Growing up queer is rough. This difficulty can fluctuate depending on where you live, what your family dynamic is like, and a plethora of other factors. Still, even the most “accepting” environments can prove to make queer adolescence more challenging than the average childhood. Personally, I was outed before I was ready. I’d been officially dating a girl for less than a day when my entire school found out about it. Suddenly, I was the pinnacle of queerness. The gay guru. The token lesbian. As the only “openly” queer kid in a school of 200 students—in a town of 3,000 people—I was expected to have any and all answers to my straight peers’ questions about the LGBT+ world. The only problem? I didn’t have any of the answers myself.
One of the biggest challenges facing the LGBT+ community is a lack of representation in mainstream media. Before I came out, the only gay people I knew about were Ellen Degeneres, Melissa Etheridge, and Elton John. This wasn’t because they were the only queer people in the entertainment industry, but because they were the only ones that society deemed acceptable*. Luckily, I was born at the cusp of the internet boom. While the reliability of Google to teach me everything there was to know about being queer is an entirely separate and frustrating debate; for the time being, we’ll praise my ability to search the web for the answers everyone was asking (that I was asking, too).
I’ve never met a queer person that hasn’t been able to relate to the struggle of trying to find representation in literature. If you think that’s an exaggeration; I challenge you to count the number of movies, TV shows, books, etc. with queer protagonists. If you’re not in the LGBT+ community, you probably thought of Brokeback Mountain, Glee, and not much else. To someone who isn’t queer, it may not seem like a big deal. But can you imagine if there were no movies out there for the heterosexual high-school jock to relate to?
Many of us spend countless hours during our journey towards identification just searching for some sign that we’re not alone in the way we feel. We follow the plot lines of queer characters in shows we don’t watch (I can tell you everything you need to know about the romance between Olivia Wilde and Misha Barton’s characters on the OC), we sit through horrible acting because it’s better than nothing (South of Nowhere), we “ship” same-sex characters that will never be together (Bend it Like Beckham (2002)), and we watch every single movie under the “Gay and Lesbian” section on Netflix (Loving Annabelle (2006), Imagine Me & You (2005), If These Walls Could Talk 2 (2000)).
One of my favorite finds during my angsty adolescence search for relatability was The Incredibly True Adventure of 2 Girls in Love (1995). The movie follows Laurel Holloman’s character, Randy—a grungy, openly gay high schooler struggling with her grades—and Evie—the unknowingly queer straight-A student played by Nicole Parker—as they fall in love.
Enter Walt Whitman—the missing piece to this strangely colloquial and seemingly random blog post. To woo Evie, Randy gifts her a copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855). As she reads the lines, “The smoke of my own breath / Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine,” from “Song of Myself,” Evie asks her sister if she’d ever read Leaves of Grass. Her sister responds, “I had to read it in college. Walt Whitman. He was a homo.” I started reading Whitman after that.
Whitman’s work, like that of many early American authors, continues to be adapted and changed into contemporary forms. While I’m full of critiques about the canon, and I’m certain that Whitman wasn’t the first to write about homoeroticism; his timelessness and influence on literature over the years is something I can’t help but appreciate.
At 14, I was a confused and lonely queer kid growing up with YouTube uploads of bootlegged movies and Google as my source of identity guidance. And, with the help of Whitman, I found some. The idea that Leaves of Grass may have had the same effect on some gay kid growing up in the 19th century suggests to me that the answer to the question, “Where is American literature?” is “everywhere.”