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Controversial or Cliche: Are Gay Characters a Literary Minefield?

Updated on June 30, 2014

For some time now I have been working on a novel whose characters have evolved organically, as though I were merely a biographer to whom they have been dictating their life stories for immortalization. Initially I thought that one of my characters, whose name was gender neutral, was a woman. Turns out she is actually a ‘he’. The problem is – or maybe it really is not – Sidney’s love affair with Randall is the most compelling part of the novel. Originally a tiny subplot, it has become one of the central focal points of the greater story. And despite a nagging internal editor’s voice telling me to change the story line, male-Sidney’s love interest definitely also is male.

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The reasoning of that little voice is that despite our society’s changing attitudes about homosexuality, there is still a large segment of the population who cannot abide stories about gay couples, and there is also an underlying discomfort about it among those who do accept it. More specifically, I wonder whether straight men, as liberal and accepting of gay people as they may be, can handle reading and enjoying a story about two guys in love. In absence of explicit and detailed descriptions of the characters’ sexual interludes, can these straight male readers set aside the genders of these characters and accept – perhaps even identify with – the fundamental story of two people in love but struggling to reconcile that love with the world around them? Fifty years ago, this could have been an interracial couple. Four hundred years ago it could have been the Capulets and the Montagues. And no, I’m not comparing myself to Shakespeare.

Gay Is The New Black

This book is not going to be some homoerotic sex romp aimed at the prurient crowd or exploiting the current 'we-have-a-gay-character-too' trend that has become suddenly fashionable. This is not The ‘L’ Word II (although, I just this moment had an idea for a spin-off called The ‘F’ Word…). Despite the popularity of shows like Queer As Folk, it is fairly evident that society is far more accepting of shows about lesbians than gay men, at least beyond the fairly benign shows like Will & Grace. Straight men – for whatever reason – get a kick out of seeing women…get together. But when two men start making out, even the most liberal of straight men will begin to squirm, if even barely perceptibly.

Don't Shoot the Messenger - I Didn't Write This Song!

Society has changed its tune about homosexuality quite literally. Recently, the Dire Straits song “Money for Nothing” played on Sirius Radio. I had forgotten until that moment that the song contained a for-the-time very casual line “that little faggot got his own jet airplane; that little faggot, he’s a millionaire…” That song is barely thirty years old and yet no band of that caliber would consider using such a phrase so blatantly in a tune they expected to be anything but controversial or career-threatening. Listening closely for the familiar phrase as I heard the song for the first time in years, I realized it wasn’t there. I rewound it – that is one of the greatest things about satellite radio – and I didn’t hear it. They had taken it out, and rightly so. It would be like a white band singing about a guy and using the ‘N’ word to describe him. It’s unfathomable.

Although our society is infinitely more accepting of homosexuality than it was even ten years ago, I wonder whether enough stigma still exists that a story whose predominant characters are gay would repel a large enough segment of the potential readership to affect its chances of being published. Would a publisher strongly suggest that I rewrite Sidney as a woman or make his love interest female? In an age where stories and consequent films like Brokeback Mountain drew a huge mainstream audience, winning awards, and communicating its tale of love, longing, heartbreak and loss even to the straightest of men, is an author still automatically limiting herself and her potential readership by making her main characters gay?

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We're Here, We're Queer, We're Over It!

Ironically, my concern about the content of my novel is actually two-fold. While my apprehension stems mainly from fear of putting off readers and publishers who cannot yet fully embrace (at best) or at all stomach (at worst) gay characters, I also worry that the sexual orientation of my characters may come across as trite, exploitative, and trendy. At a turning point in our societal attitudes, celebrities coming out of the closet now borders on redundancy aimed at salvaging a flagging career. I worry that I could lose readership simultaneously from both extremes of the issue – those who are disgusted by the controversial subject matter and those who likely will sigh dismissively with exasperation because perhaps my story rehashes yet another cliché story about gay love. We’re here, we’re queer, we’re all pretty much over it.

Despite my writerly psychotic delusions to the contrary, these are not real people. They are characters I invented, as are the events of their lives. However, if I feel the story is more compelling told in a way that is potentially going to alienate an audience, should I sacrifice it for the sake of conformity? In light of all this, my musings here should be a moot point. Yet I feel compelled to doubt myself and to question whether I should change the character of Sid to a woman or change his love interest from Randall to Candace, even though I think their story is more powerful as it is. Sidney loves Randall, but he could also love Candace instead, and the story would be the same fundamentally. But I will continue to write this biography as dictated by the characters in my head. Let the haters on both sides be damned!

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Have you ever written a story and later edited it to be more palatable to a mainstream audience?

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      torgo1971 3 years ago

      Personally, I think you should craft a story based on your vision, regardless of whether or not it is "mainstream". Otherwise, I think readers can pick up on writing that is not an honest vision.