Naoise Dolan: 'We need more LGBT stories because there are so many to tell'

The author of the critically acclaimed new novel Exciting Times, tells her own story of coming out.
Naoise Dolan: 'We need more LGBT stories because there are so many to tell'

We need more LGBT stories because there are so many to tell, writes Naoise Dolan. The author of the critically acclaimed new novel Exciting Times, tells her own story of coming out.

I've always known I was attracted to women. For me, the difficulty lay in realising that not all women are. I understand the idea of being straight, but it’s a way of experiencing the world that seems completely alien to me.

When I can’t be out, I find it exhausting having to hide myself — not because my every sentence gives me away as queer, but because I have to screen them to make sure that they won’t before I utter them aloud. ‘Women’ is quite a large category of person to never be able to say anything freely about; half of all people, actually.

In school, I stayed closeted, because you couldn’t not. ‘Gay’ was so straightforwardly a slur that I talked about my love of Oscar Wilde and Emma Donoghue without ever mentioning that word. I couldn’t; my face would give me away. Even the phrase ‘staying closeted’ seems to wrongfully suggest a level of agency in how I approached my sexuality. I didn’t feel remotely safe coming out as a teenager, so I ‘stayed closeted’ in the sense that you ‘stay’ inside a moving vehicle.

I could have come out in school, just like I could open a car door and jump out onto the M50; but the consequences wouldn’t have been pretty.

The atmosphere improved when I went to study English at Trinity. I made LGBT friends who were proudly open about their identity. But the impact of hiding myself didn’t disappear the moment my circumstances changed. It’s exhausting to lie constantly, so I’d been putting as much of this endeavour as possible on autopilot. In school, this had helped me.

It meant I could perform all the required behaviours without having to consciously press the right buttons. But at Trinity, it meant that before I could come out, I first had to unravel who I even was. When you’re used to performing a character, you forget how much of yourself you put into them when you first learned the role. I spent years working backwards, unthinking and unlearning and thinking and learning anew; taking one step forward, two steps back, many steps sideways.

When I was ready, halfway through college, I told a group of friends at a university debating event in Croatia. Gay Dublin is small — even smaller than Dublin Dublin — so word spread fast. And that was that. University wasn’t all plain sailing from there, though.

The 2015 marriage referendum happened in my third year of college, and this in particular was difficult. We rightly celebrate the result, but we often overlook the trauma incurred by LGBT people who had to knock on doors and beg for our rights, and walk past posters claiming unforgivable things about us.

But on the whole, I spent the rest of my college years getting used to having everyone know I’m queer.

I was ‘on Irish Twitter’ — a phrase that still meant something at the time because ‘Irish Twitter’ was small enough for it to — and this gave me an additional community where I could connect with other LGBT people. I was happy.

Then I moved to Hong Kong in 2016 to teach English as a second language. There were no laws against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, although public demand for such legislation continues to rise.

There were advocacy organisations such as Pink Alliance, gay bars, and media representation from the likes of Cantopop star Denise Ho. But because homophobia often revolves around the attitude that LGBT people aren’t to be trusted with children — the same one I’d seen on posters during the marriage referendum in Ireland — I didn’t feel I could come out when my job was to teach them.

Everything about my behaviour became a decision once more. I filtered my every word to make sure nothing gave me away. I dated women discreetly and made LGBT friends; gays exist everywhere, and we’re good at finding each other. But it wasn’t the same as being out to everyone.

I won’t make any general claims about Ireland and Hong Kong, as my time in Hong Kong was transient, and the country is much changed by civil rights protests and coronavirus since I left. All I can say is that for me, it was easier to be openly queer in college than in a job where I couldn’t predict the consequences of announcing my sexuality. And self-closeting is more painful once you know how wonderful and freeing it is to be yourself.

I’d managed it in school because I didn’t know how much more happiness was available to me; I thought a circumscribed form of it was the most I’d ever have. While I enjoyed my time in Hong Kong, it feels warm and right to be openly queer again now I’m home.

Ever since, I have continued to make decisions about how I present myself. That is, for me, the reality of living in a world where anti-LGBT discrimination continues. Of course, the fluctuations of self-fashioning are also a human experience. It’s in us as animals to adapt ourselves for different demands, different contexts. But LGBT people have to do a lot more of it than straight people do.

These experiences have informed my own appetite for LGBT stories. I’m not interested in representing unmitigated trauma, or in telling assimilated tales of characters who ‘just happen to be gay’. I’m glad these types of book exist, because the diversity of LGBT people should be reflected in the range of writers getting published and the stories they tell.

But I don’t think there are enough novels about another category of LGBT experience: Neither victims nor seamlessly absorbed into hetero normativity, but distinct. Compromising sometimes, yes; wary of views and power structures that can hurt us, yes; strategic, altering our personas to fit the setting, as all real people do. That has been my queer experience.

I don’t see myself as having suffered non-stop in Ireland, Hong Kong, or any of the other places I’ve lived. But I also don’t see myself as having ever ‘just happened to be queer’. Nor do the characters in my debut novel, Exciting Times, which has two LGBT female leads: An Irish bisexual and a lesbian Hongkonger.

My sexuality has been integral to shaping who I am, though the way it’s manifested has varied depending on my environment, so that’s the type of gay book it made sense for me to write: One where identity is contingent, not absolute. Not everyone will relate to Exciting Times, because there is no single ‘relatable’ gay way of being. Even the experiences of one person will differ throughout their lives, as mine have. But that’s why we need more LGBT stories — so no-one has to speak for everyone.

It’s also important to me, because of my experiences, to write for other LGBT people. That’s not the same as claiming to represent them. I don’t want or expect everyone to see themselves in the protagonist of Exciting Times; I think a character would have to be painfully dull for this to be possible.

But I only exist at all thanks to the love and labour of other LGBT people. This is true in my immediate life: I am who I am because of the support and solidarity I’ve shared with LGBT friends over many years.

It’s true professionally: I was able to get a book out because previous generations of LGBT authors had already convinced publishers that people want to read our stories. And it’s true legally and practically: I have a place in the world not by chance, but through the work of LGBT activists, not least the black and POC trans women who started the Stonewall riots.

So LGBT readers matter to me. I’m so happy to see our lives celebrated, and I hope that the response to Exciting Times makes more space for the stories I can’t tell.

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan is published in Trade Paperback by W&N and is available to order online for home delivery from Easons.com

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