October 21, 2003

inadvertent homophobia?

Thereís this story I started a few months ago. I liked where it was going but I put it down nevertheless. I wasnít sure why I stopped writing; I thought maybe I just wasnít in the mood. This was shortly after I went on hiatus from my novel. I figured I was just written out, all the words drained out of me like water swirling away down the sink. But I realized a few weeks ago that in fact I had a dilemma.

The story, like many short stories and like most of mine (though curiously enough not my novel), is loosely based on a real incident. But this incident could get me in trouble. People can be awfully prickly about how you present their foibles, even in fiction. And you can only protest ďbut I made it up!Ē so long and then you sort of have to shut up. The law's not always with you.

I wanted to change the scenario a bit to protect myself and the story but couldnít think of a better locale. So I stopped writing. A friend came up with what I thought was a brilliant solution, though: change, not the locale, but the character. I ran it through the movie projector in my mind and it worked even better than the original. Great. Wonderful. Yay friends!

But I realized something today. The solution only works in an ideal, non-politicized world. In other words, it doesnít work. The solution involved changing a flamboyant woman into a flamboyant gay man. Sounds easy, and it would be. But the character has, well, foibles. And these foibles could be construed as unlikable, though I donít necessarily feel that way. And that would Ė if you look at things through a certain filter Ė mean I cast a gay guy as my villain. Again, I donít consider this person a villain, just a trifle deluded. But letís be realistic here. If youíre reading submissions for some literary magazine and you read a story where the only gay person is not altogether wonderful, youíll probably assume the writer is a homophobe.

Itís ironic because itís so far from true you canít get there from here. I would guess more of my friends are gay than straight. I get bent out of shape at the Boy Scoutsí ridiculous prejudices, I abhor the fact that gay marriage isnít legal, I donít understand why anyone should care what anyone elseís sexual orientation is and why that should set people apart in any way. I also believe thereís a spectrum of straight-to-gay sexuality, that we all fall somewhere on that curve and that most people are neither one hundred percent straight nor one hundred percent gay but somewhere in between, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.

But itís not like I can append a note to the story, telling all readers not to judge me and my story by this one character. And maybe in some sense I would be culpable if I wrote it that way. Iíd be perpetuating a stereotype, the queeny gay man who does outrageous, socially unacceptable things with an enormous sense of entitlement. And since thereís no balancing character, itís pretty doomed. If I were reading that story, Iíd wonder about the writer and her politics too. It reminds me of the hullabaloo some years ago about Basic Instinct, that it showed lesbians as villains at a time when there were no good dykes in the movies except maybe in tiny-budgeted well-intentioned indies.

It frustrates me that I have to give up my perfect characterization, but this is not a perfect world. Things are better, but gay men and women are still mostly stereotyped in the media. Itís still an identifier. It still matters when it shouldnít. And so I have to be careful not to play into the prejudice myself. I wish it were otherwise, I wish one negative portrayal didnít mean a condemnation of a huge sector of humanity. If I write a mean straight white woman, it wonít offend anyone unless my portrayal reeks of misogyny. But if I write a mean gay man Ė or gay woman Ė my portrayal automatically reeks of homophobia. Even if it doesnít.

Posted by Tamar at October 21, 2003 10:08 PM

a few thoughts from a bi-dyke writer....

I'd hate to see you give up on a delicious character. And I also applaud your awareness of how it might enter into a national dialogue that impacts people's lives.

A couple ideas. for straightforward ways to keep this character, instead of shutting your dream down:

1) You can have another gay character who isn't mean, even if minor -- your signal that MGG (mean gay guy) doesn't represent a whole spectrum.

2) I have no idea how your story is narrated. If it's first person, could the narrator have a fillip of reflection that betrays the understanding her creator obviously has? If it's in third person it's trickier, but your protagonist could still have that sort of reflection.

3) You can just make the guy a metrosexual -- now that we have a name for well-groomed, flamboyant straight men.

just some ideas bubbling out of a cold NYC morning, with much love --


Posted by: Chris L. at October 22, 2003 06:28 AM

Thanks, Chris. Those are great ideas. I'd thought of Idea #1 already, but I wasn't sure how to make it work, since the other major characters are all of necessity straight. But I could easily have the main character contemplate the issue (and think about various friends from the past). In fact, it gives more depth to the problem. And the guy in question could be metrosexual (I love that word) and potentially deeply closeted. Layers, layers, layers. Stories need layers. I love it!

Posted by: Tamar at October 22, 2003 11:41 PM