Op-ed: Gay Fiction Is Everybody's Fiction
BY Lewis DeSimone
May 16 2013 4:19 AM ET
E.M. Forster crossed the bridge from mainstream novelist to gay author, post-mortem.
I listened politely and smiled in all the right places, like Sammy Davis Jr. being complimented on his tap dancing by Archie Bunker. But I couldn’t help thinking that all this righteous concern for my career reeked of a literary “don’t ask, don’t tell.” It was other people’s sensibilities I was being advised to watch out for: There was nothing wrong with being gay, only talking about it. Suddenly, the reading public had turned into a crew of sailors on a submarine, terrified of dropping the soap.
My brother had to Google me to find out that I was publishing a novel. And when he asked about it, when he sincerely congratulated me on accomplishing the goal he knew I’d had for most of my life, I felt a new kind of shame. It wasn’t the kind that drives you into the closet, but rather shame for having let the closet win, letting it come between you and your loved ones. (I keep hearing the mother in Torch Song Trilogy so painfully and astutely wailing, “You shut me out of your life and then blame me for not being there!”)
The truth is that as soon as the manuscript went into production I became a bit terrified of the exposure it would bring. Now, I thought, everyone—family, coworkers, my dentist — would know my deepest thoughts and darkest feelings. What was I thinking? My therapist had to remind me that the word publish literally means “to make public”: What I’d been craving my entire life was exactly what I was now most afraid of. Careful what you wish for.
The closet is a very narrow place. People put us in there by focusing on one aspect of our lives — reducing our human complexity to the single thing that makes them uncomfortable. And we stay there only by internalizing that narrow view. When we closet ourselves, we are in effect reducing ourselves — seeing ourselves through someone else’s myopic vision.
Chemistry is about a lot of things — love and friendship, illness and cure, the ties that bind people together and the forces that tear them apart. It’s about psychological damage and painfully liberating self-discovery. But all I feared anyone — not least of all, my family — would notice is that it’s also about sex.
In this paranoid state of tunnel vision, I couldn’t even hide behind the mask of fiction. That, I believed, could take me only so far: When my narrator, Neal, plays his cello — an instrument I’ve never touched — everyone who knew me would see that as fiction. But when he goes to bed with his lover, those familiar readers whose approval I craved would see only me.
My mother proved the point right away. An unsophisticated reader, she was from the beginning confused by the use of the first person in the book. When we spoke right after she’d finished the opening chapter, she repeatedly referred to the narrator as “you.” If she already pictured me on every page, I wondered, what would she think when she reached the sex scenes?
The inevitable question, of course, is, What if it were heterosexual sex that I’d depicted in my work? How would she feel then, and how would I feel as I imagined her reading it? My mother and I have watched Fatal Attraction together more times than I care to admit — to the point that its once-shocking sex scenes now seem as matter-of-fact as the opening credits. I could have written scenes like those. I’ve slept with women, and I’ve read my share of Sidney Sheldon (a very small share, for many reasons, was more than enough). I could have changed Zach to Zelda and had a very similar story to tell.
But it would be a story missing the key ingredient: truth.