Op-ed: Gay Fiction Is Everybody's Fiction

If gay people are part of the human experience, then why are mainstream publishers and straight readers so quick to keep gay characters in the closet?

BY Lewis DeSimone

May 16 2013 4:19 AM ET

At left: Lewis DeSimone

If a novel isn’t truthful, it’s nothing. And part of my truth is my sexuality. I happen to believe that sex — as the most primal of urges, perhaps the only occasion when we are able to be fully present with another person, free of the mind’s constant harping — is one of humanity’s greatest vehicles for truth. So Chemistry is full of sex. It's one of the ways I chart the narrator’s path toward self-discovery and liberation. So what if my readers see me when they read the sex scenes? Why should my sex life be the occasion of shame? I came to see the publication of the novel as my opportunity to stop accepting the closet’s revolving door and instead tear the damn thing off its hinges once and for all.

When it came time to work on my next book, questions about the role of gay life within the larger culture loomed large in my mind. The Heart’s History is a love story and an elegy of sorts, but is also an examination of where we currently are as a community, and where we want to go next. When two of the characters, Greg and Victor, get legally married, their friends argue over whether it would be nobler to question mainstream values than to embrace them. It’s a question that runs throughout the book — the cost of assimilation, whether a loss of distinctive identity is a prerequisite for fitting in.

“Differences,” my first lover told me long ago, “are gifts.” He said this to reach across some chasm that divided us, some issue we were unable to come to terms on. But the line has stayed with me, resonating in ways I couldn’t see then. It’s no coincidence that so many artists are social outsiders: It’s their separation from the mainstream that allows them to see it from such interesting angles. It’s that sense of distance that gives their work meaning. The gift of difference is its ability to transcend itself, to enlighten the people on either side of the chasm — to help them, together, form a bridge.

Our new politically correct society seems intrinsically schizophrenic to me. On the one hand, we’re expected to recognize and respect cultural differences; on the other, we’re supposed to downplay them to the point of meaninglessness. Personally, I’ve never put much stock in the notion that homosexuals are just like everyone else except for what we do in bed. But neither do I believe that I have to pierce my eyebrow and wear gold lamé in order to be truly “queer.” Either position asks us to conform — if not to a straight ideal, then to a gay one. The point is that binary oppositions just don’t work when it comes to something as complex as human character. We’re all different in more ways than we know. Ultimately, even heterosexuals are as queer as a three-dollar bill.

In the end, any work of art worth its salt is a little subversive. A novel that depicts ordinary people doing ordinary things — without irony, without tension — will most often fall flat, or veer into the territory of melodrama. As Whitman pointed out long ago, “the particular is the only universal”: It is only by looking at a specific situation, a specific life — with all of its odd, quirky aspects — that the reader can engage enough to discover a fundamental, universal truth. Generalizations are little more than platitudes; hard truth is to be found in the details of individual lives. And speaking of platitudes, isn’t the oldest one in literature “Write what you know”?

What I know — what all writers like to think they know — is the human heart. And that is what we write about: gay, straight, male, female, black, white, young, old — we all write about the universal truths of the human heart. I use primarily gay characters to reveal those truths because they’re the ones who come most naturally to my keyboard. Some characters occasionally come to me in female bodies or in heterosexual couplings, and I listen just as closely to them.

Ultimately I do write for the mainstream — not to cater to their prejudices, but to share new ideas, new ways of seeing the world. Discerning readers learn more when their imagination is challenged, when they’re confronted with things they’ve never seen — a whaling ship in 19th-century New England, a man waking up to discover himself a cockroach, or two men locked in a loving embrace.

I wonder sometimes if the mainstream isn’t just another myth, like the Easter Bunny or the melting pot. It’s not a single current, but the churning of innumerable waves that keeps the water alive. I write in the hope that my work can float on those diverse waves, like a message in a bottle, and perhaps find its way to the far shore, to give its inhabitants a glimpse of life on the other side.

LEWIS DeSIMONE is a writer living in San Francisco. LewisDeSimone.com

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