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Connecting to my queerness* through reading

The two most consistent routines of the last eight years of my life are drinking coffee in the morning and reading before bed. My coffee addiction is not particularly interesting, but my commitment and love of reading has been a mechanism of both learning and escape. Reading daily has allowed me to explore interests outside of my research with some commitment, and I love the sense of self-expression and self-exploration that comes with every choice to start reading a book. In 2020, inspired by New York Times Book Review Podcast Host Pamela Paul, I started writing down in a little notebook the titles and authors of each book that I finished. 2021 was the first full calendar year that I recorded. Earlier this month, I entered the books into a spreadsheet, including information about genre, themes, and author identities. Spreadsheets beget graphical representation, and thus, below you can see the breakdown of the twenty-seven books that I completed. Twenty-one out of twenty-seven books that I read I classified as “Queer.” And of those twenty-one queer books, ten of them were young adult novels. My two favorite books of the year - “Detransition, Baby” by Torrey Peters and “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuong - were not in the YA category, but it is the Queer YA category that comes to mind when I think about my reading this past year.

Image composed of five bar charts that classify the 27 books I read by Author Gender, Fiction, Queer, Young Adult, and Queer YA vs Queer Other vs Other.

My 2021 bedtime reading broken down by author and book categories.

What is queer YA? Queer YA is the genre of young adult novels that have queer characters (my definition, not publishing industry approved). Many of these books have themes of “coming out” to yourself/others, navigating the line between friendship and romance, and making sense of one’s relationship with one’s parent(s). I think there are a few reasons that I gravitated towards these books the past year. First, as a queer person who was in middle school and high school in the early aughts and didn’t come out until her senior year of college, I find it joyful and healing to read about youth who have a vocabulary and openness about their queer identity in high school, and sometimes even middle school. I adored “Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World,” a middle-grade novel where a major plot point is Ivy’s stress about whether to ask her crush to go to a dance with her. I hated middle school dances; I miserably grinned and bared my way through all of them with absolutely no interest in attracting the attention of boys and definitely not of dancing with them. I loved imagining the Gen-X version of Evi having a more positive, or at least more developmentally aligned with her straight peers, experience. Second, I appreciated the easy reads. I spent the year either in varying levels of PhD related or Dad died related depression or working incredibly hard. When I was struggling in July and August, one of the things that I noticed was how hard a time I was having reading. But I really didn’t want to stop reading, and yet another YA book was often what seemed to work. Third, reading Queer YA (and queer books more broadly) was a way that I connected to my queerness. I was very single the entirety of 2021, and I did not go on many dates either, but I also felt deeply connected and grounded by my queer identity. I think that this was in part because my struggle to understand my relationship to the identity of “scientist” made me keenly aware of the confidence and security that I feel in my queer identity.

I am sure that reading will be an important part of my 2022. I am planning to read a little less YA (although Malinda Lo’s “Last Night at the Telegraph Club” was my first read of the year), and I am hoping to read more non-fiction and a few “classics.” But I don’t think my reading list will be any less queer (although I am planning to do much more dating!). I just started reading “The Gay Revolution” by Lillian Faderman, and my ideas for classics include Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando,” E.M. Forster’s “Howards End,” and James Baldwin’s “Go Tell It On The Mountain.”

* I identify as queer or lesbian. I am particularly fond of “queer” because I love the way it makes explicit the community that is made up of people with a range of identities outside of the heteronormative and cis-normative space. Additionally, I think it’s really important for cis queer people to see non-cis queer people as members of their same community and saying that I am “queer” captures this a bit better than saying that I’m a lesbian. Here is the Wikipedia page, information from Planned Parenthood, and some other people’s thoughts about the word "queer."


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