I’m queer, which is why I always thought I’d be dead by now.
I grew up standing just inside the open door of the closet, like a cat looking out the window at a bird and thinking she’s outside. The door was open — my queerness wasn’t a secret, that’s what I told myself. The door was open, but I was tucked between the coats, breathing shallow and hoping no one asked any questions. Sometimes people knew and sometimes people didn’t and often people forgot, forgot for years at a time, forgot even though we were coworkers, parishioners, friends, best friends, relatives, married.
I let them forget. A big part of me wanted them to forget, because, let’s be honest: I wanted to forget, too.
Of course I wanted to forget. I wanted to forget the same way that I want to forget I have a heart murmur (surely this will be the year I finally get that checked on). I wanted to forget the same way that I want to forget about the hurricanes that get worse every year and the coastlines that are crumbling fast, fast, faster. I wanted to forget because I knew in my bones that being queer meant my time was going to be short, and the time I had wasn’t going to be good.
I knew because I’d read the stories. The girls who fall in love and wind up dead; the boys who get to kiss just once onscreen before one of them is Taken Away. The queer-coded villains who are evil enough to deserve what they get at the end of the movie. The beatings, and the disownings, and the corrective rapes, and the suicides, and the murders, the murders, the murders.
Of course I wanted to forget.
It was easy. All I had to do was never bring it up, never talk too much about queerness and identity, never let my mouth tighten when people in my communities talked about people like me as if we were hypothetical. All I had to do was let people assume, and never let it hurt when they did, and never let my eyes linger too long on a girl, and never let myself wish the girl would look back. All I had to do was walk on the tops of my feet and try not to blink too much and gulp air into my belly instead of breathing it. All I had to do was hold perfectly still at all times, no matter what.
I always thought I’d be dead by now, because I know the kind of story people like me are allowed to have. Short, and heartbreaking, and before too long: over.
But, go figure. I’m not dead.
The sensitivity read that saved me came at a terrifying moment. I’d written something that was queer — unapologetically, brashly queer, the kind of queer that I ached to be, even though I still tripped over my words whenever I tried to explain my identity to a new person. I wrote the story in the living room of a friend I still hadn’t come out to yet, and it felt like the bravest, most terrifying thing I’d ever done, because people who read it would surely know. They’d look into the open door of my closet and see my feet sticking out from under the coats, and then what would happen to me?
The story I wrote was queer, like me. It was queer in ways I didn’t even know that I was yet. And it was tragic.
Of course it was tragic. That was the kind of story that people like me got. It didn’t occur to me to write the story another way. I was a new writer, alien to the writing community, completely unaware of the conversations about queer representation that had been developing for years before I’d thought to write a single word of my story. It didn’t occur to me that queer tragedies like that are part of an agenda, and that the agenda had been working on me for a long time. That agenda had succeeded at keeping me quiet and scared and lonely in ways that I thought were fine, just fine, thanks, how are you? That agenda had succeeded at making me hold my breath. Because of that agenda, I spent my days hoping that no one ever noticed me.
None of that entered my mind, not even once. I thought I was writing in-genre. Fantasy stories have magic. Science fiction stories have rules that I don’t always understand because I somehow got through high school without taking a physics class. Queer stories have death.
And then I got some feedback on the story from a sensitivity reader. They had volunteered to make sure I wasn’t screwing up on a particular point of representation — but they took issue with the story as a whole. They told me emphatically that I should reconsider writing a queer tragedy; that it was a trope, that it was harmful to readers, that it was overused and dangerous. I took the feedback with mortifyingly poor grace. I was lucky enough to be quickly corrected on my behavior. In the wake of that correction, trying to figure out which way was up, I asked friends for help processing the critique.
My straight friends said it was bullshit. They said there was nothing wrong with queer tragedies — that queer people dying again and again was fine. Queer people are just people, and people die, they said. That’s just how it is. Really, it’s best not to overthink it. Go ahead and Forget.
My queer friends didn’t tell me that. Instead, they pointed me to articles and blog posts and callouts pointed at the Bury Your Gays trope. They talked to me about representation with more patience than I deserved. Many of them said that it was okay that I didn’t know, because a lot of straight writers don’t think about these things.
I didn’t correct them. Why would I? I breathed shallow and I told myself that the door being open was enough.
But one of my queer friends saw my feet sticking out from under the coats, and they asked me a question that turned me inside-out.
Sarah, they asked with excruciating kindness, do you know that queer people are allowed to have happy stories?
I panicked. I remember the hot flush of terror that rose from my belly to my chest like truth climbing out of her well. I panicked, because that couldn’t be right. That couldn’t be true.
If that was true, then what was I doing? Why was I letting people forget who I really was?
I swallowed the fear. I rewrote the story. I undid the tragedy. In doing so, I came to understand that the tragic ending I’d originally written had cut off an arc of character development midstream. The story needed to be longer. The characters deserved more time. They deserved real lives.
So I gave them more. I doubled the length of their story. I let them grow. I let them be fully realized.
I tried not to think about what could happen if I was allowed the same growth. I tried not to think about what I might become.
Not long after I sold that story, I was having dinner with a couple of queer friends, and in the course of our conversation, I referred to myself as straight.
One of them stopped me. “What did you just say?” I shook myself and gave the smile that you give people who’ve caught you in an unimportant goof, a slip of the tongue. But he didn’t let it go. He leaned across the table and looked at me seriously. “Why are you erasing yourself? Why would you do that to yourself?”
I peered out from between the coats at my friend and his boyfriend. They saw me. They knew who I was, and they hadn’t forgotten, and they cared. They saw that I wasn’t okay, and they told me so. I lay awake that night, next to a husband who had spent most of our marriage trying hard to forget that I was queer. I asked myself the same two questions over and over again.
Do you know that queer people are allowed to have happy stories?
Why are you erasing yourself?
I never thought I would live this long. Most of my life has felt like borrowed time. You’ve only got a couple of years left at the most, I told myself, and it felt true, because I knew how my story went. Short and heartbreaking and before too long, over.
I never thought I would live this long. I never thought I would live at all. But then I stepped out from between the coats, through the open door of the closet I was in, and into the world. I let go of the breath I’d been holding my whole life — and it turned that the atmosphere on this planet was breathable after all. There was air and there was community and there was joy, so much joy. There were people who would love me through immense loss, through a divorce and through self-discovery and a changing understanding of my identity and my potential. There was a way for me to be everything that I am, without fear that someone would see me, because it turns out being seen isn’t scary at all. It turns out that being seen feels like standing on solid ground. There were friendships that could go deeper than please let me hide in peace, friendships with people who would fight for me and who I would fight for, too. Friendships with people who refused to let me disappear. When I stopped trying to fade into the wallpaper, I found out that there was a version of me that laughed louder and stood taller. A version of me that would battle relentlessly with my words and my fists for equality and recognition and community and representation.
There was a version of me that was fearless. And for that version of me, there was a life.
I never thought I would live this long.
But here it is: A story that might just be a happy one.
A whole entire life. Just for me.
Between the Coats: A Sensitivity Read Changed my Life – an Essay by Sarah Gailey – HeadlinesJune 12, 2018 at 11:02 am
[…] post Between the Coats: A Sensitivity Read Changed my Life – an Essay by Sarah Gailey appeared first on The Book […]
DawnJune 12, 2018 at 2:00 pm
this is brilliant and alive and true inn all the best ways. I’m glad I discovered you/this on the 2nd anniversary of the Pulse shooting because it has so much heart and hope. thank you…
tanitaJune 12, 2018 at 2:04 pm
And this is just to remind all of us that we can discover who we are even after we’ve said who we thought who we were for years… we can find out we’re allowed to be happy. Cheers to that.
Pixel Scroll 6/12/18 Your Mother Was A Scrollster And Your Father Smelt Of Pixelberries! I File In Your General Direction! | File 770June 12, 2018 at 9:40 pm
[…] (16) OUTCOME OF SENSITIVITY READ. At The Book Smugglers: “Between the Coats: A Sensitivity Read Changed my Life – an Essay by Sarah Gailey”. […]
ArifelJune 13, 2018 at 8:29 am
Thank you so much for writing this, Sarah.
NikkinackynoodleJune 13, 2018 at 2:11 pm
This is a beautiful, beautiful post. The world is better for your words <3
AnonymousJune 14, 2018 at 8:34 pm
Raney SimmonJune 20, 2018 at 11:49 pm
Such a beautiful essay. Thanks for sharing it with us!
Loose-leaf Link #64 | Earl Grey EditingJuly 8, 2018 at 6:04 pm
[…] Sarah Gailey discusses how a sensitivity read changed her life. […]
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[…] perspectives they hadn’t considered – this was the case for Sarah Gailey, who’s written an essay about revisions suggested by a sensitivity reader that helped her confront some her own fears and self-imposed limitations as a queer person. […]
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Upright Women Wanted | MI Book ReviewsFebruary 10, 2020 at 3:02 pm
[…] happy ending because you are queer. If those two points are not enough to cry, I challenge you with this essay that Gailey wrote. Seriously. Gailey sees us. She is one of us. Queer stories can have happy […]
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