Gary Nygaard had already come out by the time he read James Baldwin's 1956 novel "Giovanni's Room," about a man's ill-fated relationship with a man he meets in a gay bar.
So, Nygaard told listeners on the locally based podcast "This Queer Book Saved My Life," the book didn't literally save his life. But he was deeply affected by the book, seeing it as a cautionary tale confirming he'd made the right choice.
"It showed me how destructive it is to try to pretend, how awful for yourself and how damaging it can be to other people," said Nygaard, who is 71 and lives in Vadnais Heights.
"This Queer Book Saved My Life" was launched in June — Nygaard was on the second episode — and is now well into its second season, with nearly 20 episodes.
The podcast asks "what was the story that you read and said, 'Wow, I have a new way to live and love in this world because I read this,'" said J.P. Der Boghossian, the program's creator and host.
In each episode, a guest who identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, nonbinary or queer discusses a book that helped them understand themselves, pointed toward life choices or offered support in a culture where LGBTQ people still face bias and intolerance.
"I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who has a book that comes into your life and becomes part of you, that gives you the feeling that you're being seen for the first time on the page," Der Boghossian said in an interview.
Guests have named novels, memoirs, essay collections, self-help and young-adult fiction. Authors sometimes join the discussion, including Alison Bechdel, whose 2006 graphic memoir "Fun Home" was adapted as a musical that won 2015's Tony Award for Best Musical.
In that episode, Lara Lillibridge of Cleveland said Bechdel's book showed her you can "tell your story in the way that you need to, and you don't need to be quiet or behave or listen to other people's ideas of what's proper."
In another episode, James Darville of Minneapolis named the "Evening Crowd at Kirmser's: A Gay Life in the 1940s" by Ricardo J. Brown, a memoir about gay people who gather in a St. Paul bar. At 24, Darville was preparing to marry another man, but reading the book helped him realize he wasn't ready to settle down. He called it off and moved from Fargo to Minneapolis to become part of the Twin Cities' LGBTQ community.
"One of the biggest things I really get from this book is that just existing is political and existing is power," Darville said on the program. In the era described in the book, a time when being gay was grounds for firing, characters "going back to this bar, going back to their friends and just being gay together was an act of resistance, almost."
Rachael Cady, a former Minnesotan now living in Kansas City, said she found in Julia Serano's "Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity" an author whose feelings matched her own.
"And it was so validating. It was incredible, it was an epiphany that way," Cady told Der Boghossian. "She made it feel like it was OK to be a trans woman and that to be a trans woman and be out was a powerful thing."
Don't 'erase our stories'
Der Boghossian started the program as a change of pace from his day job as equity director at Normandale Community College. He has experience as a broadcaster and loves books.
"The podcast idea came up as a lark — ha, ha, ha," said Der Boghossian, who is 41 and lives in St. Anthony. "Then I said, wait a minute, I have that skill set and the overhead is fairly low."
While he mulled it over, the American Library Association reported a record number of banned or challenged books in 2021. The association tracked 729 challenges to library, school and university materials last year, involving 1,597 individual books. That record is likely to be broken in 2022; Missouri alone has banned nearly 300 books in at least 11 school districts since August.
Five of the 10 most targeted books, including the top three, had LGBTQ themes. According to PEN America, books with major LGBTQ characters represent 41% of the banning attempts.
"They're trying to erase our stories," Der Boghossian said.
The podcast was on.
Der Boghossian lets guest decide what "saved my life" means to them.
"I think some people don't use that kind of big language," he said. But as the discussions unfold, "it becomes very clear that the book and the themes or whatever they're taking away from it had this really profound impact."
The program has hit Amazon's top 200 charts, he said, and been heard in 43 countries and 572 cities, including 45 in Minnesota.
So what book saved Der Boghossian's life? "A Home at the End of the World," by Michael Cunningham, he said without hesitation. Like Der Boghossian, the book's three main characters are in a polyamorous relationship. But he also was struck by how its tone and plot lacked the tragedy often found in traditional LGBTQ narratives.
"I was for the first time seeing queer people on the page, living their lives, and the major conflict wasn't about coming out, there wasn't violence against them," he said. "It was really pivotal and life-changing."
Despite political threats, LGBTQ literature is becoming more visible and gaining wider acceptance, much like — and because of — LGBTQ people themselves.
"I grew up in a time when gay people were invisible except to be made fun of or be horrified by," Gary Nygaard said in an interview.
The culture has shifted, he said. "I like to think I helped with this. I think homophobia has subsided a lot just because people have come out and because so many people now know a gay person in their lives."
When Jennifer Finney Boylan wrote 2003's "She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders," she saw herself as addressing readers "who'd never really thought about trans issues before," she said on a podcast episode.
But the book has "an aroma of apology" of "trying to win people over," she told Der Boghossian. If she were to write it now, she said, "I would not be asking for anybody's understanding. The movement has progressed to the point where people feel a sense of confidence and courage in being themselves."
But Der Boghossian can't forget that surge of book-banning efforts.
"I've always been kind of suspicious about all of this change because I feel like it can go back so quickly," he said.