Writing your (gayest) truth

Open book with colorful pages. White backgroundThere are invisible radio waves floating around our heads, and somehow every new writer picks up one particular frequency that translates to: write your truth. It’s the first advice many of us receive, and the most often repeated. Some may also hear it as “write bravely,” or “write from where the pain is,” or hundreds of other variations that are conveniently printed on refrigerator magnets.

This advice frightens me. Not because I have a secret, sordid past (that would make for EXCELLENT writing) but because I’m gay.

Walk into your local bookstore and you’ll get a taste of my anxiety. Bend down…it’s that shelf on the bottom…the one with the rainbow flag…ah ha! You’ve found the one shelf dedicated to LGBTQ literature. Stand up again, turn back around, and gaze at the rest of the enormous bookstore which a gay protagonist will never venture into.

Now, imagine you’re a kid in the Midwest, and you locate this sacred shelf in the “Self-Help” section of your local bookstore. I can still picture this shelf in my mind—it was right next to the books on bipolar disorder. It was best to visit this shelf during off-peak hours, and I tried, but still managed to get caught twice. One man offered me a Bible, while the other witnessed to me with Way of the Master evangelism. She had a pamphlet. It was about Hell. It was the only piece of reading material I walked out with that day.

When I sat in my first writing class and was told to “write my truth,” I thought of my work shackled to that tiny shelf. If my protagonist, the heart and soul of my story, displays or acts on same sex desires, it’s going to be marginalized. Think about poor gay Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series. J.K. Rowling says he’s gay in interviews, but it’s never explicitly mentioned in the books, although there are depictions of several heterosexual adult relationships.

I imagine writing my gayest truth like Rita Mae Brown, then hawking my wares out of the back of my car in the book store parking lot. That’s how Brown sold her iconic Rubyfruit Jungle to the masses. Call it laziness, but I’m not interested in guerrilla marketing. So, what have I done over the past ten years of my writing career? Simple. I avoided all semblance of desire in my characters, hetero or homo. In my short story “Mommies Don’t Stay,” even pregnancy in achieved through otherworldly means. I washed my worlds clean of sex and pushed my demons down deep.

Why are gay protagonists not abundant in main stream literature? We’re immersed in a heteronormative society. If you’re straight, you may have never noticed. It just feels like the whole world agrees with you. Like in elementary school, people still have an irrational fear that gayness is contagious. If you were to purchase a steamy romance novel about the undying love of Steve and Tom, would the checkout clerk look at you sideways? If you get turned on by Lucy and Jada’s sexual tension, have you flipped on a dormant gene that now makes you want to wear cargo shorts and buzz your hair short? The answer is no.

LGBTQ people have been reading books and watching movies about straight people their whole lives. I’ve seen thousands of straight sex scenes that turned me on, and yet I still married a woman. Heterosexuality is the dominant narrative, and any gay person can sit back and enjoy the romantic tension in Jane Eyre without losing our queerness.

Straight readers of the world—can you do the same? Can you allow queer protagonists to sit on your bestseller shelves? Can you revel in the homoerotic hotness and not think we’ve cast a gay spell on you? Can you have empathy for a queer character’s journey, even though it may be different than your own? Can you please let me write my gayest truth and not freak out? Nick Alexander asks many of these similar questions in “Why don’t straight people read gay books?

And now…let’s make it more complicated. I also write middle grade fiction. Yes, twelve and thirteen year-olds are interested in love, kissing, sex, and romance. How do I write my protagonists? Asexual, of course. Kids who are too busy having adventures to have a crush. Yes, my denial runs deep, and so does my desire to be commercially successful.

Malinda Lo calculated that in 2014, 47 YA books were published by major publishing houses with an LGBTQ main character and/or focus. FORTY SEVEN. Out of those 47, only 24 were published by major commercial houses. TWENTY FOUR. I’m going to need another day job.

Friends, my inner-struggle is my own. What I ask of you is this: purchase, read, and promote diverse books. Read about characters who are different than you in ways that are not mainstream. Support these authors writing their truths. They could spend their time like Nicholas Sparks, raking in the heteronormative cash. Sure, I adored The Notebook, and perhaps you will adore Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson. My focus has been on sexual diversity, but this also applies to wider reading in regards to race, ethnic culture, class, and more. Check out a starter list, and note that it’s still a list addressed only to other gay people. Great gay literature shouldn’t be a secret club.

I’m working on a draft right now, starring a thirteen-year old gal who’s from a family of famous Shakespearean stage actors. Will she look twice at that girl in the front row, or just ignore all hints of her sexual awakening? I don’t know. It all depends on whether I’m brave enough to let my writer come out of the closet.

2 comments

  1. Carol D. Gray

    Shanna, I am so glad you wrote this post. Should be required reading for all writers. I just bought Ash by Malinda Lo thanks to you. Wondering what you think of Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, the Harry Potter fan fiction novel where the Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy characters fall in love.

  2. Gerald B Whelan

    Very lucid and (I can only assume) very brave essay. It does what a good essay should do: illuminate, without skimping on complexity, and throw down a gauntlet to the reader in a memorable (because it’s so honest) way.

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