by Dexter Gore
I didn’t realize that something as simple as reading a novel, poem, or memoir about queerness could out someone. That is, not until I was almost outed as the first cisgender gay male in my hometown of Aynor, South Carolina.
The first banned book I read was written by James Baldwin—Giovanni’s Room. I read half of it with my friend Nick over the course of a week after school on the football bleachers while we waited for our rides to pick us up. Like me, Nick was in tenth grade. Unlike me, he was straight, fit, and believed the word of God was absolute, which meant we fought a lot when it came to talking about what we believed was taboo. And politics. Halfway through the novel, he looked at me and said, “I can’t finish this. It’s just too much. It’s not right.”
He would not say, flat out, why the novel was too much for him, but I knew the likely explanation. “Is it because there is French in it?” I teased. “I swear, that shit is annoying as hell.”
As much as I wanted to poke at him, get Nick closer and closer to admitting that he just did not care for the special relationship between the narrator and Giovanni, I did not want to out myself. I did not want to seem too eager for Nick to talk about two men having sex and holding hands in the street. I did not want others to hear us talking about the book and calling us a couple. I could not tell my friend that being around certain boys made me giddy and anxious, that I found myself identifying with the narrator more often than not, that I did not know how to express who I was to the people closest to me.
So I let Nick get off the hook with “No, man. It’s just not my type of story.”
I picked up where I left off in the novel the following week at my friend Caroline’s birthday party. There were five of us all together. None of us there were too popular in school—most of us hadn’t smoked a cigarette, had sex, or shot a bottle off of a wooden post—but each of us had our own accomplishments and could socialize with near about anyone we met. Chatter started after dinner was over, and Caroline’s parents made themselves scarce by slipping downstairs into the den to watch Mr. and Mrs. Smith. We were sitting up in the attic, telling ghost stories, gossiping about the latest bull shit we’d heard at school and what books and movies we’d seen lately.
Chris, a tall red-head with a mole inside his right ear and a gap between his top front teeth, was one of the guests in attendance. I had known him since third grade. He was smart. His teeth made me think of Britain. So I called him Little Britain. Little Britain sat across from me on the floor. He pulled out his cellphone and started scrolling. He showed his phone after a moment. Myspace was pulled up, and there was Brittany, a burnet in the twelfth grade who had the biggest boobs on campus, posing in camo next to her boyfriend, who was showing off the beard of a turkey he had shot in the chest.
“Guys, what do you see in this picture?” asked Little Britain.
The screen was too small for me to make anything out clearly. I looked at Caroline. She scratched her head—clueless. Chelsea, Caroline’s best friend, put on her glasses and looked hard at the screen, zooming in on Brittany’s face, then her boyfriend’s, then on the dead turkey.
“Is it the blood on their faces?” said Chelsea. “I thought that was just a deer huntin’ thing.”
“No ya’ll, look,” said Little Britain. He zoomed in on Brittany’s chest. Her nipples were poking on the back of her shirt. Nick, also in attendance, laughed out loud and blushed. At once, Caroline and Chelsea called Little Britain stupid. I scrunched up my face and said, “Eww.”
Both girls stopped glaring at Little Britain and turned to the side to look at me. Nick, who was sitting beside me, jerked his head back in disbelief. Little Britain, making faces at the two girls, stopped and stared at me with his tongue sticking out of his mouth.
“What did you just say?” said Chelsea, picking up on my mistake immediately.
The appropriate response would have been to laugh it off, make a remark about Brittany’s hard nipples and how sexy she looked in her outfit. Instead, I bent my wrists and flapped my hands like someone who’d accidentally touched a piece of peppermint stuck to the bottom of their desk by mistake and needed to wash their hands.
“I just, well, I don’t think they’re that great,” I said. “I mean, Little Britain and Nick I’m sure you know, but there are better than those online.”
Little Britain, Chelsea, and Caroline initiated a conversation on how porn was both good and bad for the women in the videos. I nodded my head time to time. Minutes passed, and the group soon forgot about my slip-up. Except Nick. Behind me, in my bag, was the copy of Giovanni’s Room. I had been reading it during moments in the bathroom, while I was waiting for everyone else to get done eating, and I was planning on reading it that night after everyone had gone to sleep. But Nick got up and took it from my bag. He tapped me on the shoulder so that I would turn around and face him. When I did, our noses nearly touched. I could smell his breath: strawberry Kool-Aid from dinner. My eyes wandered from his face to his chest. He was wearing a white shirt, and I could see his nipples. They were perfectly round. Flat. No bigger than the end of my pinky.
“You’re not done with this yet?” he asked me.
“Are you close?”
“What’s going on?”
“Giovanni’s been arrested, and the narrator has told his wife about everything.”
Nick shook his head.
“That’s a shame. I didn’t much care for either the narrator or Giovanni, but I hoped the book would have a happy ending for everyone.”
Nick looked back at me. He smiled. He handed me the book. “Did some research on this thing,” said Nick. “It got some good reviews. Librarian at school said the teachers and principal thought it was too provocative. A lot of kids that read it before told their parents about it, and supposedly those folks made a stink. So when I told my mom and dad that you were reading it, they told me that I might want to check-in with you.”
With those words, I tried to act confused. I laughed in his face. Told him I didn’t understand what he was getting at. I changed the topic to a game I was playing on my Playstation. Then proposed the idea that we scare the rest of the group later that night.
Nick looked back at my bag, over at the group, then back at me. He patted me on the side of the arm.
“Dexter,” said Nick. “You can quit rambling.” I stopped moving. There was a window about ten feet from us. I wanted to just run over to it, break the glass and jump, killing myself before it was too late, before it was too late.
“I’m not worried about you,” Nick continued. “Just wanted to tell you that others may be. Just be careful with who you show that book off to, or anything like it. Mom told me to tell you that you never know who’s watching you, so it might be best, too, if you do choose to read something like that that you do it in private.”
“Thanks Nick,” I said. “I appreciate it.”
I put away the novel and we turned back to the group. Little Britain called us two homos. Caroline threw her shoe at him. He said he was only messing, and we all laughed. Then we followed Caroline’s lead over to the television set to watch a movie on HBO. As I sat there with my friends, I thought about what Nick had said. True, it was a warning, but it was also a glimpse of danger. Rumors, I feared, would spread if I did not listen to Nick. I wondered what I must look like reading a book about two men falling in love and having sex to people at school, to people walking around in public, to my father. To my mother. That’s when I thought about the Chicken Soup books, the shitty marriage and relationship advice they provide for hundreds of pages. The possibility that they may provide one or two actual recipes on how to cook edible chicken soup. I didn’t know for sure. Still don’t. But in that moment, I realized that as horrible as those books are, unlike Mr. Baldwin’s novel, and many other queer writers’ work, they provided a young, closeted gay boy privilege, the kind his mother talks to him about, and a type of protection is barely heard of.