Editor’s Note: This commentary by author Lilah Suzanne is part of an ongoing Foreword Reviews series called #IndieVoices, in which we invite small publishers and indie authors to address the 2016 US presidential election and its aftermath.
Bigotry is not a new look on North Carolina. We are, after all, the home of the late Jesse Helms, notorious homophobe and North Carolina’s longest-seated senator. It’s challenging in sometimes heart-breaking ways to live in a place where bigoted values are pervasive. I’m tempted from time to time, to head off to the urban liberal utopia of my dreams and never look back. It’s easier said than done, though, and anyway Portland’s real estate prices are ridiculous these days. But more than just being where I grew up and call home, North Carolina really is a great place, despite the hate bill known as HB2, and our current government that is giving Jesse Helms a run for his money as the worst ever.
North Carolina is beautiful; we have green misty-topped mountains and rolling plains and gorgeous, isolated beaches with galloping wild horses. Most people are friendly and kind, and maybe gossip behind your back a little but in a “that’s between you and your maker” kind of way. They gossip because they care. We have top-rated universities, cool music scenes, funky artist communities, and the best barbecue in the South (fight me.) I like it here— usually.
I was in seventh grade when the rumor started that I was gay, the hawk-like prey drive of twelve year olds pinpointing something in me before even I did. And when a classmate told me about it me point-blank instead of whispering behind my back like everyone else had been for weeks I shrugged and answered with innocent naivety, “So what if I am?”
My parents were heavily involved in AIDS activism and as allies in the gay community, and I was not unaware of the bigotry and cruelty surrounding both of these—My favorite uncle died from AIDS, a kind, gentle and generous soul gone at 28 years old, and I knew what people were saying about him and people like him, I knew the sting of blind hatred quite well. But at twelve I was unaware of the wide-scale politics of being gay or even allied with the queer community. And then my dad’s car with his “Hate is Not a Family Value” bumper sticker was vandalized. And then there were rumors about my sexuality. And then I lost all of my friends, then anyone who had ever talked to me in the hallway or before class or sat with me at lunch. And then I understood. The “so what” was that it was 1992, in North Carolina, and by my casual acceptance of the possibility of being gay, I had made a political statement.
The truth is, I wasn’t exactly popular before the entire seventh grade turned its back on me. I did have friends, though, a small group who I’d known since elementary school, and I got along with everyone in school okay. I was a quiet, shy kid who preferred books to people, solitude to social gatherings. That’s a poetic way of saying I was awkward and weird. I found the cliques and social complexities of middle school baffling, and so I felt lucky, almost. Sad and lonely, and no one wants to walk down a hall to whispers and staring and barely concealed giggling. But they mostly left me alone, and I was relieved, as if the ostracization and silent scorn of my peers was gift I’d been granted; a leniency. At least they weren’t beating me up. At least they weren’t harassing me and calling me slurs and telling me I deserved to die.
If my punishment was being an outsider, fine. But even that was making a statement: If I had only conformed like they wanted me to, if I had scoffed and denounced the possibility of being gay and quietly gone along with the status quo it would have been fine. The politics of seventh grade were a small-scale model of the politics of the South in the ‘90s and still even now: Don’t be different. Don’t be gay. And if you are for god’s sake don’t talk about it.
There shouldn’t be a silver lining to that sort of pain. I don’t like the idea that being treated like a walking infectious disease through middle and high school made me a better person. But it happened, and I am the person that I am, and it did give me vast amounts of space to spend inside of my own head, with made up people who had friendships and happy adventures in made up stories; It gave me writing as a safe space. Things got better at the end of high school. I managed to gather up a few tentative friendships, and met my (still) best friend, who was new to town and didn’t know about the invisible do-not-touch forcefield of queer surrounding me, and I finally came to the end of my gay or straight? Gay. No straight. No, definitely gay. Wait, no— journey when I realized that bisexuality was, indeed, a thing. Who knew? Clearly not me.
It got harder, too. I was old enough to fully grasp that be queer is to be political, like it or not. That existing as a person who ticks one or more of the LGBTQIA boxes is to be controversial. Bisexuality is, in itself, and outsider position: In straight spaces I feel as if I’m hiding, in gay spaces like I’m lying. I feel like I can’t be honest about my life without someone seeing an agenda, that I can’t identify myself bi without someone having an opinion that starts with, “yeah, but” and ends at an invalidation of who I am.
In the seventh grade, in the South, in life, to be an outsider is to thumb your nose at the way you “should” be; a rebellion of normalcy. A political statement, and a dangerous one. And yet, now that I’m not just existing as myself here in the South, but writing books about queer characters here, characters who are happy, my aim is not politics. My only aim is only to tell happy stories of people living and loving just like anyone else. But I’m old and lived in enough now, I do understand it’s more complicated than that.
I write LGBT rom-coms, which is an oddity in both romance and LGBT fiction, and so I am here on fringes once again. My current series is the story of L.A. stylists and country music stars, set mostly in Tennessee. I was itching to write a story in the South, with Southern characters, because this is my home, where I grew up, the South is stitched into in my DNA with every nod and hello and how are ya to everyone I pass, with the twangy music drifting from my stereo, with the soft lilt of every word I speak. I belong here, too.
It’s important to me to make a statement, to write a story set in the South because LGBT individuals are here, and this is our home, too. My characters and I all have a right to not just exist underground and silent, but to be proud and happy here. Escaping shouldn’t be the only possibility for a safe, contented life. Not everyone wants to leave. Not everyone can. And it feels too much like giving up to me. Like giving in, letting them win, surrendering my home and part of who I am to the loud, bigoted minority. Who will stay and fight, if not me? But I am tired. I’m weary. I’m afraid for the people here who can’t pass quite as unnoticed as me—At least they’re leaving me alone, right? Some days I just want to be, put down the gloves for this the life-long fight I never wanted to tap in to.
When HB2 was quickly pushed through in a secret legislative session, I had a heart-sinking moment of hating this state I call home. For a time, I really struggled with wanting to finally take off for good, to leave my life and friends and family behind because I was so disgusted by the hatred I was seeing. I’m still wrestling with it; fight or flight, stay and be lumped in with bigots or leave and shake off my associations with North Carolina altogether. But I stay, because this is my home. I stay, because leaving is not that easy. I stay for now, because I’ve decided to fight a little longer. Like my books, and my characters, I can’t help but see the best in people, to focus on joy, and I have believe that we will fix this, admit our mistakes, and try to do better.
I don’t know what the answer is, and I don’t even have total faith in North Carolina’s ability or willingness to pull out of the tailspin we’re in. Post election, I’ve definitely considered pulling up stakes and find a way to take off for more progressive pastures. But why should I have to? This is my home, my history, my roots. The bigots don’t get to claim it for their own.
When I was twelve and the whole school whispered behind my back, I somehow found the strength to hold my head up high and keep marching down the hall. Maybe it was just because I didn’t know any better, maybe I’m just lucky things weren’t worse for me. But if being an outsider has taught me anything, it’s that sometimes I have no choice but to ignore the whispers and keep walking my own path, keep fighting, keep writing rom-coms with LGBTQ characters who get happy endings.
Lilah Suzanne has been writing actively since the sixth grade, when a literary magazine published her essay about an uncle who lost his life to AIDS. A freelance writer, she has also authored a children’s book and has a devoted following in the fan fiction community. She is also the critically acclaimed author of the Interlude Press books Spice, Pivot and Slip, Broken Records, and Burning Tracks. The third novel in her Spotlight series, Blended Notes, will be published in 2017.