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Initially, the choice of title, Boys, An Anthology (Thought Catalog), appears merely a cultural response to the way in which Lena Dunham has challenged society to rethink what it means to be a girl. Indeed, an earlier Thought Catalog book explicitly set out to offer alternative female narratives, to widen the discussion that Dunham began. In many ways, that was the intention of Zach Stafford and Nico Lang – “to bring together gay men to tell their stories,” especially those voices that remain marginalised even within the gay community. Nineteen stories from nineteen self-identifying men from around the world, with proceeds from the anthology benefitting the Lambda Literary Foundation.
After being exposed to so many lives, however, the deeper significance of the title becomes clear. “Boys” is a word that, in its simplicity, is incapable of expressing our incalculable diversity. Yet, it is in that very simplicity that it is so appropriate – it reminds us that while we may have been born with different biologies or skin color, while we may have different body types and come from different cultures and family dynamics, there is something that unites us all. As the preface states, we may never be one monolithic, homogenous community, but we owe it to each other to listen, to support and to understand.
The collection begins with Joseph Erbentraut’s narrative exploring an issue that comes as close as possible to being universally relatable: the overwrought, insecurity-driven awkwardness that characterises those first sexual fumbles. This initial grounding is important because it quickly becomes apparent that, from kidnappings to sex changes, gay twins and homelessness, this anthology offers insight into many unknown, unanticipated and, on the surface, unrelatable experiences.
The seventeen accounts that follow progress with no identifiable order. From the troubling life of a trans man in Colorado kidnapped by his mother in an effort to pray the gay away the reader is transported to the intoxicating Bangalore gay scene where white fetishism reigns supreme, and then back to small-town America where a boy struggles to claim an identity separate from the dominant personality of his gay twin. Yet despite the variety, there are a number of trends that quickly emerge.
The stories of Alok Vaid-Menon, Nico Lang, Madison Moore, Randall Jenson and Jaime Woo, while their approaches vary from Grindr to grandmothers, deal heavily with the issue of race. Penetrating insight is given to the effects of a mainstream gay culture which is overwhelmingly white and middle-class on how men form attractions. An undercurrent that unites many stories is the challenge to accept and love oneself in a society that constantly seeks to shape our perceptions of beauty, normality and masculinity. Some stories argue the importance of proactive resistance and advocacy, while others offer reflection. After a veritable whirlwind, Huang’s all-too-accurate recollection of drug-fuelled Amsterdam brings the collection to a close–nicely balancing Erbentraut’s beginning –with the poignant assertion that gay transcends race, color, class and age.
The abrupt shifts in narrative and topic between each essay can be quite jarring. However, this serves as an almost tactile representation of the extent of the differences the collection aims to convey. While few narratives are set in the same geographical location, the juxtaposition of the pieces reinforces the fact that men leading incredibly different lives, with experiences almost unrecognizable to one another inhabit the same space.
While these shifts are sometimes accompanied by differences in literary skill—the composition of most diverse anthologies will often see some writers’ style suffer when compared to others–this also allows certain authors to positively shine. Buck Angel’s probing account of trans life invites you to think, while the heart-wrenching beauty of Ryan Fitzgibbon’s reflection on love and loss makes you feel. Noah Michelson’s story evokes laughter and warms with its focus on acceptance, while Eric Bellis and Jenson send the reader reeling with reminders of how cruel the world can sometimes be. While some of the stories prove forgettable, the dips are few. The majority of the work in this collection firmly impress themselves, whether from clarity of insight or alarming challenges to preconceived notions.
In its entirety, Boys is a remarkable feat. Not only is illumination given to aspects of the gay community often overlooked, but it is provided in such a personal and stripped-back fashion that it becomes relatable. This anthology is a coherent and articulate start to the broadening of discussion that Stafford and Lang identify as being crucial. The complexity and diversity of gay society is so vividly represented that it forces the reader to question the limited ways in which we are often portrayed. Yet, while there will always be things that divide, the final narrative reminds us that we do make up a larger community. “Gay men from different worlds can cross paths and instantly see bits of themselves in each other.” In offering glimpses of the familiar within what, on the surface, appears so different, Boys underscores the shared humanity that allows us to accept and understand one another.
Boys, An Anthology
Edited by Zach Stafford and Nico Lang
Ebook, B00FXETC02, 156 pp.