The Queer Syllabus is a joint project from The Rumpus and Foglifter Press that allows writers to nominate works for a new canon of queer literature. When we identify our roots, when we point to the work that shaped us as writers and as people, we demonstrate that our stories are timeless, essential, and important—and so are we. New entries will run on Thursday, September through December, and then will be collected as a living document on the Foglifter website. The Queer Syllabus is edited by Wesley O. Cohen and Marisa Siegel.
Two black boys, Johnnie and David, are holding each other. They have stolen a moment of privacy, and are looking out upon the water from the uppermost deck of a ferryboat. They’re traveling with their “church family.” It is the Harlem Mount of Olives Pentecostal Assembly’s annual Independence Day excursion, and Johnnie, the slightly younger of the two, is left reeling from a moment of public conflict between himself and his father, a deacon who aspires to the pulpit.
“Your old man was kind of rough,” David says. Johnnie agrees and, shivering, buries his face in David’s shoulder. David holds Johnnie tighter, and asks him who he loves, and Johnnie says, “You. I love you.”
The scene I’ve just described is taken from a short story by James Baldwin called “The Outing,” from the collection Going to Meet the Man. In this moment—one of the shortest scenes in the story—we see an unabashed, completely uncovered moment of tenderness between two black boys. We see one boy’s vulnerability—his softness, and his burgeoning independence from his father’s anger—and we see what another boy offers in response: safety, comfort. Perhaps not protection exactly, as it’s the privacy of this conversation, the knowledge that no one will see it, that allows it to happen. In this specific moment they are not at risk. And so we get just a glimpse of their situation. But we get it, and it’s explicit. One of these boys—Johnnie—can name his love for the other.
When I was thirteen, around Johnnie’s age, my parents sent me to a weeklong sleepaway church camp. This was nothing new; I’d attended this camp for several years. My father was a Baptist minister, although by this point in his career he was more along the lines of a bishop. His actual title was Executive Minister of the Cleveland Baptist Association—a grouping of over forty local Baptist churches that was part of the larger American Baptist Network. Camp Koinonia was a beloved rural campground and conference center, and it was connected to the CBA in some way, so I spent a lot of time there growing up. My friends were the children of my father’s colleagues. We often accompanied our parents for weekend retreats and short-lived getaways, and for several summers of my adolescent life, we spent a week camping for Jesus.
The summer I was thirteen was my last at Camp Koinonia. Every night that week, a group of slightly older white boys who were new to Koinonia would terrorize the cabin that my friends and I slept in. They would run around outside, banging against the walls with anything they could find. They threw rocks and sticks. They slapped their hands and they kicked. They screamed “faggot.” It occurs to me only now that counselors must have heard this, but it was never addressed, and it didn’t stop.
One of those boys was also my first, very short-lived, boyfriend.
Context is everything. Early in “The Outing,” we learn that Johnnie, David, and Johnnie’s little brother Roy have pooled their resources to purchase a birthday gift for a girl named Sylvia. Much of the story centers around their scheming to get Sylvia away from her strict mother so they can give her their present. As the day wanes on and Sylvia doesn’t leave her mother’s side, Johnnie gets frustrated at the lack of attention he is paid by David. He runs into the woods by himself. It is there, in solitude, that he realizes that he does not care for Sylvia, has never cared for her, and will never care for her. He realizes that he cares only for David.
The story could end there, but as quietly as it’s written, it doesn’t. It follows Johnnie as he returns to the larger group, as he sees that Sylvia has been given the present, meaning that David and Roy found their opportunity. He sees that David and Roy are paddle boating, and though they row back to him, their arrival marks the time to head home. Johnnie is mostly alone, and returns to the upper deck of the ferryboat. David joins him and holds him. No words are spoken.
On the last day of camp, hours before our parents came to get us, my boyfriend and I sneaked over to the creek that runs along one side of the property to say goodbye. He hugged me while I cried. No words were spoken.
Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.
Foglifter is a queer journal and press showcasing powerful, intersectional writing that fosters queer writers and galvanizes the queer community through literary events and programming.