Does This Book Make Me Look Gay?
On writing across difference
“Oh, I thought you were straight!”
It’s an exclamation that shouldn’t thrill me. Not anymore. I’m 36, and belong to that unique generation of gay Americans fortunate enough to witness greater social acceptance of their sexuality while coming to terms with it themselves. Back in middle school, in the early nineties, “gay” and “AIDS” were inextricably linked, a source of overwhelming fear. In high school and college these anxieties subsided, but being gay still meant being an outsider — no marriage, no children — and I remained firmly in the closet. It wasn’t until the new millennium got underway that equal treatment became a reality, the gay community’s rights and protections growing as haltingly yet inevitably as my internal sense of self, what I would come to recognize as my pride in belonging to this same community.
Today I am happy to report I am exactly gay enough to function: sufficiently comfortable in my skin to admit that, yes, that was an intentional ‘Mean Girls’ reference.
Yet I can still be denied employment and housing because of who I am in more than half this country. And I still can’t help feeling a frisson of delight whenever anyone mistakes me for a straight man. It doesn’t happen often. Perhaps because I use words like “frisson” and have a moderate level of “gay voice” (difficult to define, but like pornography, you know it when you hear it). In large groups especially, I tend to be guarded and withdrawn — cagey — a holdover from my closeted days, and not a “gay” quality per se, but one many gay people hold in common. (Though you’d never know it by the way our more bombastic brethren are promoted in every aspect of popular culture.) The biggest giveaway, I suspect, is my knee-jerk discomfort with men and its far sunnier flip-side: my instinctive ease around women. Almost all my friends are female, and it has always been this way. I would say I’m easily recognizable as a gay man in my life except that recently, my life took on a new dimension, complicating the issue.
Reader, I wrote a novel.
A love story, specifically, in which my two lead characters are a man and woman. I chose to write a “straight love story” because my goal was to create a work of popular fiction. Sometimes I worry this choice was craven, that I owed it to “my people” to have focused on gay characters. And yet there was always something else at stake besides commerciality, an irresistible challenge in the notion of a gay writer creating a straight love story, a direct contradiction of those who would tell me: You aren’t qualified to write this. Because you don’t know what it’s like.
Every writer must sooner or later confront the tricky task of writing across difference. The greater the difference, the larger the leap from writer to character, creator to creation. These leaps are intimidating, which is why so many writers latch onto the dictum “write what you know” as a way of limiting difference. But eventually, writing something you don’t know becomes a necessity. The only question is to what degree.
What makes a difference greater or smaller is, of course, subjective, depending on the writer’s experience. For instance, given my lifelong proximity to women, I felt I had the tools ready at hand to create a convincing female character, whereas I had to work much harder to bring my novel’s straight man to life, the leap in sexuality preoccupying much more of my time and effort. I never questioned my ability to make this leap, however. For this I must thank the anti-gay activists — Anita Bryant all the way to Kim Davis — for keeping me laser-focused on the fact that “straight love” is identical to “gay love,” that what lies behind my characters’ attraction is the same emotion I know firsthand.
It turns out the crucial word in “write what you know” is “what.”
Meaning, the closer this “what” adheres to fundamentals — to the emotions lying beneath our individual circumstances, the feelings that drive us in similar ways — the greater the writer’s ability to make the leap across individuals. To be clear, I don’t mean to diminish the importance of sexuality, gender, race, class, or any other characteristics that may help define a person. I am not arguing that these factors are superficial. My point is that by accessing the love, or disgust, or desperation we’ve all felt in some form or other and applying these fundamental emotions to a different set of circumstances, we acquire the ability to write across difference responsibly, to create complex, sophisticated characters and situations that ring true, no matter their individual traits.
I am talking, quite simply, about empathy.
I will be honest, though: There are some leaps that still scare me, that make me question whether my empathy is strong enough to carry me safely to the other side. Three of my five main characters, for instance, are people of color. (My novel is set in Los Angeles, and it was important to me to portray the diversity of my setting as accurately as possible.) Yet what right do I have, as a white man, to write a Latina, a Korean-American, and a black person? I am tempted to trot out the “some of my good friends are [insert minority here]” justification. But don’t worry, I know better. My right to create these characters does not rest on who my friends are or what I’ve seen or done in my life. It relies, again, on my power of empathy (indirectly shaped by my friends and experiences, to be sure), and on my willingness to do the hard work of trying to get it right.
Are good intentions enough, though? I believe they are. Because intentions are all we have. I am thrilled to be mistaken for a straight man by readers of my novel because it gives me hope I’ve made at least one leap across difference successfully. And considering all it took to reach this point — the fear, angst, and shame snaking all the way back to the ancient era of the early nineties — the fact that I can shake my head and proudly proclaim:
“Nope, I’m super gay.”
— feels like a miracle. Though I’m well aware it goes by a more modest name.