Queer Visibility & Coding in The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

I’m a Gen Z. No question, I have always understood myself to be some delineation of El Gee Bee Tea Que. I cannot recall a time in which I could not google various lezzie-adjacent subject matter, which is to say that my queer self-discovery had less to do with finding resources than identifying the ache that prompted such resource reconnaissance attempts. Internet aside, people in the Midwest are sometimes great at delivering proclamations of identity from out of their truck window. Like, I get it, I get it. I’m a dyke. Anyway.

I’m a dyke who reads a lot.

Unfortunately, teen me was reading a lot of dykeless books. Until the past year, I don’t believe I’d read a single speculative fiction book with a lesbian protagonist in general, much less a genderqueer one. My entire being has been shaped by speculative narrative, and part of the speculative project has always been sounding for myself in cracks between sentences. My fantasy of reading science fiction and fantasy was that someone like me could be in it.

The landscape for young adult fiction and children’s lit wasn’t the queerest four years ago, and at least in my experience, queer stories were more likely to be about coming out than anything else, which did little for me. I’ve never had a big coming out. I was always assumed queer until I was proven queer, and that was that. Apart from being so removed from my own experience, an abundance of coming out stories meant that I had no narrative framework for what might happen next. It certainly seemed as though dykes didn’t get their own dynamic narrative arcs. Apparently, they just became, confessed, and then were suspended in space.

I’ve since gotten my gay little hands on the sort of novels I needed then. Now, the young ambiguous queer might devour This Is How You Lose the Time War or Gideon the Ninth or Her Body and Other Parties or The Starless Sea or Wilder Girls, assuming they were a kid like me who had no concept of an adult/YA fiction divide. Then? A much tougher fix. Being said, while there wasn’t a glimmering example of grand dykery in my early SFF repertoire, I did love me some yearning. Hands down, the world’s best yearning book is The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle. It taught me more about being queer than any condescendingly saccharine coming out story ever did.

So, among other things, The Last Unicorn is about a unicorn who isn’t the last one at all but is deeply freaked out by the idea of being the last one, so goes looking for them. What’s relevant here is the degree to which this story is about the unicorn, in her desperate pursuit of other unicorns, is misread as all manner of things that she is not. To me, before I could even conceptualize my own gender perils, I understood this story as being about how the stakes of misrecognition—how it’s variously annoying, frightening, debasing, excruciating—and that I could legibly exist and be my own pseudo-mythic weird thing if I could find others like me, who surely existed in the great wide world beyond one’s own little forest patch.

Understand, I’m going to be flagging Beagle’s unicorn as possessing some verisimilitude of genderqueer dykery, which is maybe a weird-tasting cold take, but work with me. I didn’t know any adult lesbians as a kid (they say presumptuously as though they are not still a kid) much less any looking-glass genderqueer dykes. These modes of being seemed impossible rarities, strange and esoteric, outside of my nasty little reach. What I felt I might be seemed too weird to exist, frankly. Might explain something about how alienating those above-mentioned coming-out narratives felt to teenage me; whatever those characters were announcing unto the universe/social media/their parents, it was not what I happened to be. After all, lesbianism is usually defined by the lazy layperson as being a woman who loves exclusively women, and I had a gnawing suspicion that I wasn’t one of those. Whatever I was, it was strung with such a concentration of asterisks and footnotes and marginalia that to whatever central womanhood I was allegedly beholden became completely overwritten with other things, things which changed the womanhood into something else, something weirder and excitingly worse. I am and was a gender palimpsest. I am a scribble over crosshatch slashes. And like, what even is that? How could there possibly be more of that? How could I be that myself if there were not others with whom I could see and be seen?

Lucky me, the unicorn is a much stranger creature than my youth-brain initially understood. Beagle spends a ridiculous amount of prose space establishing that a unicorn isn’t a weird horse or anything like that, but its own specific amalgamation of various animal shapes that makes something distinct, precise, and important. There is so much care taken by the text in shaping the unicorn and letting the audience know that their generic expectation of a unicorn, horse-with-horn, is incomplete and lacking a complete image of what being a unicorn entails. When I was a kid, I was a guilty party who assumed that unicorn meant horse-with-horn. I was delighted to be wrong—it meant that I could be wrong about other things. I desperately needed to be wrong.

Unicorns are weird. They are weirder than you thought they were, kid me. Better yet, there are more of them, because of course there are. You’ve just got to find them now, because without them, like. Who is going to fully witness you in your unfiltered unicorn glory?

Level up, now we’re a thing that exists, and things get to have quests. Upon determining that I could indeed be that which I am, i.e. an odd lesbian-specific asterisk-scribble gender beast, I could orient myself toward the utopian horizon of meeting the rest of us. Us! I’m still moving in that direction, and will be all my life, but along the rosy path I find myself constantly snagged upon the other big relevant narrative thorn of The Last Unicorn: people looking at me and misreading my body to some disastrous affect. Example: early in the novel, the unicorn is misread for a horse by some man on the side of a road, and she is deeply affronted by this, though being misread as a horse tends toward being cringy rather than all-and-out traumatic for her. To warm us up before our agonizing main course, there are those times wherein I’m read in horse ways. By which I mean boy ways. I’m not a boy, I’m not anti-boy, I have like three friends who are boys. Nonetheless, I am occasionally read in more horse/boy ways, and it’s cringy every time. I hacked all my hair off not long ago, and twice since then have older men bought me drinks at gay bars under the assumption that I was some spindly little twink. I mean, free drinks are free drinks, but it just disappointed the both of us.

Joking aside. There’s a part of this novel, spoiler-alert I guess, where a man magics the unicorn into a girl-shape to protect her. She fucking hates it, is horrified by it, tears at her body and laments that being a girl feels like dying. The man assures her that she’s still a hot questing beast, so it will be okay. And after a while, it almost is. The girl-shape naturalizes. It lets her fall in love, which is nice. She almost believes that the girl-shape fits her, forgets it’s even a shape at all. Something goes flat behind her eyes. Then she’s a unicorn again and nobody ever sees her again, because she’s saved the unicorns and now is off in her woods (not?) dealing with the fact that she has feelings now.

Lots of people gave me, and continue to give me, my girl-shape. I am almost used to it now. Despite the soul-grinding banality of misplaced assumed girlhood, commonly associated pronouns and all, one acclimates to it after a lifetime of living under its banner. For clarity, until recently, I was a being with long blond hair. My eyes aren’t purple, because I am not an anime character, but outside of that, unicorn-as-girl and I had comparable forms. We were deemed beautiful, and valuable, for similar reasons—we were absent-minded half-feral bony little white girl wisps, a phenotypical categorization that Disney and other overlords have aesthetically lofted for rancid reasons for some time now. I was raised by a culture that designated me a good questing beast. Unicorn-as-girl and I have that in common. Perhaps because of this book, I have a thing about my gender perils and being hunted, which maybe explains some of the deer stuff in my novel, The Scrapegracers.

Girlness is tricky. The unicorn has a vexed relationship with her girlness, but she remains tethered to it because girlness allowed her to access and comprehend certain kinds of love and affection. Likewise, I am deeply fond of the word ‘lesbian’ because of the ways that word flags affinity, even and especially because of how people like me complicate its definition. I love women and associates. I am an associate. No boys allowed. It is a productively incomplete and partial word, but it also is the best one I’ve found to illustrate the sort of love I’m interested in seeking out. It gestures toward the sort of yearning I tend to undergo. Yearning’s the name of the game.

Thank you, Peter Beagle, for the yearning. This book is nothing if not a crash course in how to miss people you haven’t met yet and long for doomed affection, which is a lesbian pastime if ever there was one. This book is all about desperately reaching for alike strangers, because you have some marrow-deep understanding that your existence is tied with the existence of people like you. You’re not the only damn lesbian in rural Ohio. Actually, there are lots of them, and also there are places that aren’t Ohio. Maybe go to those places. You might have to undergo some narrative tomfoolery in pursuit of these other lesbians, but it is a worthy pursuit if ever there was one. Wistfully looking out the window with a unicorn book in your lap is not finding queer community and reflective selfhood, but it’s a decent way to realize that ache is a motivating sensorium, and that there are always others like you, if one is willing to look.

Hannah Abigail Clarke is here and queer, etc. They have been previously published in Portland Review (forthcoming), PRISM International, and Chaleur. They will graduate from college at Miami University (of Ohio) come May. The Scapegracers is their first novel. (They, he, or she pronouns)

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