With lawmakers banning books, Florida passing its “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and transphobia making daily headlines, the times we’re living through can feel hateful. When it comes to such human rights violations, there’s truly no good answer to the question “how does it feel?” but Twin Cities resident J.P. Der Boghossian, host and founder of the podcast “This Queer Book Saved My Life” got one recently.
“It’s hard to be living in a community that we’ve seen increasing visibility of ourselves and our lived experiences in mass media, novels, books, TV, film, and (at the same time) just seeing such a concentrated legislative effort on all levels — school boards, county level, state level, national level — to erase us, essentially, is very disheartening,” said Der Boghossian in a phone interview with MinnPost. “Actually, on one of the episodes, I was talking to Alison Bechdel about her book ‘Fun Home,’ and I asked her, ‘You wrote this book, it became a national bestseller; it got adapted into a Tony Award-winning musical, and now they’re banning it all throughout the South and the Midwest. How do you feel about that?’
“And she said, ‘I don’t know how to respond to this. I fully haven’t even processed my emotions yet. To have that kind of whiplash effect … I don’t want to be a downer, but I’ve always been kind of skeptical about our progress, because it’s always felt a little tenuous, it always feels like it can be taken away.’ The tenacity that she was showing (is similar to the podcast’s), with her continuing to do the work, like, ‘We’re gonna keep doing this, we’re not stopping.’”
That sort of back-and-forth is the lifeblood of “This Queer Book Saved My Life.” The two-year-old podcast is heard in 60 countries, 49 states, and 1043 cities, including 75 in Minnesota, 48 of which are outside the Twin Cities. Thirty-eight episodes strong, Boghossian shines a light on such titles as Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain,” Joshua Gonzales’ “Keep Sweet: My Homemade Recipe for a Fulfilling Gay Life,” Jeanette Winterson’s “Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit,” Jan Morris’ “Conundrum,” Leslie Feinberg’s “Stone Butch Blues,” James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room,” and many more.
A broadcast journalist/teacher, 2022 Lambda Literary Fellow and founder of the Queer Armenian Library, Der Boghossian knows all too well how important books are, and how they have the power to change lives.
“When you’re a queer person, you don’t grow up in a queer household,” he said. “You don’t grow up being taught your history, you don’t grow up and have actual connections to queer people. You have to go out into the world and find your people and find your chosen family and find the books and find the TV shows. So anything that I can do to help somebody discover a book that may be really meaningful to them, that was part of the impetus of creating the show.
“In my life experience, books have been more than just entertainment. I thought, if I can get a queer person to talk about, ‘What was that LGBTQ book that really changed something in you, was life-giving for you?’, and then if I could bring in authors and ask, ‘How did you even get this out into the world?,’ because it’s not easy for LGBTQ authors to get their work published. Some of these books haven’t been published for a very long time; some you can’t find printed copies, there’s just digital copies of them, so anything that I can do to get those books out there and help the discoverability of these books is really important. I think that’s really the mission of the show.”
Der Boghossian’s day job is as a chief diversity officer in higher education, which he considers important and necessary, but also draining, so he created the podcast as “something that would fill my cup and would be kind of life-giving for me.” Now that personal goal has taken on a very public context.
“To see the book bans starting and to see all these legislative attacks coordinated on every level, there’s a sense of we can’t necessarily trust that cisgender or heterosexual people are gonna always be there for us,” he said. “And we need to lean into our agency, we need to lean into how we build community and hold each other up. And for me, that’s books. For me, that’s storytelling.”
An accomplished essayist himself, Der Boghossian lives with his partners in the Twin Cities and Northwest Wisconsin and acknowledges Minnesota as a safe space to operate the podcast out of, as illustrated by Gov.Tim Walz’s launch of a Little Free Library of banned books last week.
“We’re doing it in a state that was the first to put gender identity protections into the state law, and then a second around sexual orientation. Minnesota is a historically progressive and inclusive state for queer people,” he said. “Hopefully (the podcast) is connecting in (smaller communities), because I was that kid, from northwestern Michigan, which is where my dad’s family is from, and my mom’s family is Armenian and they live in France.
“I didn’t know any queer people growing up. I had to go out and find these books myself. I see myself in these folks in these rural communities who keep showing up, and it means a lot to me. I know that they’re there and we’re reaching them and we obviously have it set up so that people can buy the books, but something I’ve also appreciated is Quatrefoil libraries (a library for LGBTQ+ materials) and their e-lending library, where they’ve created a dedicated page for the books.
“We’re trying to make the books as accessible as possible to people. Because we know that in some instances, it’s actually unsafe for a teenager, or even a kid that’s home from college. So yes, at times it can feel like we’re not making any progress, like we’re going backwards. But at the same time as Florida, there’s Minnesota. I think Minnesota isn’t getting the national attention that it should be getting for trying to become a trans refuge state.
“I think we are overly focused on the bans and the fascists and the Nazis right now, and not really talking about well, there’s another side of the story. You know, there are folks that are trying to become more inclusive—your Minnesotas, your Michigans, your Californias. I see progress every day.”