OCTOBER 4, 2016
Photo of Garth Greenwell
“WE’RE AT THIS REALLY WEIRD, faux-positive moment for queer people in this country,” Garth Greenwell said to a packed audience at Flyleaf Books, an independent bookstore in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He was there to give a reading from his acclaimed debut novel, What Belongs to You (FSG, January 2016), which chronicles an illicit affair between a queer American and a Bulgarian hustler. Greenwell shared the stage with another promising contemporary voice in the queer-lit scene, Garrard Conley, a survivor of the Southern “gay therapy” movement and author of the sharp and shocking debut memoir Boy Erased (Riverhead, May 2016).
“There’s a reflexive desire for an ever more positive narrative, for whatever a happy ending might look like,” says Greenwell, who was, at the time we met, wrapping up a four-month publicity tour for his book. Conley was just kicking his off. Through geographic serendipity and some last-minute planning, the authors convened for a three-stop tandem reading series they coined the “Gay Invasion of North Carolina” — “Gayvasion,” for short.
On June 12, not long after this reading, the horrific shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, in which 49 people were killed and 53 others wounded, reminded us of the LGBT community’s vulnerability to hate crimes, and that the story of its struggle has not yet reached its happy ending. But then, only weeks later, there was celebration en masse throughout the United States to commemorate the first anniversary of the passing of marriage equality, giving gay citizens the legal right to marry anywhere in the country. Queer folks can, and increasingly do, become parents, and are as ratings-friendly on primetime television as cisgender heteros. From an outsider’s perspective, the LGBT movement is taking its long-awaited victory lap, with some even suggesting that we have entered the “post-gay” era.
“We’re both lucky to be steeped in the language of queer liberation and advocacy,” said Conley,
to have come to understand that the anti-queer messages we received as children were wrong and bankrupt, and to have rejected those lessons — not just in a surface way — but genuinely and deeply. But like me, many queer people still have the reflex, when making a natural gesture that someone might think is faggy, to tamp it down.
Both Southern natives, Conley and Greenwell decidedly tamped down their own message in North Carolina, which recently came under fire for its discriminatory passing of House Bill 2 (HB2), restricting transgender citizens from using the bathrooms of their choice — essentially eliminating anti-discrimination protections for members of the LGBT community. Bruce Springsteen and Ringo Starr canceled concert dates in the state, and other artists publicly boycotted. Greenwell and Conley, however, added two more stops on their tour at independent bookstores, in addition to an originally scheduled reading at Asheville’s Malaprop’s.
“In places far from queer privilege, independent bookstores often offer queer people their only safe spaces,” Conley said, adding,
It’s dangerous that we’re at a political moment where the narrative of victory and liberation has made it more difficult to acknowledge the fact that all of us, as queer people in this country, are shamed. At some point, we were or are all exposed to the narrative that HB2 right now is teaching every queer kid in North Carolina a lesson about a lack of value, and a lack of dignity.
The Bible Belt South Conley portrays in Boy Erased — a stunning land of rolling hills and sunsets so hauntingly beautiful as to seemingly summon the End Times — is not populated by bigots. Rather, it is a complex environment where shame weighs heavily on many. The scant critical flack that Boy Erased has received is often that Conley doesn’t seem angry enough — that his portrayal is too passive and devoid of real villains.
“I wanted to show that the shame inflicted upon LGBT youth isn’t something that one person does to you — though, of course, sometimes it is,” said Conley, the son of a celebrated Baptist preacher. When his parents suspected Conley might be gay, they sent him to the Christian ministry Love in Action. “Yes, please laugh at the name,” Conley urged the crowd at Flyleaf. The author detailed how he was subjected to group therapy sessions alongside pedophiles as well as those struggling with bestiality, suicidal ideation, and addiction, in order to be “cured” of the “sin” of homosexuality.
In Conley’s case, this meant being forced to identify ways in which his father didn’t engage him enough in “masculine” pastimes — like tossing a baseball — and to list books and movies that may have resulted in his “demonic possession.” In therapeutic exercises, he was taught to “straighten” his gestures and tone of voice. As Conley writes in his evocative memoir, Love in Action set out to ensure that who he was as a gay man was “gravely wrong.”
Conley applied for the Peace Corps while still a sophomore at the small Baptist college he attended in Arkansas; immediately after graduating, he headed to the Ukraine. There he realized how much Love in Action had brainwashed him and altered the memories of his youth. “They have you asking yourself things like, ‘Did I get enough affirming masculine touch from my father?’” he said. “I started reading online narratives from fellow ex-gay therapy survivors, that I realized there are hundreds of victims, and countless resulting suicides. There are now only five states that have outlawed ex-gay therapy, and those laws only apply to minors.”
Once out, Conley said he used to mention his time at Love in Action in social settings as a punch line to jokes about the South, “a bigoted, crazy place” he still finds endearing.
Greenwell’s own ’90s-era coming-of-age story plays out just outside of Louisville, Kentucky. While Greenwell’s novel, What Belongs to You, is a fictional account of an American man who comes to terms with his gay identity during his exploration of the queer bathroom culture in Bulgaria, the author imbues it with his own recollections of growing up in the South, where to be queer was to be a pariah — to court estrangement and, possibly, death.
“Bulgaria was the place where my past caught up with me,” Greenwell said. “It was far enough away that I could think about Kentucky and, as I met queer people there, find so many lines of similarity between Eastern Europe and the American South.”
Greenwell has faced criticism for his graphic portrayal of the queer cruising culture in What Belongs to You, with some interviewers asking why he would deign to “reduce” queer life to gay sex. “There’s this sense,” Greenwell said, “that the mainstreaming of queer life is coming at the expense of talking about spaces like these — that it’s a part of history we don’t have to deal with now that we’re all about marriage and kids. But any project of liberation has to be about multiplying the legitimate models of life — not narrowing them.”
Greenwell believes that the #LoveWins movement has placed the full burden of the dignity and well-being of queer people on a single issue: gay marriage. “That’s absolutely important to queer families,” he said, “but to define the battle for equality on that single issue, when queer and transgender women of color are still being murdered in the streets, is, to me, a tragedy and an abdication of responsibility. So it’s our obligation to seek out those stories, and enable those stories to find their audiences.”
Greenwell is working on another novel set in the Louisville public park where queer kids he knew resorted to sex work for survival. “It seems that for all the queer narratives that exist, many — queer narratives from the South, for instance — are not being told,” he says. “The goal of the movement now should be to mine a multiplicity of stories, and in doing so, to find ways to support those stories coming from under-represented communities.”
Those groups, he said, include black men, who are still contracting HIV at alarmingly high rates, and homeless youth — 40 percent of whom identify as LGBT, with the majority of these being people of color. “A simple victory narrative that conquers at the expense of stories of real suffering that are silenced? That’s unacceptable,” Greenwell said. “And it’s unacceptable that mainstream LGBT organizations in this country seem to have all but forgotten about AIDS, that they’re not urgently fighting battles around race and class.”
In 2013, Greenwell left a teaching position at Bulgaria’s American College of Sofia to pursue graduate studies at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; Conley came in to fill his teaching post.
Along their separate journeys, Greenwell and Conley crossed paths in the Balkans, and the two writers stayed in touch. The Gay Invasion was not intended as a pride parade through bookstores by promising new gay writers whose works have been praised for their lush, poetic prose, as well as their compassionate portrayals of the complexities that accompany the ongoing task of reconciling one’s queer identity within a conservative climate. The tour was, in fact, an extension of their bonded mission of LGBT youth activism. Having both taught in high schools, Greenwell and Conley said they continually encountered the same kind of shaming among their students that they had experienced in their own childhoods.
“Homophobia is sort of encoded in our bodies,” Conley said. “We were both, as kids, trained that certain gestures and tones of voice were inappropriate, and taught to constantly monitor ourselves.” Greenwell added, “I still feel a reflex of shame and fear about my own queerness, one that gets much stronger when I come to the South that I fled at 16. There’s this deeply set circuitry that lights up inside me, and I feel it more strongly here.”
Greenwell suggested that the most far-reaching effect of laws like HB2 is amorphous — a poisoning of the social atmosphere. “It’s devastating to force trans people to use inappropriate bathrooms,” he said, “but the lasting lesson HB2 offers queer people, especially youths, is, ‘Your state hates you and fundamentally questions your right to exist.’”
It plays into this larger narrative of queer people as predatory, as dangerous, as eroding the morality of public life. Bathrooms are often at the center of attacks on us, where predatory gay men supposedly assault children and dress up as women and assault women. All this stuff for which there’s no documented evidence. It just results in the continuity of myths that queers have spent decades fighting against.
Debacles like HB2 aside, the social climate in the South today, Greenwell and Conley insist, is more progressive and inclusive than the bigoted one they knew growing up. “We want to acknowledge that it’s changing, that it’s capable of change,” said Conley.
Independent bookstores are not only where stories and storytellers can connect with their audiences, but are also safe spaces for LGBT youth, and, in Conley’s words, “centers of resistance — independent bookstores are like little gay churches.” Both he and Greenwell flocked to indie bookstores in their hometowns in the pre-internet ’90s for the works of Edmund White, Audre Lorde, and Jeanette Winterson. There, isolated queer youths can find the pro-queer sentiments of the likes of James Baldwin and Rita Mae Brown, as well as flyers for LGBT community groups. It’s what made indie bookstores an attractive space for the Gayvasion tour. “We thought, ‘We’ll go to them, we’ll add a little happiness.’”
Perhaps due, in part, to Conley’s wit and Greenwell’s powers of articulation, their tours of North Carolina is netting upward of 50 attendees at each stop, from Greensboro’s Scuppernong Books to Asheville’s Malaprop’s. After their Flyleaf reading, their book-signing queues filled up quickly, stretching the length of the store; among those in line were LGBT book club members, anti-HB2 petition-wielding representatives from Equality NC, as well as students, friends of the writers, and curious passersby.
“The dignity of queer people is really front and center in stores like these,” Greenwell said, gesturing toward displays featuring books by contemporary gay authors who are enjoying mainstream success, such as Paul Lisicky (The Narrow Door) and Alexander Chee (The Queen of the Night). “It’s about abundance. We can have different stories that can speak to different aspects of the queer experience.”
“I don’t know a single queer person who hasn’t been told at some point that they should be otherwise,” said Conley, who joked that he’s been in “ex-gay therapy” his whole life. “Anytime a parent says to a kid, ‘It’s just a phase,’ or ‘Try not to be that way,’ that’s buying into the cultural energies and narratives that centers of ex-gay therapy promote. We need to work toward basic cultural understanding that queer lives are of value.”
The objective of queer lit, they suggested, should not be to cover and “water down” queer lives — in other words, to render them more like straight lives — but rather to insist upon and emphasize the value of those literary elements that are explicitly queer.
“Our job now, in both politics and art,” said Greenwell,
should be to cultivate a counter-reflex to make queerness more inclusive — to push queerness further and embrace faggotry, to write in a way that doesn’t just say, “This is a book that has a queer character, but it’s not really queer.” I’m a gay writer, and my novel is written in a gay tradition and intended for queer people, and because of all those things, it should also be seen as a book that’s universal, that’s for everyone.