Steve Berman knew, like many of us do, that he was different from other boys way before he was willing to admit it to the world, especially when “the world” meant the other kids at his high school. Not only was he gay, his gayness came inextricably with passionate geekdom: a love of monster movies, roleplaying games, faerie tales, that would come to inform the rest of his life—both professionally and personally. “There were times when I was playing Dungeons & Dragons when I would roleplay the female characters,” he recalls, “because one of my straight friends played a strapping straight lead, and I’d totally be his bitch, and I’d go home and—” Well, you know: fantasize the other way.
Berman, a Philly native who lived most of his childhood in South Jersey, realized young that there was a ton of liberation to be found in speculative literature—science fiction, fantasy and horror, that is—for queer kids. “The best thing about spec-fic is that it’s always about the other,” he says. “It’s the most transgressive of fiction, in that your protagonist is almost always on the outside, and they’re tested because of it.”
Through his twenties, Berman freelanced as a writer for national roleplaying-game magazines like Dragon before taking a job at a religious-themed publishing house (“Nothing fundamentalist,” he assures) that led him to an epiphany: He should become a publisher himself. So in 2001 he launched Lethe Press, specializing in speculative and other genre fiction with gay themes. A dozen years later, Lethe, now based in Maple Shade, N.J., is one of the most prolific gay genre presses around. A representative sampling of four recent releases spans such diverse book flavors as the Philly-centric mystery novel Crimes on Latimer, by Joseph R.G. DeMarco; a lesbian zombie novella by Dayna Ingram called Eat Your Heart Out; a period sci-fi fantasy, Point of Knives, by Melissa Scott; and an annual anthology Berman edits himself, Wilde Stories: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction. (He also edits anthologies for other publishers, such as the forthcoming Bad Seeds: Evil Progeny, a collection of child-horror stories from authors including Stephen King, Holly Black and Cassandra Clare.)
Browsing Lethe’s library of titles is an adventure; it feels like being let free in Giovanni’s Room, the Center City bookshop that remains defiantly standing as a gay literary storefront, refusing to give up after dozens have fallen by the wayside, even in major (and gay) cities. In fact, Berman worked part-time at Giovanni’s Room while getting his graduate degree at Rutgers; the store now sells most of his titles. But alignment with a longtime Philly institution doesn’t mean he always agrees with the broader LGBT establishment of the moment: He’s still got that urge for cultural transgression, and as such, he thinks the current focus on marriage as the defining issue in gay America is the wrong priority.
“My big thing is anti-bullying,” he says. “For me, preventing suicide among gay youth means a thousand times more than being able to marry. People aren’t killing themselves because they can’t get married. If you combat homophobia, invariably you’ll get the same rights down the road—I’d rather have them say that it’s OK to be gay at the start.”
Berman remembers trying so hard to hide his true self for years; it’s exhausting to even think about how much energy he and so many other adolescents devoted to not being found out. “You and I should’ve been able to kiss a boy when we were 14 years old,” he declares. In fact, he was 20 by the time he got his first gay kiss. This, perhaps, is why Berman’s own writing has lately focused primarily on young-adult fiction. He sees great potential in the gay fairy tale: “The fairy tale is something that we all grew up with. They’re both romantic and instructive—you learn to be a good person reading fairy tales. And where are the fairy tales for 15-year-old gay kids?”
Good question. That age is a prime time for a young queer kid, before you meet all your jaded brethren, when everything’s still so pure: desire, hope, romance, ambition. If only we could transport our mental selves back to those clean moments of optimism, right? That’s what Berman tries to do with every piece of fiction in this genre. “The best way to describe young-adult fiction is the fiction of firsts: first date, first kiss, first job.” Those firsts are super-powerful, he says—“and that’s always why they’re so much fun to write. If you think about the first time you kissed a boy, it was amazing, and it’s what I love about writing.”
Steve Berman’s Wilde Stories 2013: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction is due from Lethe Press in June.
For more perspectives on LGBT youth issues: Equality Forum’s 15th Annual James Wheeler National Youth Panel features Katherine Miller, Daniel Hernandez Jr., Alex Morse and John Campbell. Sat., May 4. 2:30pm. Free. UArts Board Room, 211 S. Broad St.
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