Written by Nancy Garden of Annie on my Mind fame, Hear Us Out is essentially three quarters short story collection, one quarter history lesson. The stories are divided into decades of time, covering the 1950s through the 2000s. Each section begins with a brief essay about the events and atmosphere of the time in gay history, followed by two short stories full of characters and places that could fit into that time frame, although many of the stories could definitely cross into timeless places, as well. Before I even started this book, I thought the entire idea and organization of it was brilliant: covering a smorgasbord of real political issues made personal through Garden’s fictionalized worlds, this book is a little hard to classify. And typically, I adore books that are hard to classify. The library where I found it, interestingly, had it classified as non-fiction. But while it is in one way very much a history text, it’s also a clear work of literary fiction at the same time. The blurb on the jacket actually sums it up much better than I just did: “This unique approach gives not only the facts but the feelings, too.”
One thing that’s certain, though, is that it is geared towards youth, and the non-fiction historical essays are definitely written in a relatively simplified and straightforward manner, which is only negative if you’re overly opposed to reading books for youth as a whole. I happen to love non-fiction geared towards youth in particular because it can often simply be more enjoyable than the adult stuff, while still enlightening when done right, as Garden does. It’s clear and engaging, while avoiding being derisive. And one of my favorite parts was that in each historical essay, after the main events of the time were described, she made sure to focus on what that decade meant for youth in particular, or how youth helped to galvanize change for themselves and for the community, an aspect that’s often wanting in other historical queer texts.
As for the stories themselves, there are many tropes that we have seen before, to the point that they’re often looked on as conclusions we should be moving away from now: that being gay necessitates rejection, violence, running away, death. Yet in light of the point of this project, I think they make sense: that was how many people experienced gayness in the 50s, and many of these things do still even happen today, too, amidst all the progress. And importantly, one thing is true in all the stories, even the darker ones: even if the characters feel like giving up or face enormous odds, none of them deny who they are, or believe that they should.
Some of my favorite stories included both of the stories from the 60s: “Cold Comfort,” a classically Southern-feeling tale of two girls in a small town, and “Stonewall,” documenting when one man got to lose his virginity and witness the birth of a movement all in one night. I also found “My Father’s Buddha,” from the 80s, particularly moving, touching briefly on both the ghosts of Vietnam and the all-too-present horror of AIDS, and the search for solace in the pain of both. Another highlight as a whole was being that Garden was at the helm, the majority of the stories, other than these two I just mentioned, do in fact deal with lady love. And in my own experience with queer short story collections, the scale is normally tipped towards the dudes, so it was refreshing to experience the opposite.
While rejecting gender norms, particularly by women, was addressed in many of the stories, I did wish that there could have been at least one specifically trans story included (although she does include them in the essays), but I suppose one author and one book can’t be everything for everybody.
Short story collections can also often be a strange beast in terms of the ratio of wins to disappointments, but when they’re all from the same author, it feels consistent enough to be steadily satisfying, while the plots and writing styles still vary enough with each story to keep it interesting.
Overall, this entirely accessible volume reaches out to youth to not only bring comfort about a variety of situations readers might relate to in one story or the other, but to show the hope in how far we’ve come. The hiding and the rejection and the injustice in some of these stories are all very real parts of our history and parts we can’t forget, and parts that youth need to know about, as well. This book was published in 2007, and even reading through the introductory essay for the 2000s decade (the one essay that seemed a little overlong to me), it felt slightly surreal in terms of all the gains we’ve made just in the last five years since its publication. Accordingly, while that section by itself is easily outdated, a fact Garden acknowledges to be inevitable, the rest of the book could stand the test of time forever. While being up to date on queer books for youth is sort of my thing, I feel this one has flown under the radar a bit: I hadn’t really heard of it before I stumbled onto it in the library, and I wish that was a different story, and that it was widely available to youth (and just people) everywhere. (An updated, slightly more hip cover wouldn’t hurt, either.) Highly recommended.