LGBTQ+ Books Helped Me Come Out and Banning Them Won’t Stop Today’s Youth From Being Who They Are

For Jason A. Michael, a gay character in his mom’s Danielle Steel book showed him the ‘gay ropes’

Books by and for LGBTQ+ people, and in particular LGBTQ+ youth, are under attack across the country. In states such as Texas, a single parent need only complain before a book can be banned from a school library. And in Florida, the state legislature is considering a ban on the word “gay” in public elementary schools — a measure Gov. Ron DeSantis has signaled his support for. These homophobic governors are on a mission designed to stunt the emotional and intellectual growth of students, who will, no matter what books are banned or what legislation is passed, find their own ways of learning about who they are. Growing up in the ’80s, I knew no one who was gay. Not a soul. It was a painfully innocent time long before “Ellen” and “Will & Grace” and the world we live in today, where virtually every TV show is now proudly committed to including an LGBTQ+ character. I lived through a gay cultural wasteland where LGBTQ+ characters were largely invisible and, when shown, were reduced to overly stereotypical comic relief. Books have always been an outlet for me, an only child until age 13. My mom used to read romance novels by Danielle Steel and I would pick them up after she’d finished. In 1988, when I was 16, I read Steel’s “Family Album.” The story of actress-turned-director Faye Price Thayer, the main character had a son named Lionel who, throughout the course of the story, met an older man and came out to him as gay. It was the first time I had ever stumbled upon gay characters in a book. And I, who had no such older gay man in my life to take me under his wing and show me the gay ropes, came out of the closet alongside Lionel. It was a life-changing moment. And even though Lionel was just a character in a book, I knew then that there must be others in the world like me. A few years later, in the early ’90s, I actually wrote to Steel, telling her how she’d changed my life and led me to understand and accept that I was gay. Surprisingly, she wrote back a sweet letter that I framed and hung above my desk for years. I was very touched. But I digress. After “Family Album,” books continued to help me embrace my gay identity and help me feel less alone. On my first trip to Washington, D.C. later the same year, I was standing in line waiting to tour the White House when a man standing behind me opened up a newspaper, affording me a great view of the ad for Lambda Rising, which billed itself as an actual gay bookstore. I never knew such a thing existed. I could hardly skip through the East Wing fast enough before I ventured out and made the lengthy walk from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to NW Connecticut Avenue in Dupont Circle, where Lambda Rising was located. I was in heaven once I walked through the doors of the store. I never knew so many LGBTQ+ books existed. I bought two — all I could afford at the time — and spent much of the rest of my trip to the nation’s capital holed up in my hotel room reading. What I would learn in the years to come was that LGBTQ+ bookstores were the LGBTQ+ community centers long before such centers even existed. It’s where you came for information, support and resources. In Miami, where I lived for much of the ’90s, I had Lambda Passages on Biscayne Boulevard. Then, when I returned to Detroit there was Chosen Books in Royal Oak, Just 4 Us in Ferndale and Common Language in Ann Arbor. Today, all of these stores are long closed and the era of the LGBTQ+ bookstore is just another casualty of But LGBTQ+ books continue to exist. And as long as LGBTQ+ people exist these books belong on bookshelves everywhere, including in school libraries. Not only are kids coming out younger and younger these days, but kids have older LGBTQ+ siblings, sometimes LGBTQ+ parents or teachers. It’s time to stop treating being LGBTQ+ as an affliction, as Texas and Florida and other states are currently doing. You cannot legislate away gayness. Today, there are more books being written by and about LGBTQ+ people than ever before. I even wrote a novel of my own a few years ago, called “Easier Said.” LGBTQ+ folks are everywhere you look these days, in film and on television. But it’s in books that our stories are truly memorialized and our history most completely recorded. You can ban our books or even burn them if you like. But our truth will not be erased. Our stories will survive and thrive. And so will our young. Though there is no denying the harm of these legislative efforts will cause if successful, we have always been a resilient people. The LGBTQ+ community must continue to build centers and drop-in spaces for LGBTQ+ youth. We must continue to look out for the vulnerable who are under attack. And we must fill these spaces with books.