Taking Their Place: Queer Lit in the Twenty-First Century

By Henson, George | World Literature Today, September/October 2013 | Go to article overview

Taking Their Place: Queer Lit in the Twenty-First Century


Henson, George, World Literature Today


For guest editor George Henson, it's been a long journey from reading The Front Runner in 1977 in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, to writing about queer lit for World Literature Today. But just as he has found his place here, the writers featured in this issue have taken their place alongside a long list of notable world authors.

I was sixteen when I first read the word "gay." Growing up in small-town Oklahoma in the 1970s, "gay" was much too anodyne, if not sophisticated, to be used in everyday conversa- tion. "Queer" and "faggot" I heard a lot. Those were epithets hurled like hand grenades in my high school at any boy who didn't fit a very strict definition of masculinity. I wasn't certain of many things in high school, but I was certain that I didn't want to be called a queer.

I had heard the word "gay" before, but only in tandem with the word "bar." One night as I watched the local five o'clock news with my family, the words "POLICE RAID GAY BAR" blared out of the TV set, accompanied by footage of handcuffed homosexuals being escorted out of a local gay bar. That was it: I knew I would never go to a gay bar.

A few months later, my life changed course during a trip to the local TG&Y. A five-and-dime chain that dotted small towns across the south- ern United States, TG&Y wasn't the kind of place you expected to change your life. As I perused the book section, which consisted of four or five circular racks, a book cover caught my eye: a bespectacled runner sitting on what looked like a locker-room bench, an older man wearing only a white towel standing behind him. The book was Patricia Nell Warren's The Front Runner. I picked it up and read the back cover: "Billy Sive is a brilliant runner who is a homosexual-and he doesn't mind who knows it." "Homosexual" was such an aseptic word. Until then I had only heard it used in Sunday sermons and read it in encyclopedias.

I clutched the book to my chest, glanced around to see if anyone was looking, and headed to the checkout. I paid the cashier, raced home, ran into my room, locked my door, and opened the book. The dedication page read: "Dedicated to all the athletes who have fought for human rights in sports, and to the young gay runner I met at a party, who gave me the idea for this book." There it was: "gay." And it wasn't attached to "bar." It was 1977. I was a senior in high school. And for the first time since I realized I was different at five years old, I felt like I had a future as a gay man. There were other people like me who weren't arrested in gay bars.

In the fall of 1978, I went away to college. While queers in New York were celebrating Larry Kramer's Faggots, and San Francisco's burgeon- ing LGBT community was mourning the assas- sination of Harvey Milk, I was still searching for my gay identity and a community. One night, as I was doing research in the library for one of my Spanish classes, I came across a text on the gay Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca. I had recited Lorca's "Llanto por la muerte de Ignacio Sánchez Mejías" in high school at Spanish contests around the state. I was fascinat- ed by his poetry, but the only thing I knew about his life was that he had been assassinated at the beginning of the Spanish civil war. The book referenced an "emotional crisis" that precipitated his trip to New York in 1929, during which he wrote Poeta en Nueva York. Although the text didn't specify the cause of the crisis, thanks to my gay sensibility, more than any critical awareness, I knew the crisis; the amor invertido (inverted love) the writer referenced was Lorca's homosexuality. I mustered up the courage to ask my professor the next day if Lorca had been gay. His curt response, "Eso no tiene nada que ver" (That's irrelevant), verified my suspicion.

Years later, as I was studying in Spain and preparing my master's thesis on the homosexual elements in Lorca's Poet in New York, I encoun- tered the same entrenched homophobia. …

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