In 1994, in a southern Baptist household on a dead-end street of nine houses, I felt one way and one way only: alone. Where I grew up, queer was a crime. If you were lucky you were ignored and if your luck ran out, you were punished. It felt like the only option was to keep your head down and mouth shut. I was fifteen years old and knew exactly who I was but struggled to articulate my identity.
Then I turned sixteen. I slowly caught wind of things like Bikini Kill and Tales of the City on PBS. And I had a driver's license. I'd come across something in the phone book but I couldn't work up the nerve to visit the place. After a week or two of fretting, I skipped school to drive the thirty-five miles into Atlanta to visit Outwrite Books (open 1993-2012). This very quickly became a regular sojourn, burning almost a tank's worth of gas to visit the bookstore every weekend.
I knew nothing of gay literature - other than I needed it - and spent way too much money on mediocre pop fiction that over-promised and under-delivered. As time went on and I became a familiar face, one of the booksellers at Outwrite took pity on me and gently steered me in a different, ultimately defining, direction. Queer YA titles were virtually nonexistent at that point. It really felt like you had to choose between Heather Has Two Mommies or Audre Lorde - one was far too young, the politics of the other sailed clear over my head at that age. But this unnecessarily patient bookseller was a class act and wouldn't let me off the hook, eventually sending me home with Edmund White's A Boy's Own Story. An obvious choice in 2019 but in 1995 I had no real access to crappy books that reflected my experience, let alone a seminal book. It was such a relief to connect with something so baldly, even if it was a little florid for a teenager.
From there, my reading exploded. I pretended to like some Gore Vidal. I tackled that Lorde. There was a Ripley novel, which titillated me even if its queerness escaped me almost entirely. Then, a sea change. This bookseller, whose name I have shamefully forgotten, introduced me to Frank O'Hara. Miraculously, I saw myself reflected in a way I never could have imagined. Here was the work of a gay man that was accessible, blazingly intelligent and gently humorous. O'Hara conveyed an assured homosexual identity that had no interest in camp or in pandering to society's approval. Above all, those poems spoke to a peace that I yearned for.
Outwrite is responsible for the most valuable education I will ever receive. The welcoming, nature of a bookstore shaped me in ways I will never be able to express but I do know that without it, my coming out would feel much smaller. I do not take this for granted and know how lucky I was to find community pretty easily. But it was still the mid-90s and identity and gender politics could best be described as myopic. Looking back, I know it was no more than nature's lottery that I belonged to the majority of a minority and other members of my community struggled enormously to find themselves reflected, let alone celebrated, in books to which they had access.
In 2019, it is thrilling to see queer literature widely recognized, the myriad ways we translate our experiences loudly celebrated. The Argonauts. Ocean Vuong. Thomas Page McBee. Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl. Melissa Febos. Picture Us In the Light. Exquisite portrayals of the fortitude of self it takes to claim your place in the world. The scope becomes more breathtaking each year but we need more representation, an even wider view. We can do even more. We can do better.
For us, that begins by giving back. Including and encouraging our communities is an integral component of the day-to-day at Third Place. We are proud to celebrate National Coming Out Day and we hope you will join us. On Friday, October 11th, 20% of all in-store sales that mention NCOD will be donated to Lambert House, a local institution that has been supporting and building community for LGBTQ youth since 1993.