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For me, it was The Coming Out Stories, by Susan J. Wolfe and Julia Penelope Stanley (published by Persephone Press in 1980, for those of you trying to guess my age). That was the book that I read when I was first coming out, when I felt with equal parts of delight and dread like I was entering some secret society where I would finally belong. In those long ago days, entering that secret society and was anxious to hear from those who had entered before me. While I can’t say that I can recall the accounts in any detail all these years later, I can say that the feeling of joy I got from holding the book in my hand, knowing that I was about to dive into a collection of stories from women who had already come out, is still vivid.
Today’s generation of young gays and lesbians will no doubt get the same feeling from Nancy Garden’s Hear Us Out. The book is a collection of fictional accounts of the experiences of young gay men and lesbians over the last fifty years. Each decade, beginning with the 1950’s, is given its own section, beginning with a brief non-fictional essay that describes what life was like for gays and lesbian in that period. The essays cover the political as well as the cultural landscape in a clear, accessible way, and today’s young people who have never heard of Harvey Milk or the Daughters of Bilitis will learn much. It is the stories, though, that will stay with them. Each essay is followed with several stories about young gay men or lesbians in that time.
Most of the stories are love stories -- G-rated love stories at that. Most of the stories are about lesbians. And all of them end happily, which surprised me. I thought that Garden would be tempted to create some characters who succumbed to a tragic fate, who would find their lives ruined by small-minded homophobes who don’t recognize true love when they see it. It would have been easy to write such a book, but happily Garden does not fall into that trap. Her stories present strong characters who are determined, in their own ways, to live their lives in ways that make them happy, and at the end of each story the reader has no doubt that they will succeed. The first story, “Dear Angie, Sweet Elizabeth”, is told in a series of letters written when two high school girls are separated when one, Angie, goes away for a summer theater program. Along with letters between the lovers are a few by Elizabeth’s mother who discovers the nature of their relationship (“You are a sophisticated enough young woman to understand that hormones play a big part in one’s growing up at your age, but what you may not know is that they sometimes send confused signals. Friendship is special, but it should not be confused with love between men and women.”) In every letter the voices ring true. In “The Tux”, a story from the 1990’s, a high school senior recounts her trip with her friends to the tuxedo rental shop in preparation for the prom. Her choice of a tuxedo (“You know what? I did look terrific!”) meets with cheers from friends and fellow students, as does her twirling her girlfriend around the shop and kissing her “right there in front of everyone.” Readers will see how the experiences of lesbians and gays have changed over the decades, and how their joy at finding love has not.
I would like to see Hear Us Out in high schools and libraries across the country. The appeal to young gay men and lesbians is obvious, but I think the stories’ universal appeal should gain it a wider audience than that.
© 2007 Elizabeth O'Connor
Elizabeth O'Connor, Ph.D. is co-author with Suzanne Johnson of For Lesbian Parents (Guilford, 2001) and The Gay Baby Boom: The Psychology of Gay Parenthood (NYU Press, 2002).
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