Having grown up deep in the itchy rectum of red-state America, I fled Texas like someone escaping a burning building. At age 11, I started planning my exit in calendars and journals like a battered inmate because every single thing I did was to pave a path somewhere I could breathe easy. As much as I love my wacky, supportive family, I only go back under duress and with all my armor and artillery in place.
Nowadays, I have a strange habit whenever my boyfriend and I are driving through a rural town.
Every damn time, I turn to him and I say, "I wonder how many kids are getting snuffed out right this second?"
How many just can't take another day, another slap, another sneer? I can't imagine how kids in small towns manage to survive in a world that fetishizes their otherness and sexuality while punishing them as symbols of moral decay because of a bunch of Bronze Age mythology. When I was a teenager, I didn't feel like a symbol; I just wanted a nice boy who'd hold my hand and get my jokes.
Growing up is rough enough, but being LGBT only complicates the process. Way back in the nineteen-hundred-and eighties, in many places, we were still the "love that dared not speak its name." Stonewall's impact and the sexual liberation of the 1970s had given way to an insidious virus that made sex radioactive and returned "queers" to the public gutter of denial and clowndom. Gay men had just won the horrifying plague lottery.
Hammered by Reagan-era gluttony and the cult of the underwear model, the gay clones scampered to the gym to whittle themselves down into assembly-line "straight-acting" Ken dolls. Gack. Lesbians got sprinkled into thrillers and tabloids like titillating parsley. Trans folks were relegated to talk show fodder and bisexuals were seen as flakes or frauds. By the time I fled to college, queerness had circled back to being toxic and slightly tragic. The moron majority felt confident they'd prevailed for the righteous cause of narrowness and intolerance.
We fooled them. It's so easy to fool them.
See, LGBT folks stayed right out in the open, no matter how many times bigots tried to cram us back into closets. During the tacky, embarrassing decade of greed-is-good, the conservative monsters who took over this country made a terrible mistake. They couldn't wedge the LGBT genie back in the bottle; we stayed front and center in their pop culture and news, on the air and in their face in politics, athletics, and academics. And that is why they bitch so much about us "flaunting" ourselves or demanding "special" rights and pretend that beautiful, brave Matthew Shepard deserved to die exactly 15 years ago for being himself in the middle of nowhere.
What those idiots never understand is that the LGBT alphabet soup is meaningless: We're all just people. There is no monolithic "gay" agenda. Lesbians aren't produced on some kind of fabulous assembly line, any more than trans people all imagine the same lives and loves for themselves. Life is complicated! We're not insects! All of us, LGBT and straight, are a community of individuals. The thousands of straight people who read my gay romances are proof of progress made and the world's potential, evidence that love is love no matter what. We all deserve to live in the light, and if a piece of escapist fiction can plant a seed of hope, I'm down. If that fragile sprout can grow into a sturdy tree that shelters a life, so much the better.
Romance fiction has only two rules: The book must include an important relationship and it must end positively. That sounds dopey, but in truth romances are stories about hope in a world that often feels pretty wretched and suffocating. Hope is the oxygen we breathe and the lifeblood of anything worth living or having. I write gay romance because I remember being 14 years old and wanting to read something in which the gay character didn't suffer from addiction or illness or get beaten to death for dramatic effect. We are not sex objects or jokes or political symbols. We need hope and we deserve it, so my job as a romance author is only to remind people that hope is all around us, waiting for us to inhale.
All of us struggle like cows in quicksand because life isn't only very rarely comfortable or easy; frankly, it's never either when it's actually worth living. You aren't defined by your sexuality or your gender or your skin's melanin content or your faith or IQ or anything else. Queer, straight, or variation thereof, all the details and flaws and gifts that distinguish you really do distinguish you. The secret of life is paying attention and the hardest thing in the world is to pay attention.
I always tell people I didn’t choose to be gay, I was Chosen, praise all the gods! I wouldn’t be heterosexual if you paid me a zillion dollars. Actually, I wouldn’t trade places with anyone for anything. Why would anyone allow themselves to live a life they haven't chosen? What a horrible way to live. We can't change our genetics or other people, but every day we can make choices that get us where we need to be. We aren’t widgets! We are idiosyncratic miracles, every one of us. We are all given so much beauty and power if we can find ways to find it and claim it and honor it.
Don’t ever forfeit the miraculous gift of your life for idiots who haven’t learned to be grateful for anything. People in the dark lash out at you because they are ignorant and afraid, because you shine. So try to survive where you’re stuck, learn what you can, and brave what you must. We are never alone, and we are all of us afraid. You may not realize how many folks around you are scared and trapped too or how much they draw strength from yours. If you can't be brave for yourself, be brave for them. They need you. We need you.
It doesn’t just get better; it’s better already, and you’re invited. Take a deep breath. Burn bright and hang tight. Hope hard. The world wants you to come live in it.
DAMON SUEDE is author of the brand-new book Bad Idea, and his previous novel, Hot Head was number 1 in the gay romance genre on Amazon for six consecutive months. Damon has written for print, stage, and screen for two decades. He has won some awards but counts his blessings more often: his amazing friends, his demented family, his beautiful husband, his loyal fans, and his silly, stern, seductive muse who keeps whispering in his ear, year after year. DamonSuede.com.