Writing Identity in a Prejudicial World

Today’s not supposed to be a blogging day, but, dear God, Gentle Readers, am I procrastinating. I have two chapters to write before my draft of Daughter of Earth is finished. My husband is away, and I’m not working today, and it’s rainy and dreary and the perfect sort of day to write. But instead, I’m doing things like watching bad, old movies (Robert Downey Jr. and Keifer Sutherland as bff college students? Yum), putting pink streaks in my hair, taking a bunch of pictures of said pink streaks, and blogging.

(I know why I’m dragging my feet: finishing means facing beta readers, editing, and then querying. All these things are scary. Hair dye is a much smaller risk.)

I’ve been wanting to write about this topic for awhile, though, and if I’m going to procrastinate-through-blogging, I figured I might as well write about something that matters. It’s a topic that recently came up on AbsoluteWrite, and resulted in some lively debate. The question was how one goes about writing a gay teenager, and it seemed to me that there were two, fairly extreme positions on the issue:

  • Either you write them just like straight kids, who happen to have same-gender attractions
  • Or you write them as being dominated by questions of their identity–in other words, you tell coming-out stories. You write “issues” books.

You probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear that I find the latter position to be unsavory. There are stories besides coming out stories and those stories are worth telling. I think it’s problematic to make every story about a non-straight kid one in which he or she struggles with identity–especially because these stories are invariably angsty tragedies. I guess what it comes down to is that it’s weird to make every story in which a gay kid appears a problem novel because being gay is not a problem.

Thing is, I’m not sure if the first tactic–writing gay teenagers as “normal teens who just happen to be gay”–is the solution, either.

My issue with that is several-fold: first, it assumes that the “normal” narrative is a hetereonormative narrative. It’s as if every kid aspires to the stereotypical goal of partnered prom dates and smooching on the band bus, just with the partner of choice pasted in. I think that’s true to a certain extent (most teens want love!), but it’s still limiting in some ways. Budding sexuality is thornier than that, and there’s not much room for a lot of the kids I knew in high school in there: the teen polyamorous triad of a lesbian, a bi-chick, and a gay guy; the asexual kid who wasn’t into dating at all; the kids who dated around regardless of sexuality without any guilt or qualms about it. So that’s a problem. Were these teenagers abnormal? Hell no. They were teenagers, with narratives as varied as they themselves were. And that’s perfectly normal.

My second issue with this is that I don’t think you can divorce someone’s identity from their experiences. To someone who “just happens to be gay” makes the assumption that their identity had no impact on the way they were treated by other people. It assumes that their parents or their church or their friends never bristled at their sexuality. More, it assumes that casual instances of prejudice don’t occur in our society even in more liberal areas: that churches don’t tell their Bible-study students that gay people are going to hell; that seventh graders don’t go around calling stupid things “gay.” And it assumes that these things don’t hurt gay kids–and don’t have a very real impact on them even if they’re not “struggling” with their sexualities, even if they fully and bravely embrace themselves. When it comes down to it, a gay kid isn’t the same as a straight kid, because he or she has had to deal with a lot of bullshit, both on a macro and a micro level.

The truth is that we don’t live in a post-homophobic world. In fact, we live in a world where gay kids kill themselves because of homophobic bullying. And if your characters are American, they live in a world where they can never dream about marrying the person they love unless they live in one of five states and then the benefits aren’t even the same anyway. This is really fundamental, pervasive prejudice, and it exists. As deeply as I wish it didn’t, as much as I wish that we lived in a post-homophobic world where talking about this stuff still wasn’t necessary, it’s a sad reality.

Gay kids still have to struggle. They might not have to struggle with their identity themselves, but they have to struggle with a whole shit-ton of problems that other people don’t.

I think the solution is a pretty typical one; as a writer, you need to approach your characters with sensitivity and planning and thought. And you need to consider your character’s environment, too. I have no problem with fantasy or science-fictional settings where sexuality isn’t given a second thought (so long as it makes sense for the setting; I have to admit that when I read Matched I couldn’t help but wonder where all the gay kids were–arranged marriages to opposite sex partners would be the most dystopian and horrific for them, wouldn’t it?). But if your setting is contemporary, or historical? Then I’m not so sure. It seems to me that presenting that kind of setting to teens–one that looks like ours, but simply doesn’t exist yet–might be doing them a disservice. It might be easier to write–less thorny, not quite as ugly–but it doesn’t seem accurate to me. It doesn’t sound like careful, thoughtful world building. And even contemporary novels need that.

I’m not sure what the answer is here. I think it might be to present realistic, detailed stories that include all sorts of narratives and characters while doing justice to the sometimes prickly world that surrounds us. Our world–the real world–is complex. It’s still flawed, deeply and irrevocably. Again, I’m not saying that every book with a gay character needs to be wholly and solely about them facing homophobia. Gay kids lead varied, diverse lives that are so much more than their sexualities. But their sexualities are still an irrevocable part of who they are, in a large part because of the world in which they live. As deeply as I wish we were, I just don’t think we live in a post-homophobic world. Yet.

I’m going to leave you with my favorite video from the It Gets Better Project–because I think it speaks really well to the pain and frustration and impatience a lot of teenagers still face (“Yeah . . . fucking when!”). And it also picks up on part of what I’m trying to say, but far more eloquently: gay kids aren’t awesome in spite of who they are, but because of it. Eff yeah. Here’s Sodomite Hal Duncan: