Paying It Forward – Love Letters to My Gay Brothers – Why I Write
A couple of weeks ago I made some comments from a question posed by an author pal of mine, Jayne Lockwood. We’ve been having an on-going conversation regarding the process of writing, why we write what we do, how it is perceived by others and the process we go through to create what we do. It’s a very rewarding conversation. Well, for me it is at any rate (I can’t speak for Jayne, but she seems to like it – at least so far she hasn’t told me to take a hike and shut the hell up so maybe it’s going good?).
The problem is I said somethings that many women writers took me to task about (both on my pal’s site and on Facebook). Being a father and a grandfather to two women of my own, when women express something vociferously I tend to really take in what they are saying and weigh it heavily. I do this because I fight just as vociferously for my daughter and granddaughter’s right to be equals and have whatever they want in life. Their gender shouldn’t ever play a role in what they do – other than bring their womanly experiences and points of view to any conversation which I certainly believe have merit and weight.
Anyway, one woman in particular really took umbrage with what I said. This despite my attempting to clarify what point of view I was after. Even after explaining myself she still thought my point was “asinine” (evidently in the extreme). Now, being a man, I wanted to do the knee jerk reactionary thing and bash back. It’s an inherently male trait that I am well aware of. It’s why men go to war, it’s why men wage war in the first place, I suppose. But, having the girls in the house I decided to temper that knee-jerk response and really weigh what she said to me. It was written this way:
I’m part of the community of authors who write gay fiction–regardless of what they do or do not have in their pants. I find the gender of the author to be irrelevant and I don’t consider myself to be a part of the ‘straight community’ or the ‘bisexual community’ or the ‘bisexual women married to men who also happens to gay MM fiction’ community. I’m a person before I’m anything else. I’ve read male authors who ‘feminized’ their characters to the point where they are crying every other page and had emotional conversations about love and other crap right after meeting a stranger, as well as women who write male fiction so well that men–gay men–have said they thought the author WAS a man. Fiction should be judged on its own merit–not based on the sexuality or gender of the author–and anything beyond that IS asinine. We need to stop dividing ourselves.
So I sat and thought about what she was saying to me. At first blush, like I said, I reacted strongly to her judgement of my POV being asinine. Then I realized why I was fixating on that word in particular and why I was taking umbrage with it. It occurred to me that it wasn’t the point she was making, because on the whole I agree with her 99%. Why the 1% hold out? Well, therein was my answer. And it was my fault entirely for not being accurate about my first response to Jayne’s query. A point I will come to in my summation below.
With regards to writing, there are various manners of writing. Technical writing, academic writing, literature (with varied genre and sub-genre classifications), etc. So first and foremost I am simply that – a writer. No different than any other. It is a community that I share with the commenter above and with all of the people who have responded on both sides of the discussion (and yes, I had some male writers approach me separately that didn’t want to voice their general agreement with me publicly – those were private and I will not be disclosing who said what – just know that there is still that prevailing difference of opinion out there). But as I say, I am a member of the community of writers. Yet in really examining my feelings on this issue I slowly started to see how I hadn’t clarified my own position or point of view to fully answer my writing buddy’s initial query.
Now to be fair, Jayne and I are doing what we’re doing because we want those surprises in our conversation. We both have bought into the “oh shit, I said that all wrong but fuck me, it’s out there in the heat of the moment and yeah, now I gotta eat crow so pass the damned salt cause this shit is gonna taste hella nasty.” (Sorry, ‘hella’ is a No. California expression that as I write about my teens in the area I live in I use to flavor my boys and girls of my stories – I am staying in the groove with them, so to speak). We wanted these moments in our on going dialog because as writers Jayne and I are all about the reveal. So we sort of know we’re gonna step in it from time to time. I accept that, and in a very real way I am giddy with glee that I did it. Why? Simple: it allowed me to examine where what I said in the heat of the moment came from and why it caused a bit of a shit storm response.
But as I said, I am a member of the community of writers. And it was in that that my answer lay in why I have the point of view I have. It is also where my most vocal critic’s argument runs afoul to my mind. It is the one percent on where I completely and whole-hardheartedly disagree with her and will NEVER give ground on it. You see, I am also a member of the LGBTQIA community. And more specifically, the gay community of brothers that while I rail within it about how badly we can cut and tear at each other when we’re amongst ourselves (bitchy twinky queen much?) I still love each and every one of them because they exist. With them, I don’t feel alone in expressing how I feel what I feel. And herein is why I am writing to finally clarify my point of view. It also serves to finally answer the question for myself on what I am doing here, and why I write.
As a gay man I share with my communal brothers the trials, tribulations, euphoric, insanely giddy moments of our community. It is something that we all share regardless of how we all came to the road we are on as gay men. As a matter of record, I have grown to become quite pissed at the “community” of gay men because we spend an inordinate amount of time not supporting each other as we should. Something our lesbian sisters have taught us time and again when they’ve nudged us (they were one of out greatest allies during the whole AIDS crisis in the 80’s and 90’s and continue to do so – for which I am grateful). But the work has to come from within. We, as gay men, must rise above the in-fighting and the bickering that permeates our own community and truly hold each other up. No one else will do it for us. Our allies commiserate with us on how our often our community is maligned and disparaged, but they are allies in the fight for dignity and equality. But they are not the community. That lies solely with my gay brothers and myself.
And herein is why I will never cede ground to my critic’s point on this 1% – where the 1% will always trump the 99%. I know this to be true because it happened to me.
When I was sixteen and dealing with the fullest meaning of what was going on inside of me – my budding emotional responses to the boys around me in school and in my day to day experiences – I felt utterly alone.
I wasn’t a member of the mainstream club.
Now to be clear, I had tons of friends, I had family members who knew about my burgeoning gay life as a young man taking up the reigns in what that meant for me going forward. So I was surrounded by people who loved and supported me in many ways. But let me be absolutely clear about this:
I was alone in a sea of people. People who were there for me in every way than could be save one – they weren’t like me.
I soon sorted out for myself that I craved another gay man’s voice. I needed to know there was a community of men who shared my passions (however varied they were) and also understood implicitly what that meant – from the inside as a man. I was hungry for their words, I wanted affirmation that what I was feeling meant I wasn’t alone. I had my parents and siblings unconditional love and support – for the 70’s/80’s this is rather astounding as there wasn’t much out there for parents to latch onto that what I was becoming was positive in any way. My parents, I suppose, just trusted that I was the same good boy they reared and as such I would apply myself to this new avenue in the journey that is my life. Despite all the love and support they had for me, they could never be what I needed most at this point in my life. I wanted to be amongst my own in the worst way. But I was sixteen. No way for a boy at that age to easily accomplish that.
But I could find a book to hear what they had to say.
So I began looking. I knew that what I wanted from it couldn’t readily be found in a library. Mostly because what I was curious about in my hormonally charged teen boy days, was the topic of sex and love between men. It took me several visits to the bookstores I’d disappear to in the local mall my parents would take my brother, sister and me to on occasion. It almost happened by coincidence. I found some books that were not in the right place on a shelf that was slightly above my eye level, I shifted them around and a book that would become one of my bibles was there – nearly glowing with angels singing it’s praises to me. That book was The Sexual Outlaw by John Rechy.
John’s book was transformative. It was gritty, unabashed writing that spoke to me in ways that no one else could. It was as if his words were for me and me alone. They were powerful, their imagery was stark and bold. I emerged a very different boy with that book. So here we’ve come to why I will never agree with my critic’s point of view. Because it is from my own community of writers: gay men writing about our worlds as we are. Those words I’ve said before but not in the context of how I truly meant them and why. As a boy I wanted that affirmation from my own kind and no amount of brilliant writing, witty and powerful prose from anyone outside of that sphere was going to satisfy. It just simply wasn’t. It never would. I wanted to hear it from the source – not some random author posing what they thought it might be like. I wanted other gay men’s voices in my head. I wanted to swim in them, I wanted to be immersed in their minds, in their worlds, in their lives. I needed to understand what being gay was all about.
John satiated my lustful thoughts. He colored them and gave them such a compelling narrative that I was living and breathing it every time I opened that book. But he didn’t have all my answers – I wanted more. So I sought out others as best I could and I happened again on another gay male author: Gordon Merrick. Merrick satiated my heart. He gave me the perspective of a gay man in matters of love and relationships between men. And you can bet your sweet ass, no woman’s perspective no matter how beautifully written was going to give me that. I wanted a definitive male perspective. And let me be abundantly clear about this – the nature of the writing, the quality of the characters, the style of prose didn’t matter. Not really. It was that I had another gay man’s voice in my head. That belonging to a group of men like myself was paramount — almost more than the work itself. And herein is a salient point I’d like to make to my straight women allies who write about us in the here and now, we may have M/M romance as it is today and many of my critics site that it came from the fanfic/slash fic of the 90’s and that it is from these straight women who have given birth to this genre – yet I say to you all, unless you were doing this in the early 70’s when this book broke and was on the NY Bestseller list, then no, Merrick was one of the first. And he did it at a time when no one else was doing it. I know because I was there. I lived through this period in time. And it could be argued that it existed before him – EM Forster’s Maurice was penned earlier in that century as no doubt there were a few others. These courageous men were the men I craved. Men I could admire, men I could aspire to and say to myself ‘I want a piece of that pie… I want me some of that.’
I know that the argument could be made that this was all before the advent of the internet, that now it’s easy to find them. And yes, you’d be right about that. BUT, herein is the subtle but profound difference, and herein is why I discovered why I write: I still require gay men’s voices. I still want to know why Zachary Quinto is taking umbrage within his own community in the here and now about his perception of how his fellow gay brothers have grown “lazy” with regards to protecting ourselves against HIV/AIDS when we have drugs like PreP out there (he is getting slammed for starting the conversation – I, for one, am THANKFUL that he took the time to pose the question in the first place). I still want to know from my gay brothers what stirs up our shit about things in general. And yes, that information isn’t as hidden as it was back in the day when I was struggling to find affirmation and confirmation that I wasn’t alone. It doesn’t matter – I still want more of my own. I want to know today why Perez Hilton goes off on a fucking tangent and makes an ass out of himself and fails epically, I want to know the struggles of Michael Sam as he tries to elevate us all by simply being and showing us how equal gay male athletes are in the larger sports context.
For me, and I think for a great many within my own community, gay men’s voices will ALWAYS trump another author from outside my community – no matter their intent, no matter the quality of their work, because they simply AREN’T a member of our community. They don’t live it day in and day out. They may write beautifully and profoundly but to my mind, there is still the inherent tick box that says – lovely work but not of our own. It is that nugget of living it that puts it over the edge for me. Not because of the quality of the writing – but that by their very existence they affirm that I am still not alone. I need them. I need them all. Good, bad or indifferent. I need them because together we still have a “community” (such as it is).
Does this mean I think others outside our community shouldn’t write as they do? Absolutely not. I’ve said so time and again even though most of my straight allies took me to task as if that is what I was saying. But in this my absolute truth began to emerge. I began to truly see what kind of writer I am. I’ve begun to define myself as a writer and the audience I am truly seeking. I’ve learned that my road won’t be an easy or profitable one.
I am a writer. Period.
But I write from my own rooted experiences. I write to my sixteen year old self – telling him about what I’ve learned along my varied and roller coaster past. And they are rooted in life, they are my own and my fellow gay brother’s shared experiences. We live them. The situations I put my characters through may be imaginary but they are deeply rooted in my own and my gay male brother’s experiences. Words we’ve shared amongst ourselves. Words that both soothe and harm one another. Love, anguish, hurt, coupled with friendship, camaraderie and bliss filled euphoria (as a sidebar my husband, a brilliant writer himself, rails against my using bliss and euphoria in the same sentence – he said to stop over stating – it’s redundant – I smirk at him and say that in my own way I am railing at convention and want to be over the top emphatic about my blissful euphoria – but this too is why I write). My stories will have strong romantic threads but they are definitely not romance novels. Not in the sense of that particular genre as it stands now. And herein I believe that the genre needs to grow beyond the limitations and restrictions or the genre will wither on the vine and it will grow stale from the same formula cranked out over and over again – merely swapping out vocations and locations to keep things fresh. That can only go on for so long. My men will fall in and out of love. Because that is how we are – but I won’t guarantee a HEA (happily ever after) or even an HFN (happy for now), because it doesn’t work that way in life. This I will not adhere to. That I think is ludicrous in the extreme. In that manner my straight women allies can have at it. It is not for me – but my stories will have strong elements of love and loss. To my way of thinking that makes them infinitely more compelling and powerful if you don’t have a guarantee. End it the way it is supposed to end – not because some prescribed “way it has been done before.” I rail against that too. But then again I come from a community that has had to fight tooth and nail for every inch of acceptance and happiness we can. Where simple expression of affection is ridiculed and denied us. That is a compelling dialog to write from. That is what I will explore and show how we as gay men struggle against that – culled from our own collective pasts.
This is what separates me from the straight women allies in the M/M genre (romantic or otherwise). I am not writing to them at all – and that was an amazing revelation for me. They are not my audience. They can certainly come to the party and I would welcome them with as much humility and humbleness I can muster for their wanting to see what I am all about.
But they are not the focus of my prose.
In that sense, I am a very different writer. I am not writing to become famous, I am not writing to make the all mighty dollar. I am not willing to write to a formula that sells. My stories are what they are. And you can believe that if there are gay characters then those points of view are coming straight from the community of gay men I surround myself with and delve into their pasts, carefully editing out names and distilling the shared experiences for future works. I cull from my own and my gay brother’s lives. So when I put a gay character down – I’ve walked through what makes him tick. I do this for that sixteen year old me and any others out there that are like me. They want that affirmation from another gay man. Because we are gay men.
Men are the object of my desire. Men are the object of my interest. Doesn’t mean I won’t write strong female characters in my stories (I have two very important women in my own immediate family that I must answer to so you bet your ass there will be very few weak women in my tales – I want my girls to know everything they can be as well – I am all about spreading the wealth). But in that, any women characters I create is more from a desire to express what I want my girls to take away from them. Doesn’t mean for one moment that I know what the hell I am writing about them from the inside – I am simply not a member of that community, and I don’t have the gender parts or psyche that make up the foundation for that community. I aspire to do it justice, just the same, but I must embrace that it will never be able to write from that intrinsic truth that comes from within. Are there shared human experiences between the sexes that I can speak to? Certainly. But I have to embrace that I am simply not a woman and being a happy well adjusted gay man – I can definitively say I wouldn’t want to. I am very comfortable in my skin and where it’s been in my life thus far.
But what I am doing is writing to my brothers – love letters of a sort. Words to add to the dialog amongst ourselves. I am putting my words out there in the odd chance that some gay man out there might find it and its contents to be of interest. I’ve come to embrace that it may be in vain. It may never be in demand. It may ultimately come to naught or may rise in popularity after I am long dead and gone. It wouldn’t be the first – EM Forster’s Maurice was only allowed to be published after his death. I am okay with this. I will write either way. Why? Because I am doing it as a matter of posterity. I want my work to be added to the annals of other men in my community, Gay men’s voices. For ourselves, to express what our journeys are to each other. Others external to us may pick them up, others may find them interesting and may even glean an understanding from them from inside the community and what it is like to live within it. This too, is welcomed – but not germane to my craft.
So in a way, I am glad for my critic’s words. They helped me define myself and what I am doing. I wish her nothing but luck with her own journey as well as any other writer out there. The stage is big enough for us all no matter why we do what we do.
What I want out of all of this is to urge my fellow brothers to step up and write about us – we need to define ourselves in a fictional literary sense that are rooted in who we are, as we live it. This is a call to action – to my own community. There are those of my kind out there doing just that. What I want is more of the same. I want to hear what my fellow brothers are experiencing, what their journeys have been thus far. Where have they stumbled, what have they achieved? I am inspired by them – by these men’s voices. They speak to me like no one else can. They enrich me.
Men like Jay Brannan (who I think is one of the most contemplative and imaginative men I have ever had the honor to meet).
Brannan’s work is my go-to. His words give me hope and such determination to aspire to his level of writing. I am enriched to know that as an older gay man, with this young out gay artist our story is in very, very capable hands. He is nothing short of a modern day bard. I have an on-going love affair with his prose. I admire his mind – the truly sexiest part of Brannan’s work. And his voice is like salve to the soul. It’s clarity and beauty is truly astounding. And he was gracious enough to allow me to quote his magnificent work within my own. One gay male artist supporting another. I am deeply humbled by his generosity and creative spirit.
Men like Steve Grand – who has taken his bold take on the mainstream country scene and through his profound presence and sheer will of the struggles of our loves and lives has garnered followers and fans from both within and external to our community. I admire his journey as a whole. It’s brilliant, it’s bright and all encompassing, and I am in awe of it taking off like it has. I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing him perform live but as a kickstarter supporter of his, I am already part of his conversation, if from a distance. I am still heartened by his journey.
Authors (in addition to EM Forster, John Rechy and Gordon Merrick) like Christopher Rice, TJ Klune, Gore Vidal, Larry Kramer, Felice Picano, Brad Vance, Eric Arvin and the like.
Men like Michael Sam, Jason Collins, and Tom Daley. Men like Dustin Lance Black, Shane Bitney Crone, Zachary Quinto (pictured below), Anderson Cooper, Greg Berlanti, Wentoworth Miller, Matt Zarley, Chris Salvatore, John Barrowman, Ryan Murphy and others – the list goes on. This includes gay men in the porn and sex industry – for many of them are my gay brothers too. Brilliant men who I admire for their minds as much as the work they do because they have productive lives outside of the industry (they are forward thinkers) – men like Colby Keller, Levi Michaels, Antonio Biaggi, Boomer Banks and Rocco Steele (pictured above) – such courageous and brilliant masculinity on display there. Even in this with them, I am inspired. What happens to them is of great interest to me – because it is reflective of my own in one way or another. Men who have to be weary of the world around us. A world where we are slowly seeing a rise in acceptance and tolerance (despite the occasional setback and fucktard conservative voice pushing back). In a real but absurd way, I am okay with the push back. It gives me a treasure trove to plunder for my characters to struggle against. And in that I also rail a bit at my critic’s sentiment above. She laments that we need to stop being so divisive amongst each other. Yet, I can’t help but think that while a lofty goal that may be, I don’t know that we’ll achieve it in what years I have left on this Earth. But again, it’s great fodder to write from certainly. We humans love our drama.
As my good fellow opera singer, Joseph, from my days in Opera once said, “No one wants to come see a happy Opera.” He’s right. Drama springs from life – it both reflects it and informs it. I am a writer of drama. More specifically, gay men’s drama. Might be limiting in scope but with the pathetically few books written by us rooted in our own collective experiences, I’ll stick to that course to add my own to my community’s slowly growing literary library.
I am a gay man who craves the voices of my own. It was that way when I was sixteen, it is that way now. I am thankful for those outside the community who want to write about us. I may even enjoy their work and praise them for what they do (I have done so with my carefully thought out reviews). But ultimately I am inspired and aspire to the men of my own world. I am enriched by their journeys and their experiences. I write to them. I write about them. I am informed by them. This is why I said what I said. I may not have clarified it as well as I should have but that was sort of the point with Jayne’s and my on-going conversation. In a very real way, this slight stumble has helped me define who I am and what kind of writer I am. For that, I can only be grateful.
So my fellow brothers, get out there. Write about us, write about our lives and our struggles, in a literature format. Root it in our lives, as they are or as you’d like them to be. Do it not for profit alone (though it certainly wouldn’t be frowned upon if you did), just do it to ensure our voices are present and accounted for – central to our experiences and our lives. Do it for posterity, do it so our thoughts in this point in time is captured in our own voice. Do it because we need to remind each other – both gently and, at times, purposefully – pressing against our own foibles, follies and prejudices. Teaching and enriching each other to aspire to be better with one another as much as we strive for equality in the greater mainstream community.
So, to my critic I say this – I agree with you up until we talk about my community from within. Then it is my own brother’s voices that hold sway, that have that nugget of truth, that sense of community that only they can speak to because they live it every damned day. It is our world – inherent to us because of the perceptions about us that we have to embolden or deride where they are true or are rooted in prejudice and bigotry. In this they will always hold my interest to a greater extent than any other voice out there. I may not agree with what they have to say but goddamn it, I will be thrilled that they are out there saying it – if anything just because it is still an affirmation that we matter, that our voices matter and should and need to be heard – from us – from the source itself. Only then, through our expression of our lives as they are, no matter the format of expression, will the narrative be central to our collective life’s experiences. I am tired of just sitting on the sidelines. What little years I may have left (I have recently reached my half centennial mark), I choose to be as forceful in presenting our world from our collected experiences as I can.
Others may claim that this is xenophobic in nature. It is not, I can assure you. I am being patriotic within my own community – there is a difference. I do not write against the mainstream heteronormative but rather try to embolden our own collective voices from within and champion them – doing what I can to promote and encourage them to do more and, at the same time, try to raise my voice — though not at the expense of others. And a word to those who would argue against that, they would be exercising the grandest form of bigotry.
If others, outside of our community, want to learn from my journey then great – I welcome them. But I write to my brothers. They are my love letters to them. I may not know them individually, I may not know their journeys or the road they walk in life, but if they stop and bother to tell me, I will always spare a moment to listen. That sixteen year old self is still hungry for their words, their thoughts, their minds. It is a hunger for which I never want satiated. When I take my last breath the only regret I want to have is that I’ll want more but be denied access in what is to come. That is what I will lament and rail against but know that it is for naught. Life just doesn’t work that way. I get that. But I lament the brilliant and colorful lives I will never know – lives to come that will be beyond my mortal reach. So I write from a fictional perspective to create those worlds that would explore what I crave from those voices as yet unheard.
Love letters to my gay brothers. I cherish each and every one of you. I admire your spirit, your courage and your minds. It is a love affair I am all to happy to be a part of. It is a love affair I never want to end.
I know no other way.