I couldn’t really speak until I was about ten. My brother says that it’s his fault that I couldn’t speak, because he would never make me repeat words. Things were always handed to me as a child, apparently, at the slightest gesture of my hand. Words weren’t a necessity, and because of that, I ended up in a Special Education classroom for kindergarten. I remember using a dictionary during recess as a Book of Secrets, a la Charmed. On the carpet, I read out entries like spells, banishing demons. Mind you, they were probably impossible to understand with my untrained tongue, but I was able to comprehend the text enough to learn myriad words.
Without literature, I very well don’t believe I would be as stable as I am today. As for many, it helped to pass hours that would have otherwise been lonely. I was always searching for a book that could trap me in the narrative, completely dissociate me from reality. Very few books accomplished that, and I find even fewer as I grow older. It’s an extremely odd sensation, to be so engrossed in a story that you forget for an instant that you are part of something other than it. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince did this to me in fifth grade, and I ended up missing my teacher’s instructions to start on a problem that he had put on the board for an hour; As I Lay Dying did that just this summer at a train station, and I almost missed my train (I then almost missed my stop once on the train).
More importantly, however, Homer’s Iliad completely ate away at my time in my first year of middle school. Hours disappeared as I tried to comprehend the ancient text, and I didn’t even accomplish my goal of understanding it. Samuel Butler’s translation captivated me, even if I couldn’t fully understand the events. When I put the book down after a month, I didn’t pick it back up until my first year of high school, which was probably for the best. As I entered high school, I started to realize that I probably wasn’t straight. I looked for queerness in everything, trying to figure out whether I shared those qualities. I didn’t speak like the gay guy in Mean Girls; I wasn’t as sexually assertive as Jack Harkness from Torchwood; there were no more explicit examples I could draw from. I grasped at anything I could in literature. I made the conclusion based on two scenes in To Kill a Mockingbird that Jem and Dill were gay (something that may be intended by Lee, as Dill is based off of Truman Capote); I contested that Benvolio from Romeo and Juliet was gay; I refused to hear my teacher out about A Separate Peace, and despite the author’s claims against homosexuality, I still sometimes believe it.
But The Iliad – I felt something from it the second time I picked it up. Half of the novel was thrilling, absolutely brilliant and everything that I had wanted it to be when I was in middle school. But Achilles and Patroclus made me halt. Patroclus’ plea to Achilles was the first piece that I ever memorized. Homer’s depiction of Patroclus’ death made me feel like I had a spear in my chest, and Achilles’ subsequent rage and fury felt like someone twisting it. Surely friends loved one another, but like this? They’re in love, I said to myself, the same way I said it about Jem and Dill, about Benvolio, about Gene and Phineas, in some attempt to normalize it for myself. I didn’t really expect it to be true, but thank whoever created the Internet for the Internet, or I would never have found out that scholars have thought for centuries that Achilles and Patroclus are in love. It was the first time ever that my suspicions had turned out to be supported by others, and that sort of support can really do something to a young gay kid. I started seeking out queer texts and authors (hello, Song of Achilles), actually accepting that I was queer, becoming more active in the community and starting a LGBTA club at my school – all thanks to literature.
I see people struggle with their sexuality, trying to wrap it up in some safety blanket for straightness to hide it, and I’m quite glad that literature was able to unwrap me from that blanket’s suffocating hold. The call for queer representation in media isn’t something that should be taken lightly or ignored; it is something that is a necessity for queer people – and heterosexual people, as well – to realize that their deviation from heterosexuality is not an aberration, it is not monstrous. Yes, we have made progress as a society, but that does not mean we can stop. We are beyond the time of dying on hospital steps, we are not beyond pills and bridges.