A week ago the gay fiction world had a different landscape. The authors of gay fiction could generally be categorized: L/G/B/T/Q/S/M/F with the S standing for straight.
Then we had the names: female/male/ambiguous (gender neutral or initials).
And finally, we had real name versus pen names. For those of you who think you know where I’m going with this, I ask that you please keep reading. I may surprise you.
A week ago I thought the biggest challenge of our genre was fighting the stereo type that women weren’t qualified to write MM erotica. Then a blogger pulled one of the writers out of the pen name closet, and I discovered something far uglier lurking under our pretty covers.
In 1959, a Caucasian journalist named John Howard Griffin underwent supervised medical treatment to turn his skin brown, and traveled through the Deep South as an unemployed Black man. He kept a journal of his experiences, and a few years later the book, Black Like Me, was published. It was an extraordinary account of his six-week journey into a world of white-only bathrooms, segregated lunchrooms, and where lynchings still occurred with disturbing regularity.
His book was a raw, often terrifying look at the world of a Black man at a time when America was still struggling to come to terms with the idea that separate was not equal and six years before the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The disturbing pace of change is fodder for another blog. Today, we are talking specifically about the world of gay fiction, particularly gay romance and erotica.
More than thirty years after I first read Black Like Me, there are still lessons to be learned. Griffin came as close as any White man could to understanding what life was like for a Southern Black man in the late 1950s, yet no matter how dark his skin, no matter how terrifying his experiences, Griffin was still a White man. When his journalistic assignment was completed, he would shed his adopted identity and return to a world of White privilege. The reality of his race could not be completely erased in the name of journalistic integrity. This is not a criticism, by any means, merely an observation of the true difficulty of actually walking in another’s shoes.
It would have been completely inappropriate for Griffin to emerge from his “Black Like Me,” experience and offer advice “as a Black man.” Just as it is inappropriate for any author, other than a gay male, to offer advice or an opinion as a gay male. Period. Some rules are complicated, this one is not.
If you think all the rage and bitterness aimed at the outed author is about the right to use a pen name or gender identity – you aren’t paying attention. In the case of this week’s outed author, the false identity grew far beyond the cover of a book. Grew until the author was considered by many to be a subject matter expert on the gay male experience, and as such offered advice, reviewed gay fiction, and critiqued other authors in the genre.
There would still have been backlash if we had been talking about a onetime gender-bending experience and the author emerged with a story of “Gay Like Me” to tell – but this was not that story.
Drawing once more from Griffin, it’s clear he targeted his investigation to the volatile south for a reason. This was where the Black experience was the most volatile, most intense, most dangerous. It wasn’t chance that the Civil Rights movement grew from the fertile soil of discontent and deep prejudice.
It is safe to assume that the primary audience for Black Like Me, wasn’t the Black men living in the Deep South, who were all too aware of the reality of their existence. No, this was a book for the majority, a look into a world that was unimaginable, and would soon become untenable. However, the subsequent articles and the book also spoke to other Blacks living in different parts of the country, to people of all races, spoke to people of compassion and to people of hate. And therein lies my final lesson from this book.
This past week, women and straight males been publicly challenged by gay males who are questioning both their qualifications and their right to write MM fiction. I unequivocally believe that only a gay male has the right to speak as a gay male. Actually, I can’t even believe such an obvious statement needs to be made. However, I don’t believe that only gay males can speak effectively about the gay experience. Nor do I think we need over-analyze what many of us write.
Whether the reader is a gay man or a straight woman or any combination listed at the beginning of this post, it’s likely he or she is interested in being entertained and possibly enlightened by our genre. Some readers will take comfort in knowing the author is just like them; that the author knows what it’s like to hide, to suffer, to hurt, to love, to have that first forbidden taste. Many other readers are satisfied with a good romance, with a touch of the ‘against the odds’ sensibility to take them away from reality for a time. They look for nothing more earth-shattering than a good read.
Griffin never intended to permanently become a Black man, nor did he ever profess to speak “as a Black man....” He also never claimed there was only one Black male perspective. What he did was bring a small slice of the Black experience to the rest of the world, into the pockets of America who believed there could be such a thing as separate but equal. His account was an in-your-face demonstration of the need for society to change. His was not the only voice, nor did it remain so. Black Like Me has its detractors, but ultimately, it was one more piece of evidence in the growing case for the need for change.
Through our collective works, we are also making a call for change simply by making the world of the LGBTQ community more accessible. Most of us never started out to change the world, yet we are an acknowledged, economically significant genre of fiction, that contributes to the growing voice for change, for equality.
Bottom line, the lessons I have taken from this past week:
1. Authors, don’t lie. If you want to use a pen name, that is your personal business, but don’t create a false public identity and market yourself as an expert member of a group to which, by definition, you can never belong.
2. Our genre does not need to be a series of unrelenting “Gay Like Me” stories. Authors, stay true to the story you want to tell while respecting the class of people you represent. Never underestimate the power of your words, even in the most frivolous of stories. There is plenty of room on the shelf.
3. Let the writing speak for itself. Make no presumptions about the ability of someone to write from a gay perspective or tell a good story based on their body parts.
Let’s end it there. Let the writing speak for itself.