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on queer writers and writing

I had an interesting facebook correspondence recently w/ a gay writer friend that I’ve decided I want to share here, because I think how I articulated some of my thinking about Queer writing and/or writing as a person who identifies as Queer is a nice opening for further conversation.

The facebook exchange began with his feedback on my chapbook, which means some of it may come across as a little bit self-indulgent, since I draw a lot of examples from my own work. But hopefully my reflections on/analysis of my own content, where it’s included here, will be of interest to folks who have read those pieces.

I haven’t yet gotten my friend’s permission to use his words, so I’ve summarized his statements below to help clarify what I was responding to.

My friend suggests that some of my stories are about gay and/or likely gay (when they’re older) children experiencing mockery or identity-related discomfort, but that I don’t say anything particularly new or distinctive about these experiences.

I’m actually really curious to hear where you see this, other than [names one unpublished piece from chapbook where narrator experiences verbal harassment as a result of perceived sexual orientation]. Most of the time, the familiar gay narratives — especially the coming out narrative, but also those about abuse and violence, bore the crap out of me, and I think I try to actively write against them or sort-of disrupt them in some way. Like in that story “Grace,” where I tried to rework the somewhat familiar story of a lonely queer kid wanting “what he can’t have” by actually giving him exactly what he wanted at the end. Or “Slime Me,” which for me was a way to write about shame and sublimation and maybe even fetish without the story having to be about gay identity (and also, it’s about pre-pubescent desire, which is, you know, not really done).

Generally I don’t even identify as a writer of gay fiction so much as one of queer fiction, because most of the time, I’m not really interested in writing about gay identity, but rather  more deeply challenging the idea of “normal” sexuality and gender. So for instance, even that Bristol and Levi story I read in a way as “queer.” For me, this also means being critical of fucked up shit in mainstream LGBT culture and movements — like for instance, I think “Fugitives” is as much about my discomfort with complacent gay domesticity as it is about State intervention in queer lives. Or like my obsession with calling out the misogyny and shaming of gender deviance in mainstream gay communities.

My friend suggests that many of my characters are simple victims. He speculates the “straight world” is more comfortable seeing gay folks depicted as victims than as sexual aggressors, or as “confident, charismaticcharacters who “have their shit together” and can thus be experienced as potential equals.

…I feel like I’ve heard theories to this effect before, and there might be some truth to them. I think it’s definitely true that the dominant culture assumes stories about gay characters, especially youth, will be stories about confusion and identity struggle and/or violence and derision from peers, and sometimes dominant culture does not know how to, like, even process or make sense of the narrative when gay identity is sort de-emphasized or a non-issue or when peers do not respond negatively. I’ve been encountering that some with the young adult novel I’m trying to write, folks are like, why aren’t the other kids mean to him, and I’m like, because they’re city kids and they could give two shits and have other things to worry about (which is sort of a lot more reflective of my own oddball high school experience in NYC, although before that I got pretty viciously bashed in middle school in northern NJ, which I actually think was always more about gender expression than sexuality, since I didnt really even have a sexual identity yet).

At the same time… I guess I have a negative reaction to how words like “confident” and “charismatic” are traditionally defined. In a way, I think it’s actually a lot more palatable to our dominant culture and also a lot more prized in a lot of gay subcultures for a gay man to be hyper-masculine and a go-getter and all that. In a way, I think a more passive and feminized character (although one with a complex inner life and desires, not a minstrel) who embraces that passivity is considered a lot more disruptive and wretched and disposable and threatening and unwanted, etc… and so I do think I write sometimes to make space for a certain kind of passivity (I think I mean this more in terms of desire and gender expression, not passive in the narrative sense, which bring up a whole different set of issues). But I hope those characters have agency, do not just read as victims, because if they’re solely victims, I think I’ve failed. But for instance — for me, the single most important thing about the narrator in “Brendan Kills” is that this encounter is not happening against his will. He WANTS this. Cigarettes and all. And I think what I most hope for readers confronting that story is that they’ll acknowledge that this is something he wants and has participated in making happen, and really grapple with whatever discomfort that raises for them. Or like Abner in “Slime Me,” he, I hope, is not solely a victim, he goes after what he wants, fairly actively, and what he wants, to have something (something bizarre) happen TO HIM instead of doing it to somebody else, is established in the story as fairly shameful and compromising.

Although I definitely think we live in a heteronormative dominant culture and the straight folks I know are privileged in ways I’m not (and in certain cases, because of race/class/gender, I am privileged in ways THEY are not), I also think that in my social circle and the social circles I’ve inhabited for like the last 10-15 years, it’s really hard for me to talk abt the “straight world” as anything monolithic, I think maybe there’s just a much less sharp division in my world between “straight culture” and “gay culture,” than in yours [friend is in rural-ish south] and also neither is really singular, there are so many different “straight” cultures in Chicago and also so many Queer ones, and plenty of mixture between them. I think this is probably a regional difference in our experiences, and also probably an urban/rural one. I also think maybe there’s less of a diversity of LGBT subcultures in smaller places? — Like when I visited Knoxville last year, I was really struck by how everyone mixes together in the gay bars, like multiple races and ages and gender expressions in the same physical space, because there are not enough people for the kind of niche-ing and subdividing that I’m used to seeing.

I guess for me it’s also less abt showing readers that Queer people can have our shit together, and more about showing/reminding that none of us — straight folks included — ever really have our shit together. And fiction is good for that, right, because, hi, drama? I also think more of us desire something freakish or shameful than don’t. I bet that’s true even of straight rural [place friend is from].  I bet a lot of them have kinks and fetishes they’d rather nobody find out about.

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