Guest Blogger Lucian Childs | Reading My Way to a Gay Life

Tomorrow is the culmination of almost three years of work on the part of myself and my
co-editor, Martha Amore. Building Fires
in the Snow: A Collection of Alaska LGBTQ Short Fiction and Poetry
has just
been published by the University of Alaska Press. To commemorate the day, I’d
like to take a sentimental journey through some of the works of gay literature that
have helped to shape me.
a gay boy in Texas in the 1960s was pretty bleak. I survived by reading. I
poured through books in my room: Dickens for fun, the classics for prep school.
There were no gay role models in those books. Still, entering the private lives of their characters, I felt less
I came out in Austin, Texas at the age of
twenty-six. It was 1975 and people had only just begun to use the gay bar’s
front door instead of secreting in the back and disco hadn’t yet been invented.
Neither I, or anybody else it seemed, had a clue how to be gay. We tried on new
roles, using old ideas of masculinity: lumberjacks and cowboys. I wore a lot of
flannel shirts in those days, but I also fell back on my old habit—reading. At
last, I saw myself reflected in the gay books I read.
I was drawn to the sentimental romances popular at
the time. After surviving the wasteland of my childhood, I yearned for the love
described in melodramas such as The
and the glitzy novels of Gordon Merrick.
Romantic yearning lead me to Mary Renault’s historical
novels, The Charioteer and The Persian Boy. I inhaled them both, practically
at a single sitting, imaging a dreamy Alexander the Great to be my lover.
I won’t be disingenuous. Though I was pining for
love in Central Texas, I was also hounded by its doppelganger: sex. I greedily
read John Rechy’s City of Night and Numbers, tales of hustlers and sexual
athletes, not only for their prurient interest, but as a window into a world
outside the comfortable one I’d always known in Texas.
In 1981, I made the journey to that world, one that
many gay men had made before me. I filled a U-Haul and drove to San Francisco. The
City was at the height of the party, when men reveled in the freedom so long
denied them. It was not a time conducive to clarity. That yearning for true
love was often waylaid by baser instincts and the literature we read reflected
Larry Kramer’s Faggots
was a searing satire of the shallowness of the new gay culture with its worship
of beauty, social status and money. The writers that followed marked a Golden
Age of gay literature: Andrew Holleran, Edmund White, David Leavitt, Alan
Hollinghurst and others.
Holleran’s The
Dancer from the Dance
devastated me with its poetic language and vivid
celebration of New York and Fire Island gay life. This was the life I was, with
some difficulty, attempting to navigate and to see it so artfully rendered was
at once to ramp up the alienation I felt from it and to give me hope.
The prose in Edmund White’s earlier books thrilled
me, but his 1982 release, A Boy’s Own
, read as if it were my own biography: that of an alienated young man
taking refuge in literature. It was a painful, but necessary read with its
powerful depiction of shame and yearning, the primary feelings of my boyhood.
Other classics followed at a quick pace. The Lost Language of Cranes by David Leavitt.
The Beautiful Room is Empty by Edmund
White. The Swimming Pool Library by
Alan Hollinghurst. These coming-of-age stories paralleled my life in San
Francisco with its challenge to create an authentic life while subject to the
tidal forces of sex and the social mores of the new gay culture. My life was a
string of words on each page: the varieties of sex one had at one’s disposal,
the entanglements they brought, the joy and the confusion.
As my time in San Francisco came to an end, this
deluge of classic gay fiction seem to ebb. At least for me. Holleran, White, Leavitt,
and Hollinghurst continued to chronicle gay life in New York, Paris and London.
But in 1992, as I packed my Honda and prepared to drive up the ALCAN to a new beginning
with my partner in Alaska, that life had lost its relevance.
My reading of fiction slowed to a trickle with
infrequent dips into work by Michael Cunningham, Colm Tóibín and others. It
wasn’t until 2005 that I began to read in earnest again. That year, The New
Yorker published a story that changed my life. It didn’t describe fabulous nightlife,
beautiful men, drugs, or the pursuit of gay sex and bold experience. It was a
cramped tale, of longing and denial. Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain woke in me the need to read deeply again, and to
Now, eleven years later, I and my co-editor, Martha
Amore, have brought all this reading to bear in crafting the anthology, Building Fires in the Snow. It collects
the stories and poems of twenty-six contributors to open a window for the first
time onto the lives of LGBTQ Alaskans.
But enough of that for now. Let’s save something for
next week’s post. Until then everybody, let’s keep reading!

Childs divides his time between Anchorage, Alaska and Toronto, Ontario where he
lives with his husband. In 2013, he received a Rasmuson Foundation Individual
Artist Project Grant as well as the Prism Review Short Story Prize. He has been
awarded residencies at Brydcliffe Art Colony and at Artscape Gibraltar Point
and was a Peter Taylor Fellow at the 2015 Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. He is
a co-editor of
Fires in the Snow: A Collection of Alaska LGBTQ Short Fiction and Poetry
. His short stories
have appeared in
Grain, Sanskrit, The Puritan, Jelly
Bucket, Quiddity, and Cirque, among others.
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