The mainstreaming of Out There, an anthology of prose and poetry by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender writers from Scotland, is a sign of the times, receiving, as it did, a contribution from the Royal Society of Edinburgh. There’s a stellar cast of writers, including Ali Smith, Jackie Kay, Val McDermid, Louise Welsh, Jo Clifford, Ronald Frame, Christopher Whyte, David Kinloch and Carol Ann Duffy and fabulous newer voices too.
One of the key features of the anthology for me, is the foregrounding of a range of authentic, LGBT characters, the majority, it has to be said, from the LG camps. As the first anthology of Scottish LGBT writing in twelve years and only the third in Scottish literary history, there’s still a need for LGBT characters to have the limelight: for all the political changes which have occurred in a relatively short timespan, they can still be hard to locate in “mainstream” writing.
Berthold Schoene’s reflective “Foreword” reminds us just how much things have changed in Scotland since the more homophobic, repressive 1990s. He identifies an “inherently queer quality of Scottishness”, claiming,
in pre-devolution Scotland self-dividedness ruled, often mixed with an awkward inferiorism and acute lack of self-esteem, resulting in a highly volatile blend of national pride and self-loathing. This emotional cocktail of extremes is of course not entirely alien to gay culture either, but at the time Scotland seemed too resolutely homophobic to realise, let alone explore, this queer affinity.
In a way, then, Out There is a barometer not just of how far the agenda has progressed for LGBT communities in Scotland, from Dumfries to Shetland, but also of the growth in self-confidence of the nation as a whole.
These themes – of past repression and oppression, and contemporary changes and hard-won gains – are reflected in the stories, poems and essays in the anthology, from lesbian suffragettes through to 21st century weddings. But there are reminders, too, of the distance still to be travelled – for example, in Jo Clifford’s essay, “The Fine Art of Finding A Safe Place to Pee”.
I particularly enjoyed the short stories in Out There, notably some by lesser-known writers. Shane Strachan’s “Bill Gibb, 1972” is a beautifully-imagined tale of the London-based fashion designer visiting his parents in Aberdeenshire with Twiggy. It has funny, poignant scenes of culture clashes – when Twiggy hardly eats, Bill’s mother declares, “Oh me, d’ye nae like it?…You’ve only heen a few moofaes”.
Both “Bill Gibb, 1972” and David Downing’s tender story, “The Quilt”, about a married woman returning to her home village for her sister’s funeral and to the memories of an earlier love, highlight the intense difficulties faced in coming out in some rural communities. On the other hand, Jackie Kay’s uplifting, hopeful story, “Grace and Rose” describes the deliciously happy wedding of the first women to marry in Shetland, after twenty years together: “Then we kissed; it seemed the whole island cheered”.
There are stories and poems about love, desire and sex, an engrossing essay by David Kinloch on AIDS and death in response to a photographic memento mori, Gaelic poetry, memoir, and history. Ronald Frame, in his story, cites Ovid, “’What we’re allowed to do gives little pleasure, compared with that which is forbidden to us.’” Yet, what comes over in this collection is the celebration that what was once hidden and forbidden is now increasingly Out There. And what’s unique and necessary about this anthology is its capacity to present the complexity and variety of LGBT experience.