LGBTQ+ Literature: Opening Up Language
Updated: Jul 5, 2021
About five years ago, I read an article by a high school student about the way to create a LGBTQ+ inclusive curriculum. I admired the courageous young writer, and it was the beginning of that school year, so I worked to rethink the curriculum and how I taught certain novels.
I started small with some poems by Eileen Myles, Eloise Klein Healy, and Miller Oberman. My students love the poems not only because they help them understand gender identification and sexual orientation, but also because of their magical literary qualities, their mystery. The poems require the recognition of language and imagistic patterns, the identification of sound techniques, and form, like sestina, and they demand that the reader creates their own personal meaning from the individual parts. They play around with spacing, parallel structure, rhyme schemes, and plenty of metaphors like personification and metonymy. They’re great literature that inspire amazing conversations about new topics students long to learn about and talk about.
I next started thinking about To the Lighthouse, and the fact that Virginia Woolf, like many writers, had to conceal or bury plotlines about sexuality and love into her novels because they wouldn’t be published or read otherwise. Consider the following passage from Lily’s perspective about her feelings for Mrs. Ramsay:
“Sitting on the floor with her arms round Mrs. Ramsay's knees, close as she could get, smiling to think that Mrs. Ramsay would never know the reason of that pressure, she imagined how in the chambers of the mind and heart of the woman who was, physically, touching her, were stood, like the treasures in the tombs of kings, tablets bearing sacred inscriptions, which if one could spell them out, would teach one everything, but they would never be offered openly, never made public. What art was there, known to love or cunning, by which one pressed through into those secret chambers? What device for becoming, like waters poured into one jar, inextricably the same, one with the object one adored? Could the body achieve, or the mind, subtly mingling in the intricate passages of the brain? or the heart? Could loving, as people called it, make her and Mrs. Ramsay one? for it was not knowledge but unity that she desired, not inscriptions on tablets, nothing that could be written in any language known to men, but intimacy itself, which is knowledge, she had thought, leaning her head on Mrs. Ramsay's knee.”
This could be an intimate, innocent moment between friends, or it could be a moment that opens up an entirely different conversation about the nature of Lily’s suppressed feelings for Mrs. Ramsay. Her attempt to complete an abstract painting of Mrs. Ramsay, a process that dominates much of the novel, could then represent much more than Woolf’s experimental writing style that explores time, space, identity, being, consciousness, and spirituality. It could represent how one can, or cannot, express their love and who they are openly and honestly.
I think about the television series Schitt’s Creek, that imagines a world that could easily exist, a world free of hate and full of love. Or novels like Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin where the protagonist David wants to love Giovanni, but he’s haunted by the difficulty or impossibility of loving another man openly:
“Each day he invited me to witness how he had changed, how love had changed him, how he worked and sang and cherished me. I was in a terrible confusion.”
These poems and novels don’t seek to create any kind of absolute truths about gender or sexuality or generate labels that are easily digestible: they embrace complexity and possibility. They don’t ask the reader to judge the character or speaker or get to the bottom of what they feel or how they behave with simplistic terms. They are about how a character finds a place in society that feels natural, comfortable, authentic, and free, without interference, prejudice, hate, presumption, or expectation. They embrace the limitations of language and expand our understanding of words like “desire”, “family”, “man”, or “love”. They expand our understanding of each other, and like all great literature, tell important stories about resilience, courage, and the quest to find peace of mind.
English language arts teacher
Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers