“It’s time to give my closeted, romance-hating teenage self the dreamy, formative love stories they deserved”
BY FRAN DI FAZIO, IMAGE VIA PEXELS
“Nice haircut!” a young customer told me during my shift at a coffee shop in Finsbury Park station. It was London Pride Day and they were flaunting a rainbow flag around their neck. I thanked them with a smile. “You look a lot like Alice from Twilight,” they continued while I was making them an iced latte. “Were you team Edward or team Jacob?” I answered without even thinking: “Hated them both. Guess I was gay already.” The customer laughed, and we ended our chit-chat by sharing our appreciation for the story’s true hot vampire stars, Alice and Esme – you know it’s true, I don’t make the rules.
The thing is, I really wanted to love Twilight when I was a middle schooler. It was the hottest piece of media around at the time, and I was dying to blend in with my friends. Not only did I watch the films; I also read all the books. I still keep them in my old closet – oh, the irony! – at my parents’ house.
With the benefit of hindsight, I realised I hated Twilight not just because of some objectively problematic plot elements – I’m looking at you, New Moon – nor because Bella Swan was an overall dull protagonist. It wasn’t even the cheesy ending, with the cringiest resolution of a love triangle I’ve ever read. More likely, although I was still blissfully ignorant of my sexuality and gender identity, that romance was so heteronormative that my adolescent self just couldn’t take it.
I avoided young adult literature for most of my teenage years. I firmly refused to read the Vampire Diaries books because the thought of experiencing the Stelena vs Delena triangle once again on paper terrified me.
I was a teenager in the early 2010s, when YA literature mostly meant straight love stories infused with an aggressive brand of heteronormativity. Traditional values like monogamy at all costs and a frankly disturbing obsession with female virginity just didn’t speak to me in the least.
It’s not that I don’t like traditional romance at all. As a reader, I enjoyed many conventionally straight love stories. Anna Karenina is one of my favourite books, and it’s far from queer. Perhaps Tolstoy’s prose makes me more lenient towards his 19th century moral defects. It’s finding that same traditionalism in contemporary authors that truly irks me.
One of the first LGBTQIA books I’ve consciously picked up was André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name. I was captured by the aesthetic and dreamy tone of Luca Guadagnino’s cinematic adaptation, and I must say I enjoyed the film much more. In my opinion, André’s storytelling fails to reflect on the implications of 17-year-old Elio and 34-year-old PhD student Oliver’s summer fling. I don’t look for moral lessons in my literature, but Aciman’s book is just shallow. Reading it didn’t give me half the sense of queer awakening that Guadagnino’s film did.
Anyways, my self-discovery journey had started, and I craved queer stories. Erin Morgenstein’s The Starless Sea was a delightful surprise, as I found myself enveloped in a love story involving two central male characters. Years of watching doomed LGBTQIA lovers made me wary of these storylines. “Please Erin, don’t bait me,” I internally sobbed until the last pages. “Don’t bury these gays.”
Then came The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, my first approach to a lez/bi love story. I fell in love with Evelyn and Celia and their tormented love story in old Hollywood. Their romance being the heart of the book felt so satisfying and emotionally fulfilling that I decided to forgive the author for the rivers I cried along the way.
Finally, I picked up She Who Became The Sun. Reading of a genderqueer protagonist in a queer love story with a woman felt like finally coming home after my personal literary odyssey. As I devoured every page, I realised I never really hated romance. I just had to find love stories that spoke to me, free from the heteronormativity I found suffocating as a teenager.
Even now, as a queer non-binary person, I still enjoy books with straight relationships. But I’m grateful that queer literature, especially in the YA and fantasy genres, is expanding and diversifying. I’m happy that LGBTQIA teenagers have much more chances to see themselves in their favourite stories than I did at their age.
My next step as a queer adult reader will be approaching proper queer romance literature, that is, stories in which romance is at the plot’s centre. It’s time to give my closeted, romance-hating teenage self the dreamy, formative love stories they deserved.
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