The First Gay Romance Storyline I Ever Read: or, a Case Study in Why We Need Representation

I don't know how old I was when I found out that gay people existed. I probably learned it from my friends, who were a lot more worldly than me; I'm pretty sure I learned a lot of (mostly erroneous) facts about the birds and the bees from them, too. I do remember a lot of jokes about the the gay kid in our school and the lesbian in the school across town—not that they were out, they were just assumed to be queer.

I grew up in a conservative, mostly Catholic, mostly low-income town in Neuquén Province in northern Patagonia. One of my classmates got pregnant at thirteen; by the end of high school, I'd lost track of how many girls dropped out of my school or got held back a year because they had a baby. Gay rights were a pipe dream in Argentina (though same-sex marriage was legalized country-wide before it was in the United States). I heard a lot of derogatory language, learned a lot of harmful stereotypes, came to associate queerness with something unpleasant, gross. I didn't know a single out queer person until I left my town, and my country, to come to college. The only queer people I encountered were in literature and media.

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I still remember how viscerally it affected me when I first read a book where one of the main characters was gay. It was Ironside by Holly Black. It was the third book in the series and I hadn't read the previous two, so I didn't know anything about the characters. I didn't know Corny was gay; I don't know if I would have chosen to buy it if I had known. (Books, especially the kind I liked, weren't easy to come by in my town, either).

Corny (Cornelius) is the human best friend of the book's fae main character, Kaye. Kaye is a changeling, raised in the human world and unaware of her origins until the events if the first book. Corny mistrusts fairies, who killed his sister, but is a great friend to Kaye, her main support system when the human and fae world both become hostile to her.

For the first half of the novel, Holly Black strongly hints at but doesn't outright say that Corny is gay. Readers of the first book would probably already know, but I was blissfully ignorant. I can call to memory two quotes that I read several times, wanting them to signify something other than Corny's queerness. In one, Corny walks into a club and mentions the "beautiful boys and insect-thin girls." In another, Corny mentions that he always wanted a comic-book supervillain for a boyfriend.

I tried to explain away both of these quotes. Just because Corny highlights the boys' beauty and not the girls' doesn't mean he's attracted to the boys. Maybe that's just what the population of the club was like. (It's called denial, folks). Just because Corny mentions a boyfriend doesn't mean he's gay. Maybe the comics he reads all have male villains and he's just talking about being attracted to the dark side. (Yes, I was reaching).

I didn't want Corny to be gay because he was a point of view character and I didn't want to see through the eyes of a queer person. I didn't want to imagine what it would be like to acknowledge attraction to the same sex, let alone to act on it, as Corny does later in the novel. I didn't want to be put in that kind of emotional risk. It felt uncomfortable and dangerous.

The signs grew harder and harder to explain away. Corny meets a mysterious young man named Louis and is immediately attracted to him, though they initially butt heads; as their relationship progresses, it became increasingly obvious that Corny was into Louis in a non-platonic sense.

But they can't touch. Corny has had a curse placed on him by a fae that makes any object—or person—wither under his fingertips. Besides, Corny doesn't even know if Louis likes him back. The relationship was safe for me to read about because it was forcibly chaste. It might not even happen. Gayness was gross and undesirable, as I had learned from school, but I supposed it was okay for Corny to be gay as long as he didn't act on it. As long as I didn't have to face it.

Intentionally or not, the novel slowly acclimated me to Corny's sexuality and his relationship with Louis. By first hinting, then making obvious, then stating, then unequivocally showing (through his relationship with Louis) that Corny is gay, Black made me grow accustomed to this aspect of his character. I was still uncomfortable when Corny and Louis made out at the end, but I got past it. I was focused on Kaye's story, on the fantasy, on the gritty urban setting.  I was left having grudgingly accepted the existence of a queer character in a book I enjoyed. I didn't like him, but I didn't directly associate that with his being gay. Believe it or not, that was progress.

But my journey with Ironside wasn't over. I've always re-read books multiple times; call it a product of the limited access I had to new reading materials, call it my timid nature and my fear of meeting new people (or characters). In any case, each time I re-read Ironside, I was more okay with Corny's story. Looking back now, I find his and Louis's romance much more compelling than that of Kaye and the fairy dude, which was pretty dysfunctional. I didn't necessarily keep coming back to this book because I was aware of the dearth of gay characters in fantasy and my need to have them normalized, but it might have been a subconscious reason.

Here's why it's important to represent queerness in books that aren't about queerness: people who are afraid of their sexuality, like I was, don't necessarily pick up books they think will represent them. They might have internalized homophobia, queer-phobia, or transphobia. They might not even realize or want to accept the degree to which the representation of queerness makes them uncomfortable—or his much they need it.

 Leave a comment!

  • Who was the first queer character you encountered in literature? How did it affect you?
  • Have you read Ironside or the two pervious books in this series, Tithe and ValiantI don't know how popular this series is compared to Holly Black's other books. I almost never hear people talking about it! I know it's not perfect, but it has a special place in my heart.
  • Do you have a favorite queer character in literature?
  • How do you feel about this more personal blogging style?