I came out in 2016. At that time I was living in a relatively conservative, isolated environment, and the idea that anyone—beyond a handful of close friends—might accept me seemed impossibly farfetched. It was a lonely, frightening thing to come to terms with, especially since television was one of my few outlets for positive LGBT representation: 2016 happened to be very, very bad for queer women on television. When the most prominent stories available to you seem to reaffirm what you already believe to be true—that people like you can’t have happy endings—what reason do you have to hope?
This is the question at the heart of Sarah Gailey’s novella Upright Women Wanted. Part action-adventure, part political parable, this tale of queer librarians working in secret against a totalitarian government challenges the status quo in more ways than one. Set in a future America of endless war and crumbling infrastructure—an America that has deteriorated so much as to resemble the Wild West of its past—the novella follows a group of Librarians, who in this future society are travelers tasked with distributing state-approved materials to the far-flung communities of the Southwest. It’s an important government job: in this society, possessing “unapproved materials” is sufficient cause for hanging. The Librarians are therefore regarded as a kind of moral police, maintaining the status quo by ensuring that the only media people are exposed to is that which the government has deemed appropriate.
Esther, the protagonist of the novella, has some experience with the consequences of not maintaining the status quo. The story begins with her best friend and secret lover, Beatriz, being publicly hanged for “deviance” and “possession of unapproved materials.” The trauma of witnessing Beatriz’s death is compounded by her father quickly arranging a marriage for her—to the man who was intended for Beatriz. Unable to bear the idea of becoming a wife, and overcome with guilt over Beatriz’s death (which Esther views as a consequence of their “deviant” love), Esther stows away with a group of Librarians in the hopes that they will let her become one of them. She believes that because the Librarians are (supposedly) “chaste, and morally upright, and…loyal to the State no matter what,” they are her only hope of redemption.
“I know my bill’s in the mail,” she said bitterly. “Just a matter of time before I get what’s coming to me. But I thought that maybe if I did enough good, if I just stayed on the right path…maybe I’d be alright. Maybe I wouldn’t bring hurt to anyone else’s life.”
The Librarians, however, turn out to not be at all what Esther envisioned. The Head Librarian, Bet, and her second-in-command, Leda, are a lesbian couple, while Bet’s Apprentice Librarian, Cye, is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns. All of which mark them as deviant under the eye of the totalitarian State; working as Librarians is not only their protection, but their cover for the subversive, anti-government work they actually do. What follows is a delightful, action-packed, gunslinging romp complete with chases on horseback and lots of flirtatious bickering between Cye and Esther. And that’s so much fun, but what really took my breath away was the secondary plot of Esther, by becoming a Librarian, unlearning everything she once thought was true.
Esther is queer. The novella makes it clear that she’s a woman who only loves people who aren’t men. Just like when I came out, she experiences a sense of isolation, but also, she’s been deliberately only exposed to stories that describe her feelings as evil, wrong, and bound to destroy her. Gailey makes passing mention of some of these titles, which are evocative of lesbian pulp novels of the 1950s—books which could only be published if they ended in a death or tragedy. With these books serving as Esther’s only frame of reference for learning about herself as a queer person, it’s no wonder she believes she’s destined to cause harm to others and herself just by being who she is.
When the most prominent stories available to you seem to reaffirm what you already believe to be true—that people like you can’t have happy endings—what reason do you have to hope?
There’s a profoundly moving conversation in the middle of the book wherein Amity, an “insurrectionist” the Librarians are smuggling to safety in Utah, dismantles Esther’s learned notions by forcing her to question where they come from. Esther admits they come from the books; Amity asks her where the books come from. Librarians gave her the books, but who gave them to the Librarians? And what do they want you to believe about yourself?
“You might not have a happy ending coming to you… But if you come to a bad end, it won’t be on account of what kind of person you fall for. I’ve seen a lot more of the world than you have, and I can tell you upright: I’ve seen as many good ends as bad ones for your kind of heart.”
I needed to hear these words as badly as Esther did, once upon a time. I know the same is true for so many young LGBT people coming to terms with who they are in a world that, still, is not always kind, and wants you to believe all the wrong things about yourself. If I have a single complaint about this book, it’s that I wanted way, way more of it—it’s a quick read at just about two hundred pages. I could happily have lived in this world of queer, gunslinging librarians fighting the patriarchy and falling in love for a long, long time.