How We Read Queerness in Literature
For the past few weeks my literature class has been reading the book Dodging and Burning by John Copenhaver. The book is a mystery that highlights queer culture and how queer people were treated in the 1940’s by looking at the relationship between two boys: Robbie and Jay.
If you were to picture the book cover, you might imagine an obviously queer title covering a few pastel colors or abstract design. There would be a line towards the bottom that talks about how revolutionary this book is in queer culture today. It would be extremely obvious that the book you are about to read contains queer characters.
John Copenhaver decided to do something a little different with this novel. Instead of the word “queer” plastered all over, the cover shows a picture of a murdered victim (something commonly found on the covers of mystery novels) and the title. No bright colors, rainbows, or inspirational quotes are present.
Because of this, many of the people in my class, including myself, did not realize the characters in the book were queer until almost halfway through. Most of us couldn’t believe that a book, one that was not clearly advertised as queer fiction, contained a gay couple and history surrounding queer culture
This got me thinking; Why is it so rare for a character to be queer in genre fiction that isn’t clearly marked as queer fiction? Why does there have to be a category for queer fiction at all? Shouldn’t it all just be considered genre fiction? If we put things like queerness into its own category, aren’t we just promoting the view that queer people are not normal? Why do we put queer literature on a table by itself in the corner of a bookstore?
The problem lies, not in the fact that a character’s homosexuality isn’t mentioned in the beginning of a book, but in the reader and their assumption from the get-go that every character is heterosexual. Society has ingrained the idea into all of our heads that people are straight until proven otherwise. This is problematic, because it results in erasure of queer people in society. If everyone is straight until proven queer, then is anyone really queer? It makes it seem less natural, and it adds to the idea that people choose to be queer, instead of being born queer.
In order for our culture to progress into being more accepting and understanding of queer culture, queerness needs to be normalized. The end goal should be a society that does not assume the sexuality of a person. It should be a society that does not view queerness as a choice or need it to be proven. In order to achieve this goal, we as readers need to take the first step by not assuming the characters in the books we read are straight. Instead, we need to keep an open mind, and put our heteronormative culture behind us.