In 1948, when the American writer Patricia Highsmith started writing The Price of Salt, her seminal novel of lesbian love, she knew it would be difficult to find a publisher as an openly queer author. At the time, as she reflected in her 1989 afterword to the novel, it was already difficult enough just to be out as a lesbian in New York. “Those were the days,” she wrote, “when gay bars were a dark door somewhere in Manhattan, where people wanting to go to a certain bar got off the subway a station before or after the convenient one, lest they be suspected of being a homosexual.” It would be career suicide, she feared, to be known as a “lesbian book-writer.” So when the publisher of her first novel, Strangers on a Train, rejected The Price of Salt, she released the latter elsewhere under a pseudonym, Claire Morgan. It went on to become one of the most important works of queer American fiction.
The United States in 2016 is generally more accepting of queer writers than the country Highsmith described. But some of the rhetoric of President-elect Donald Trump and a number of his supporters paints LGBT people in much the same way that they were seen in Highsmith’s day: as people who don’t deserve the same rights as other Americans. In January 2016, Trump told the Fox News host Chris Wallace that he would “strongly consider” appointing conservative justices who could repeal the ruling of Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court decision that made same-sex marriage legal last year. In June 2015, Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who has a long history of opposition to LGBT rights, had responded more strongly to the decision, reaffirming his belief that marriage is between a man and a woman.
As a queer American and as a writer, the prospect of a Trump presidency troubles me. Yet Trump’s tenure, ironically, could be a spur to LGBT literature, propelling the development of an even more self-assured literature of American queerness than before.
I came to America from the Commonwealth of Dominica. For me, like many other queer writers in the U.S., particularly those who’ve come from less safe places, America represented a kind of hope. Here was a country I’d decided to stay, as a dual citizen, after coming out. My former home in the Caribbean wasn’t a safe place to be openly queer in, and unlike the U.S., it lacked laws protecting LGBT persons from discrimination or violence. When I immigrated, I felt like a sea-traveler who had escaped from a storm, waves high as Hokusai’s, and who was now in a calmer place, free to fill my eyes with stars.
Of course, the United States was far from perfect. The killing of trans women is in the news so often that I’ve come to expect it. Bigotry against LGBT people is written into innumerable “religious freedom acts” akin to the one Pence signed. But, for all that, America was still a sanctuary, a world that could accept—and even defend—someone like me. Queer people were never fully safe, but here we could be happy and hopeful.
The day Trump was elected, I began to think of Shirley Jackson’s famous New Yorker story, “The Lottery.” In Jackson’s tale, published in 1948—the same year Highsmith began The Price of Salt—a New England town holds an annual lottery, in which each member of the town must pick a piece of paper from a closed box. One unlucky person who gets the single paper with a black dot on it will be stoned to death by the townspeople. Jackson’s story is cool and compressed, revealing the mundane savagery in an ordinary American town that exists when people cling too closely and literally to violent traditions. I had voted, not taken part in a lottery, yet felt like I had pulled out a card with a smudged black dot: an indication that something terrifying, was coming.