to the pockets of that gay culture. Queer would have to come to me—through science fiction and fantasy, through stories and movies—but there just wasn't enough reaching me. (I know, I can hear you say: If only you'd read Samuel R. Delany! He was the one author people would suggest to you when you came out to them as both gay and a science fiction lover.)
I think about that a lot now. When I consider whether or not to have a gay main character—I see me as a 14-year-old reader. Who would I like to offer to him as a model—full of courage, mistakes, bad ideas, noble pursuits? Who would I have wanted as a model? Batman, Steve Austin, a big burly Indiana Jones, Dumbledore (yes!).
I don't begrudge the lessons straight male characters taught me (and female characters, lots!). But I wonder if I could have known more about myself with a little help from queer characters.
Nowadays, at 46, I write under a lamp with a lampshade signed by 52 queer authors, including Samuel R. Delany (who was my mentor at the 2013 Lambda Literary Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices). They and many others are writing their truths into the world to counter lies and rumours and half-truths, to spread hope, reach common ground, celebrate joy. There will be no vacuum now for the lies to grow. We won't let that happen.
Writing LGBT characters into fiction helps readers understand who we are and what we can be—not just one way to be a queer person, but thousands. Maybe we also do it so that we exist in the world of story, in the future, in the past. Hold a mirror up to our culture—we should be there. Young adults searching for themselves may know something is different inside them, but still be in a fog because they can’t find models of that difference where they're already looking, reading, and watching. We have to give them some. Queer has to come to them.
Jerome Stueart is a proud graduate of Clarion 2007, San Diego. His work has appeared in Fantasy, Strange Horizons, Geist, On Spec, Joyland, Geez, and three of the Tesseracts anthology series of Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy. He’s the co-editor of Tesseracts 18: Wrestling with Gods, a collection of scifi/fantasy stories where characters wrestle with Faith, just out from Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing. His first novel, One Nation Under Gods, will be published by ChiZine Publications, late 2015. He learned to live again in Canada’s Yukon Territory, and then moved to be with a bear in Dayton, Ohio, which Advocate Magazine calls the 2015 Queerest City in America. He sings with the Dayton Gay Men’s Chorus, and teaches science fiction and fantasy writing to teens, Writing the Spiritual Journey to older adults, and has ready an LGBT version of both.