Gay Writer, Before Stonewall

Samuel Delany is an icon. His queerness only amplifies his importance.

The literary – and science fiction – writer is the type whose work favors density, zooming in on words and sentences and paragraphs as if a chef with tweezers making the most precious thing possible. His work isn’t something you’d want to read every day nor is it something that is easy to rest on the tongue yet it seems to follow us all around, the type of literary creations that have architected what we read today. Again: he’s an icon.

I only learned of and read his work in the past year and am so tickled to have this old gay guy in my reading world: he not only stands as a reminder of how to challenge your craft but that there are others who came before us others. He carved the worn path that we try to press into today.

This is what gets me with him: he has been in this game for so long that his queer works were out in the world before queer rights was even a thing. In fact, he is one of a few major American writers whose work can be viewed from both sides of the timeline, of when being gay was not okay and when being gay was okay. In a long, long, long Literary Hub interview that was stretched across two stories, Delany explains the significance of having worked on both sides of the equation – particularly in relationship to Stonewall.

Do you know things like “Aye, and Gomorrah . . . ” the story is from 1967. That’s a pre-Stonewall story. Hogg is a pre-Stonewall novel, at least the first draft is pre-Stonewall. “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” is also pre-Stonewall, and that one got a Nebula award and a Hugo. Which is one of the reasons I have written that if the gay community didn’t exist, the straight community would have invented us because they were desperate to find out about what was going on there. Only they thought they knew, and that was the problem. So unless what you told was pretty much in keeping with what they thought, you couldn’t. It was hard to talk about and hard to get a listen.

This is so fascinating and so important in the saddest way possible: we queers weren’t real until non-queers could imagine us into the conversation. It’s the type of origin story of others that many communities feel which is why so many of our stories have become stereotypes: the gatekeepers of straightness, of whiteness, of maleness (and more) are the prism through which our stories come out. They translate us, in a sense.

For Delany, he was doing his thing through science fiction and “non-normative” stories that then were offered a context of queerness when he was allowed to be seen as such as a result of an event like Stonewall. It’s fascinating and stops to make you think: intentionally queer works that existed before this moment in time must have been received as a sort of code or something so ridiculous that it “couldn’t be real.” No wonder works like The Celluloid Closet are so illuminating: before we were able to be ourselves, we were fictions. Thus, when we created our own fictions and nonfictions, people really had to open their eyes.

While we hope for time and culture to continue and evolve, keep this alien framing at the breast: there is a very small leap in time and space to have our creations, our lives, seen as so far from the real world.

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