When I came out as gay aged 22, I had no LGBT+ role models. I’d grown up surrounded by exclusively heterosexual books, films and TV shows. That’s not to say these weren’t great stories, but they never included people quite like me. I went through a very isolating depression during and following my coming out, but there are several LGBT+ books, films, podcasts and youtubers who helped get me through this period. They helped me feel less alone in my struggles, and instilled hope in my mind that there was a future for gay Tom worth fighting for. The more I saw and read these, the more normal and the less shameful I felt.
Here are a few of the books, films and podcasts that have helped me..."
First and foremost, the Tales of the City books by Armistead Maupin: I love being able to immerse myself into the world of this nine-part series – an eclectic household in San Francisco from the 1970s up to the 2010s (especially while I was still living in a small town). The cast made for fantastic, relatable company – my favourites are Michael Tolliver, a young gay man from conservative Florida finding his way in SF, and Anna Madrigal, his worldly, transgender landlady. Highlights in the series are Michael’s poignant coming out letter to his mum in More Tales of the City, finding long term love and fulfilment as an older gay man (rare in gay fiction) in Michael Tolliver Lives, and a celebration of Anna Madrigal’s life in The Days of Anna Madrigal.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson and Maggie & Me by Damian Barr are two very different but both very powerful gay coming-of-age memoirs. Both authors faced immense challenges growing up – Winterson’s fanatically religious mother (the book’s title is her mother’s reaction to Jeanette explaining that being with her girlfriend made her happy); and Barr’s impoverished childhood in 1980s Glasgow against a backdrop of homophobia, the AIDS epidemic and the Thatcher government’s section 28. Though my own situation was different to both of theirs, I have felt affinity with their struggles, and drawn inspiration from the optimism with which they overcame them.
Like many LGBT+ people struggling with their identity, I have experienced mental health difficulties - an isolating experience in itself. Mental health campaigner Jonny Benjamin, who also happens to be gay, posts personal vlogs on his youtube channel about his schizoaffective disorder and homosexuality, and has done so throughout the ups and downs of his own journey. Some of them can be quite frank.
On a more upbeat note, one of my all time favourite films is Pride. It’s based on the true story of a group of gay and lesbian people in 1980s London, inspired to raise money and campaign for a rural mining community in south Wales due to the shared oppression they felt from the UK government of the time. This was the era of Section 28, AIDs stigma, miners’ strikes and associated police oppression. It is a heartwarming story of how homophobia can be challenged and overcome, simply by sharing our stories and our humanity with those who may have had had very different life experiences to our own; and that anyone can become an ally. The queer bookshop that features in the film - ‘Gay’s The Word’ - still exists in Bloomsbury, London, and is a wonderfully welcoming place full of the stories I craved when coming out. They also put on events featuring LGBT+ writers.
More recently I have discovered some excellent LGBT+ podcasts. On The Latch is hosted by a group of eight gay men, who cover all sorts from current affairs to relationships, mental health, their experiences as gay men of colour and also respond to listeners’ dilemmas. Listening to them feels like being among friends.
A Gay and a NonGay is presented by two guys who are exactly that, and challenge their perceived and actual differences from one another. Their extended episode ‘A Gay, A NonGay & A Trans’ with Juno Dawson is a highlight. Since starting to work with Just Like Us, I have become increasingly aware of my own lack of knowledge around trans people’s experiences, which I am seeking to change. Paris Lees’ interview on James O’Brien’s Unfiltered podcast is especially inspiring and insightful. And the BBC’s Boy Meets Girl is light-hearted and funny - and unfortunately still quite radical in featuring a multidimensional main character who happens to be trans, played by a trans actress. I hope that stories like these help trans people in the same way that the stories I’ve mentioned in this post have helped me.
These are the tip of the iceberg. There are more and more queer stories in the mainstream if you look hard enough. Finding other people that share your challenges, and just knowing they are there, can make a huge difference if you’re struggling.