IT has been twelve years since the last anthology of contemporary Scottish LGBT writing appeared, a period of enormous change, legally, ideologically, and socially. With that in mind, Zoë Strachan has assembled Out There, a pick ’n’ mix of Scottish fiction, nonfiction and poetry which, according to GScene.com, is only the third such collection ever published. The idea came to Strachan a few years ago at Ullapool Book Festival, when she was speaking about how the gay experience finds expression through her work. A number of questions cropped up: ‘about the unpublished manuscripts that might be mouldering in attics; about the lack of gay male counterparts for the generation of world-class Scottish women writers who are lesbian; about whether we can talk meaningfully about gay or queer fiction; about how new writers will embrace, subvert and reject such labels and themes.’
Who here?, to paraphrase Harold Ross. There are poems and stories from Jackie Kay, Carol Ann Duffy, Louise Welsh, Jo Clifford, Ronald Frame and Ali Smith, as well as Val McDermid, Damian Barr, Jenni Fagan, Kerry Hudson, Kirsty Logan and Nicola White. Among the less familiar names are Janette Ayachi, Shane Strachan, Tat Usher, Katherine McMahon, David Downing, and Marcas Mac an Tuairneir. It is worth noting, as Strachan does, that most of the better known names belong to women.
Though sturdy and mainly enjoyable, there is nothing breathtaking, and nothing so heart tirring and eye-opening in Out There that will reform one’s thinking about LGBT issues. The star of the show is Ali Smith’s ‘A & V at the V & A’(originally published in 2012), a sprightly tale of sexual frisson and adultery that equates the dazzling, overwhelming vastness of a museum full of treasures with intimacy and all its delights and unexplored rooms. A and V are nameless and genderless, and while the assumption is that they’re female, the story doesn’t rely on this, which underscores a pertinent point about the universality of love – gender is meaningless, connection is all. We connect with Smith’s characters immediately.
David Downing contributes a wistful story ‘The Quilt’. In it, a respectable middle-class woman returns to her decaying childhood home after her sister’s death. Everything about the old house is neglected, decaying, damp, and indifferent. By employing endless descriptions of discomfort – emotional as well as physical – Downing creates an atmosphere in which neither reader nor protagonist can settle.
In ‘After Ovid’, an extract from a novel in progress, Ronald Frame considers the plight of a timid university don entrapped by an undercover officer in a public loo, and then frozen out of polite society when word gets out. It’s a familiar scenario, but deftly handled.
Nicola White’s short story ‘I Live Here Now’, describes the arrival of new couple in a small town – they’re called ‘the boys’ in meaningful italics, and treated as exotic, if belated, harbingers of the twenty-first century. The narrator is perplexed: she’s gay and has lived there for years, doesn’t that count? A casual remark that sounds her alarm bells underscores the thinness of the veneer of acceptability. By keeping the focus tight, on her narrator’s thoughts, we understand that this sense of unease is largely self-imposed. Kirsty Logan’s ‘Dog-Bait’, meanwhile, is a multi-perspective story full of haunting bitchery, sexual transgression, and warped family dynamics. Characters are delineated quickly and savagely. With assured economy Logan manages to raise questions about femininity, sexual allure, and the limits of female aspiration. It’s an accomplished and disturbing piece.
Less effective are stories such as Toni Davidson’s ‘As the Veneer of Sexuality Begins to Fade’, about a polymorphous and perverse collection of archly nicknamed university hipsters who strike poses, take intoxicants and shag. With lines such as ‘He choreographed their pathos’, it feels as self-conscious as the people it describes. Roy Gill’s short story, ‘Generations’, doesn’t seem to know whether it’s a tribute to Doctor Who or a coming out tale, placing more emphasis on arcane technological data than on the central relationship. And Paul McQuade’s ‘Per Aspera Ad Astra’ suffers from an overload of characters and choppy cross-cutting that makes it difficult to know what’s going on or why; nor does he generate enough empathy for any of his scenarios to inspire the reader to untangle it all.
Overall, what do these pieces tell us about being LGBT? With few exceptions, they demonstrate what should have been obvious all along: human is human. We love, we fight, we fornicate, we work – universal activities and emotions regardless of sexual preference. Perhaps there could have been more emphasis on the minority experience of being gay in a predominantly straight world, but perhaps the fact that we’re not beaten about the head with that message is testament to our changing times. Isn’t the reason that art touches us simply because deep inside, humans are more similar than not, regardless of our circumstances?
Still, there are other questions worth asking: Do we need such an anthology? Haven’t times moved on? Is there a danger of ghettoising LGBT writers in the name of right-on-ness? If you’re a fan of anthologies, then surely any grouping is valid. On my shelves are collections of cat poems, stories by Scottish female writers, horror stories written by comics, love poems, Scottish love poems, Best American Short Stories, Stories of Motherhood, Christmas stories… So why not Scottish LGBT writers?
Why do we read, anyway? Myriad reasons: for entertainment; to be dazzled by an author’s style; to discover hitherto unexplored – maybe even imaginary – worlds, and to see our own world explained anew or challenged. There’s a natural instinct to look for ourselves – and our friends and our family – in fiction, as well. For heterosexuals and those at ease in their birth gender, that has been the norm throughout the history of storytelling. The LGBT community has a lot of catching up to do. Imagine a gay adolescent tormented by his or her desires – then imagine the relief of that teenager on reading a book depicting same ex love, and discovering that they are not alone.
There is certainly a need for a counterweight to fiction in which gay characters are killed off, punished, marginalised and treated as anything other than perfectly normal. As Paul Brownsey says in his author’s note: ‘My stories often centre on characters who are gay but the stories are not usually about being gay. This has sometimes prompted the question: Why, then, do you make your characters gay, if you’re not making a point about homosexuality? Things will be as they should be only when this question is never asked.’
For those who identify as Scottish – ‘by birth, residence, inclination or formation’ as Strachan defines it – the need for LGBT literature is especially acute. Jeff Meek, in his closing historical essay, notes that Scotland did not decriminalise male homosexual acts between consenting male adults in private until 1980 – thirteen years after similar legislation in England and Wales. Fifteen years after that, in Gendering the Nation, Christopher Whyte (also a contributor here) wrote, ‘To be gay and to be Scottish, it would seem, are still mutually exclusive conditions.’ In 2012, a survey by the University of Cambridge for Stonewall Scotland found that 5 per cent of lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils in Scottish secondary schools experience homophobic bullying. (1,614 were surveyed; 158 of whom identified as LGBT.) This research found that 26 per cent of gay young Scots have attempted suicide, and more than half self-harm.
Such statistics are a reminder that for all the back-patting about the gay kiss in the Commonwealth Games’ opening ceremony, for all that Scotland removed ‘spousal veto’ from the Equal Marriage Bill, and despite the social news and entertainment website Buzzfeed’s recent (rather rackety) story, 19 Reasons Why it’s Wonderful to Be Gay in Scotland, this nation still has a distance to travel on the road to enlightenment. It was stirring look at public buildings during last summer’s games and see the rainbow flag flying. It felt like two fingers up to the forty-two Commonwealth countries where homosexuality is a criminal act.
But there is a big difference between rule books and reality, as anyone who’s suffered illegal discrimination is aware. Tolerance has to get into our DNA, until someone’s sexuality and gender are noted in the flick of an eye – just as we notice tall/short, blonde/brunette – and then set aside as an element of but not the essence of the human before us. This gulf between our best and worst selves surely helps to answer the question posed earlier, wondering why there’s a preponderance of world renowned gay Scottish women authors, and fewer gay men who have reached that level of recognition. It’s certainly not an issue of numbers or a lack of talent. Could it have something to with what Strachan, in a 1999 essay, referred to as the ‘dull, thudding masculinity of Kelman, Sharp, McIlvanney, Gunn’? What she noted about Scottish literature is equally applicable to a certain breed of Scottish man. Are women simply freer to be themselves? That’s not an accusation of cowardice. For many, keeping shtum is the way you stay alive.
Finally, if there’s been little said about the transgender experience here, it’s because there’s only one piece in Out There that speaks directly to the issue: In her punchy essay, ‘The Fine Art of Finding a Safe Place to Pee’, Jo Clifford describes going to the opera in New York City while still in the early stages of her transition from male to female. This imbalance suggests that even in an anthology such as this, the transgendered voice isn’t being heard loudly enough.
Out There: An anthology of Scottish LGBT writing
Edited by Zoë Strachan
Freight Books, £8.99, PP256, ISBN 978-1-908754-68-4