A few weeks ago, the central Kentucky PFLAG group invited me to make a presentation at their monthly meeting. I was very honored to have several outstanding authors and reviewers contribute to my presentation. Below is a summary of that presentation:
As it has been often noted in social commentary, the gay civil rights movement has advanced quickly as compared to other civil rights movements in the United States. Some may argue with this statement, after all it has been just over 45 years since the Stonewall riots. But, in comparison to other civil rights movements, the gay rights movement has progressed relatively fast.
There are many reasons for this advanced pace of the LGBT movement toward equality. I believe one of the primary reasons is the role of straight family, friends, and colleagues in our lives and in our movement. Indeed, the group represented here tonight, Parents, Friends, and Family of Lesbians and Gays, has played a major role in changing hearts and minds across the country. Because we are your brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, best friends and confidants, our relationships have tended to change the dynamics of “otherness” which have plagued previous civil rights movements. As we have seen time and again, we all must be seen as fully human before the light of equality can begin to glow in our national conscience.
As a writer, I was curious to see if our fictional relationships with our straight counterparts have kept up with the times. Has there been a change in the way writers approach their straight characters over the last fifty years? Is the fiction written for LGBT audiences keeping up with societal changes and norms? Rather than take on exhaustive research into the subject of LGBT writing that would take years to complete, I decided to go to the experts, meaning those who have been writing, studying, teaching, or reviewing LGBT fiction for many years.
So, let me first introduce my panel of writers and reviewers.
Katherine V. Forrest is the recipient of numerous awards for her sixteen works of fiction which include the lesbian classic Curious Wine and nine novels in the celebrated Kate Delafield mystery series. She is president emeritus of the Lambda Literary Foundation.
Martin Hyatt was born just outside of New Orleans and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. He is the recipient of an Edward F. Albee Writing Fellowship and The New School Chapbook Award for fiction. His stories have been published in such places as Lodestar Quarterly, The Electric Literature Blog and Blithe House Quarterly. His award-winning debut novel, A Scarecrow’s Bible, was named a Stonewall Honor Book by the American Library Association and won the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction. In addition, it was nominated for the Ferro-Grumley Award, a Lamda Literary Award, and the Violet Quill Award. He was named a “Star of Tomorrow” by NY Magazine. His new novel, Beautiful Gravity, is forthcoming from Magnus Books. He has taught writing at such places at Hofstra, Parsons, and St. Francis College. He is currently Associate Professor and Founding Coordinator of a college Writing Center in Brooklyn, NY.
Marianne K. Martin is one of the best-selling lesbian romance authors in the country and her books have gained a wide international readership. She is the author of nine novels, the latest of which is The Indelible Heart. Her highly successful novels include the Lambda Literary Award finalists Under the Witness Tree, Mirrors, and For Now, For Always. In 2012, she was honored with the Trailblazer Award from the Golden Crown Literary Society and in 2013 she was inducted into the Saints & Sinners Hall of Fame. Her new novel, Tangled Roots, will be released this fall.
Karin Kallmaker’s lesbian fiction novels include the Goldie and Lammy award-winning 18th & Castro, Just Like That, The Kiss that Counted, Maybe Next Time and Sugar and span lesbian romance, lesbian erotica and lesbian science-fiction/fantasy. Her writing career began with the venerable Naiad Press, continues with Bella Books and includes more than two dozen novels in print. In 2008, she joined Bella Books as the press’s first Editorial Director. A Stonewall Library and Archives Distinguished Author, she was awarded the Golden Crown Literary Society Trailblazer Award in 2011.
In 2011, Salem West founded her breakout blog, The Rainbow Reader (rainbowreader.blogspot.com), which combines homespun essays with queer-centric perspectives in book reviews that cover a wide swath of mostly lesbian literature. In 2012, she was invited to write pre-release reviews for award-winning authors, John Irving and Carole Anshaw. Her first novel, Hoosier Daddy, co-authored with wife, Ann McMan, was a 2014 Lambda Literary Award finalist.
Amos Lassen is a prolific reviewer of LGBT writing and movies. His writings about “Books, Movies, and Judaica and Random Thoughts about Whatever,” can be found at http://reviewsbyamoslassen.com.
Lynne Pierce has been writing reviews for over 12 years. Lynne is a moderator at Lesfic Unbound, a Yahoo group with well over 700 members. She started writing reviews for Just About Write and she now writes her own blog named Piercing Fiction: Straight Arrow Reviews. Her blog can be found at: http://piercingfiction.blogspot.com/
I asked each of the authors and reviewers a couple of questions to seek their thoughts on the roles of straight characters in LGBT fiction, and I found their answers to be as diverse as their writing. There was a general acknowledgement of a change in the portrayal of straight characters over the recent past. Across the board, these writers and reviewers agreed that gay and lesbian fiction is changing along with the changes we are seeing in societal attitudes. The coming out story and the rejection or brutality by family members against gay and lesbian characters is no longer a major focus of gay and lesbian fiction. Katherine Forrest remarked that when she began writing books for and about the LGBT community, “the conflict was large indeed; the hostility of our entire society against us.” In her 1983 novel, Curious Wine, the protagonist, Diana Holland tells her father that she loves another woman. His reaction is first of surprise, and then real concern for the struggles his daughter will face. By the end of the scene, Diana’s father says he needs time to develop understanding, which was about as good of a reaction as could be expected at the time.
Reviewer Lynne Pierce noted that to some degree, the portrayal of friends and family depends on the age of the writer, where younger writers rarely write about problems at work, home, or in the community, and older writers may still include themes of difficult relationships with family members or other people in their lives.
No doubt, our personal experiences affect our writing. Marianne Martin and Karin Kallmaker reflected on this in different ways, but both remarked of the changes they have seen over the years. Marianne noted over the years, some lesbian writing tended to depict a world packed full of lesbians. “It seemed that almost everyone in the protagonist’s daily life was a lesbian – the bank teller, the grocer, the lawyer, the doctor, they popped up everywhere – sort of a lesbian fantasy land masquerading as our current society. The need was evident for a safer, more affirming environment, for supportive and understanding family, friends, and co-workers.” Marianne felt that perhaps some writers over-compensated in order to create that much sought after world. Now, she notes, we are beginning to see a more realistic view of how gays and lesbians fit into the bigger picture.
Karin Kallmaker commented that when she came into the lesbian writing community in the mid-80’s, alienation from family was common, and “fiction was a way to give LGBT people a mirror that showed the reality of this pain in their lives. As families have opened up, the fiction has changed as well.” Karin also noted a change in the way men are depicted in lesbian writing. “If you needed someone to do evil, just make the character male.” Fortunately, she says, this has changed. As the experiences of lesbians have become more diverse in their relationships to men, lesbian writing about our relationships with men has evolved as well. This is definitely to the benefit of everyone and provides a much more realistic view of the world and lesbian experiences.
So how far have we come? As Amos Lassen noted, more and more, we are reading stories based on “gay characters for whom being gay is not the most interesting thing about them – it’s just who they are.” But what of the role of straight characters in LGBT fiction – is this changing as well? To some degree yes, although the commenters, both authors and reviewers, seemed to agree that we are seeing few stories in which secondary straight characters played a major role in the plot or story development. Exceptions were noted, generally in the mystery, thriller, super-natural, sci-fi, and general fiction categories. One exception I found particularly interesting was the category of Young Adult fiction. As Martin Hyatt noted, “…young adult and certain genres like sci-fi and supernatural really seem to be ahead of the game when it comes to straights and gays living together on the page in a way that seems both natural and right.” So, there is hope for the future.
Salem West made an interesting point, however, regarding transgender characters and themes. Transgender stories, she noted, “…are still dealing with issues of definition, understanding and acceptance, coming out, and fitting in. As a result, the portrayal of straight characters, particularly friends and family, is more typically what we were seeing in LGB literature a decade or more ago.”
The authors I interviewed did not note any particular change in the way they personally approached the straight characters in their stories. Martin Hyatt noted that, “It is my job as a writer to paint all of my characters fully, including the ones who have sexuality different from my own.” Karin Kallmaker said something similar in noting the need for connection with the reader. “Even in the most outlandish romance, the core of the characters has to resonate with the reader in some way. So the family and friends need to help create a realistic view.” Marianne Martin also noted the desire to create a realistic world. “They were not many in number or easily found, but there were people in society who accepted unconditionally and were sometimes just as frustrated at the injustices and intolerance as the LGBT person in their life. So I put them in my stories….and let them be as important to my character as they were in real life.” I dare say these were the types of individuals who would be active in groups like PFLAG.
The reviewers I interviewed felt, for the most part, that LGBT writing did, and still does, an accurate job of portraying the mood of the country at the time the story was written. Our fiction, like mainstream fiction, has definitely changed with the times. Salem West mentioned several contemporary novels in which time-appropriate relationships between characters can be found: Misfortune’s Friend by Sarah Aldridge; The Girl’s Club by Sally Bellerose; In One Person by John Irving; Jericho, Aftermath, and Hoosier Daddy by Ann McMan; The Swashbuckler by Lee Lynch; and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson.
Lynne Piece noted that authors must do their research when writing about another time period than the present. She mentioned having read novels where the societal norms of today are portrayed in stories set in the past. This certainly indicates a lack of research on the writer’s part, and a reason to toss a book aside on the reader’s part. Lynne also acknowledged the differences in regions, and that some careless authors may attribute attitudes incongruent with the region of their story’s setting. This, too, can be a major hindrance to relatable storytelling.
Since Stonewall, we have decidedly seen that LGBT fiction has changed as relationships between the gay and straight community are improving. Even so, with the exceptions noted earlier, we are not seeing stories that highlight the relationships between straight and gay characters, stories where these relationships are a main theme of the book. Few, if any, books written for LGBT audiences are portraying the viewpoint of straight individuals as they interact with large and diverse LGBT groups. Martin Hyatt said that he has a personal goal to write “the ultimate literary bromance.” Still, we aren’t there yet.
As mainstream writers are including more strong LGBT characters, and even some main characters, in their fiction, there is still a strong need for LGBT writers to tell our stories from our perspectives. My hope is that we will always have our indie publishers, our self-publishing opportunities, and our magazines to provide homes for the work of LGBT writers, though I wonder if this will be the future we actually see. Indeed, as Amos Lassen noted, being gay will not be the most interesting thing about us, or our stories. What then, will be the stories we tell? Who then, will be our writers? Will writers who prefer to write to LGBT audiences find a welcoming home and receptive audience? Will more straight audiences develop interests in our writing so they can better understand the world from our point of view?
We don’t yet know the answers to those questions. For now, we can say that the evolution and acceptance of LGBT individuals, in fiction and in the real world, would never have been possible without our straight allies. The work done by groups like PFLAG has been one of the major forces of change in our society. Katherine Forrest said it well when she stated, “Today we have more and more novels portraying friends and family as perfectly accepting of us. The societal changes we’ve witnessed are of course the result of a major civil rights movement that emerged with Stonewall, and are the result of the role of PFLAG played since its early 70’s beginnings. PFLAG has been absolutely essential in effecting all the changes in society, and in our books.”
Indeed we have come a long way since Stonewall, and we still have far to go. We still need the allies who have stood up for us time and again, and we need leaders in our own community who are willing to enter into constructive dialog to effect change. As Katherine Forrest remarked, “My heartfelt admiration goes to all who remain a part of these organizations and fight to effect change. Many of these fighters are the PFLAG members in this very room. In thanking you for all you do and have done for us, I stand for millions of LGBT people around the entire world.”
And you can bet, Katherine V. Forrest knows what she is talking about.