The Queer Reader 101 booklist started as a joke between my girlfriend and me. I say started, because now there’s an actual stack on my bedside table: The Price of Salt (Patricia Highsmith), Valencia (Michelle Tea), Written on the Body (Jeanette Winterson) and Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl (Andrea Lawlor). I’ve added some Eileen Myles and Ivan Coyote, and Angela Steidele’s Gentleman Jack. But since I’m a slow and distracted novel reader, so far I have only begun each of these, dipping in and out, taking breaks.
I spent one of those breaks replaying the video game Life Is Strange—a title that, in 2015, shook up what the word ‘game’ could mean. Life Is Strange (Dontnod Entertainment/Square Enix) could be described as a supercharged choose-your-own-adventure novel—a ‘walking simulator’ where the emphasis is on narrative experience over traditional gameplay. I first played the game around the time of its release, a time when I felt—in my job, my relationships, my body—I had very little power of my own. It was a most soothing form of escapism that the protagonist, Max, could rewind time just enough to make small changes that had a cumulative effect on the story’s ending. With the help of a cheerfully heavy-handed butterfly effect, Max inadvertently disrupts the spacetime continuum—threatening her college town, Arcadia Bay, and everyone who lives there.
On that first play-through, I let the story—driven by dialogue with friends, classmates and mentors—lead me. For context, Max’s best gal pal is chaotic bad girl Chloe, but the game offers opportunities to build a closer friendship (or not) with Nice-Guy™ Warren. My main criticism of the game is that, though it tries to offer a central theme of Time Travel versus The Patriarchy, it undermines itself with various White Knights—but that’s another essay. As 2015 Max, I wound up with pushy ol’ Warren, which checks out with that period of my life.
I came out as queer at school by 14, where I joined my nerd pals in being drawn to the gentle masc-4-masc energy of The Vampire Chronicles and soft-focus yaoi. Mum let me tape The L Word and bring girlfriends home. When school finished, I shaved my head and bought Docs for Brisbane Pride 2007—an effort to perform identity that swiftly out-blistered me. In first year uni, I got as far as Tipping the Velvet before faltering back to immortal masc vamps—the privilege of my relative safety kept me from noticing the quiet absence of women from the stories I was drawn to.
My now-girlfriend, Bec, could not safely come out till early adulthood, and even then—well, no one was taping The L Word for her. Finding lesbian community meant more than just popping into the uni queer space. It’s her story to tell, but I can see her going full Matilda in the queer section of Elizabeth’s Bookshop in Newtown, searching for glimpses of herself.
When I was—at age 18—groomed by a cis male musician more than twice my age, the tenuous queer community I’d built around myself just… dissipated. Sure, it’s not unusual for one’s first-year-uni friends to come and go as you figure yourself out (and grow a frontal lobe)—but I remember feeling ‘my’ people just blow away like gold stardust in the wind.
This year’s enforced isolation has allowed me to closely examine my immediate surroundings and the media I consume. When Bec and I first started dating—three years ago—my ol’ Bi Imposter Syndrome flared right up. No matter how short my haircut, I’d been straight-passing for a decade. And for a person swanning about on the Kinsey Scale, the whole world is set up to make it easier to give in to the status quo. In her essential 1980 essay, Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, Adrienne Rich unpacks heterosexuality as a social and economic imperative—a compulsory default—underpinning so much of the world, and even plenty of feminist theory. Lesbian existence is, within this system, so marginal a concept as to be a bubble set outside the patriarchy. It’s easy for me at 31 to read Rich now and get it—but at 18, I ate up the Lolita lie that I could build my self-esteem like a resume by pleasing cis men.
A decade zooms by—we’re back to Bec. These were the sorts of things we talked about at 2am in those first months: our upbringings, books, our romantic pasts, pop culture, trauma. We’re both people whose best response to vulnerability is humour, so when I bemoaned the men who loved to set me reading lists—the usual suspects: Tom Robbins, Murakami, Bukowski, plus one ex who made me read philosophy papers—we joked I needed a lesbian reading list to fill in the gaps between The Vampire Armand and Tipping the Velvet.
I loved the dreamy weirdness of the Winterson (finished) and joyful gender-flexing of Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl (nearly finished). I just started The Price of Salt and, hoo boy, that longing. I got distracted midyear obnoxiously memorising Gentleman Jack facts. But in semester one of The Queer Reader 101, (almost) no one dies at the end.
That’s a rare feature. Literature (and film) so commonly return us safely to compulsory heterosexuality that the trope has a name: Bury Your Gays. In Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, Lillian Faderman examines the sensationalist 1950s pulp novels that framed lesbianism as a saucy taboo that, ultimately, led to illness or suicide if not cured by the natural, healthy state of heterosexual marriage. This continues on television today—while LGBTIQ representation improves by increments, queer women (cis, trans and gender nonconforming) die on our screens at overwhelmingly disproportionate rates. A standout for me is that Buffy the Vampire Slayer followed up the first primetime kiss between women—Willow and Tara—by violently killing off Tara not long after.
The Price of Salt, published in 1952 and known to modern audiences as Carol, was the first of such novels to rebelliously hold its happy ending—that is to say, no deaths. Because the term ‘happy ending’ is, of course, a misnomer—it’s not an ending at all: it’s the promise of a future.
My new bedside stack is such a different beast to the ‘My god, you haven’t read Kerouac?!’ experience of relationships past. These books—in their varying themes of safety, joy, adventure—are an offering of literal lifelines. After all, not much has changed since Rich’s essay: compulsory heterosexuality still nudges away with the same pressure that gently herded me at 18.
Even a PFLAG-waving childhood can’t undo a universal chorus of voices warning you that if you’re a girl who likes girls, you risk death. This was not an issue in the sweet-‘n’-spooky boy-on-immortal boy books I kept returning to in my youth.
Playing Life Is Strange again this year, it was fascinating to make choices that reflect my life experience now. For starters, I did my darndest to woo Chloe, given that this is another Life Is Strange subplot that set it apart in 2015 (and now): queer possibility! The game doesn’t make it easy: Warren is there at every turn to save the day, and sends sulky texts no matter how gently you rebuff him. But I’d read that if I played my cards right there would be a kiss for Chloe and Max at the end.
Adrienne Rich would have something to say about how the game continually nudges Max towards Warren while moments with Chloe must be actively sought out. This fiercely reflects my experience out in the world—even Tinder, upon which I was active circa 2015–16, still offered cis men in the mix after I chose ‘women only’.
This play-through, I made choices that I was ethically happy with, which returned balance to spacetime, and which meant I could kiss the girl. Then, entirely kiss-free, the credits rolled. My rewind powers were rescinded. I googled all possible endings, only to find that (spoiler warning, I guess) even with my particular set of choices—my ‘rainbow road’, if you will—there are only two options. If you (as I did) save Chloe from spacetimey destruction, Arcadia Bay is destroyed and everyone you know dies—except you and your good friend Chloe.
The other option? If you want to save the town, you must sacrifice Chloe—and, just before she dies a violent death, you share a passionate kiss.
So I’ve returned to The Price of Salt. I read it slowly in the bath, keeping in mind the women who read it in 1952, or 2007, or yesterday—those who finally saw a flash of their ongoing, unfolding future.
Zenobia Frost (@zenfrost) is a poet based in Brisbane, Australia. Her books include Salt and Bone and, most recently, the poetry collection After the Demolition (Cordite Books), which won the 2020 Wesley Michel Wright Award and was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. She recently received a Queensland Premier’s Young Publishers and Writers Award.