Rachel Burgin reveals how queer books helped her find her community

New Year. New Start.

That’s what they say isn’t it?

Time to start saving for that dream holiday, look for an inventive career change, or maybe tell the person you’ve been crushing on for the last year that you love them.

For some, it’s the same ones we hear about every year: Ditching the booze, quitting the fags, going on that fad diet. There’s always a new one, right?

For me its reading. Read, read and read some more. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

Two years ago I had the insane (so people tell me) idea to set up and run an LGBT reading group.

“Not lesbian?!” I was asked. Well no, and there’s the rub. It’s all I knew. It pains me to say it but from the tender age of 13, lesbian fiction was all I bothered to read. As a bisexual woman, though I consider myself pretty much 99.9% gay, I hadn’t strayed far from white lesbian literature.

I remember as a broke teenager trying to read the whole of Tipping the Velvet at a large Waterstones in Birmingham. In one go.  Before they closed.  This was back in the day when Waterstones had a Gay/Lesbian section.

At that point in my life, books weren’t something that I could afford, and as a shy, self-conscious young bi, I couldn’t bring myself to order anything from the local library.

I didn’t even have the internet *gasps all around*.

Fortunately, I was saved, (Lit)erally, as out of the blue my local library decided to dedicate a display table to gay fiction – for just for one week.

I remember grabbing four out of the six (yes that’s all they had) books on the table. I also grabbed one random straight book that would sit on top and act as a shield for my queerness. I’m not sure who I was hiding from and the weary librarian scanned the lot without batting an eyelid.

I got home and slid into my room. I was a teenager in a lonely house share, but I didn’t want any interruption.

I still remember what was on that pile: Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, Sugar Rush by Julie Birchill, Lesbian Erotica 2005 (yes they really had this) and Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx.

What I had failed accomplish with Tipping the Velvet, I managed with Fingersmith, and read it in one sitting. It was bliss. Sugar Rush felt too young for me, the erotica meant that Brokeback Mountain gathered dust on the sleeve, and late fees.

When I think about that period in my life, it’s clear that books saved me. Particularly gay literature. I was new in the country and too young and shy to go out at this stage. Plus, I didn’t know any LGBT folk. I needn’t have worried as although I hadn’t quite realised it, I looked (and still do) very, very gay and the community found me. I didn’t attend university and so met most of my friends and partners through work. Many a night I ended up dancing in the only gay venue. Paying a ridiculous amount for a bottle of Reef. Remember Reef?

Fast forward 12 years. And I have a job, an office job, who would have thought it? And I’ve finally started university as a mature student (better late than never). But:

The Library is gone.

The Gay Bar = gone.

My work is a very straight place. And as far as I’m aware, I’m the only queer employee. Or the only out one. The community was fractured, people were growing up, falling off the grid and settling down into more heteronormative lifestyles. We were losing our traditional queer spaces i.e the pub, the club, as a more tolerant world grew around us. But I craved those safe spaces. Where you could say whatever you liked, without censor, and without the fear of reprisal or judgement. Hate crime is on the rise. I know people who have simply stopped going out.

I decided it was time to set up LGBT READING GROUP GLOUCESTERSHIRE. I wanted to bring us together. Get us out of our boxes. I advertised heavily. The local council published it on their website, posters were made, it even found its way onto the NHS Intranet. I still don’t know what kind soul did that.

The big day came and the pub I had chosen unexpectedly closed. I rang my partner who stood by the bolted doors, no doubt to ferry the book-thirsty masses to a different venue down the road where I sat, sweating, clutching a copy of Carol.

I needn’t have worried.

I had one person show up.

That was two years ago. The group has grown, and now I have a regular group of existing and new members. We discuss EVERYTHING. All of our literature is LGBT, which is a fun challenge in itself, and the whole community is learning from one another’s experiences. We have discovered some amazing authors and are re-discovering old classics where you can read between the lines. I have my community back. Some of my members are only out to the people in the group and for others, it is the only place where they can be themselves.

So my plans for the year ahead? 

To research and discover more fantastic examples of LGBT literature for us to read, debate and discuss. It’s good to feel connected, rather than a lonely bisexual satellite drifting through the heterosphere.

That reminds me, have you read Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami? It’s very good…

Find out more about Rachel’s reading group here.

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