In 2009, Arsenal Pulp Press published a collection of essays framed as intergenerational advice to queer youth, called Second Person Queer, edited by the inimitable team of Richard LaBonte and Lawrence Schimel.
I was glad to have an essay in the collection, “Letter to a New Generation of Gate Keepers”, in which I sought to address what I see as the sacred, spiritual gift of same-sex wiring. It was the first time I’d raised these thoughts in public, and they helped clarify my sense of purpose in writing fiction: to explore the power and beauty of same-sex attraction, and the possibility that gay men hold a particular responsibility within the spiritual ecology of humankind.
It would be presumptuous of me to speak on behalf of those wired differently from me — I’m a cisgendered gay man — but I can speak up as one such. I do hope others will take up the thread, though, and write from the sacred place they occupy in the wisdom circle.
At any rate, in the wake of celebrations for the US Supreme Court ruling of June 26, I am prompted to offer this essay from 2009. It was already clear to me then that the tide had turned in acceptance of non-heteronormative orientations and gender identities, but I had no idea the rush of that tide would be so swift as it has become.
I’ve posted the essay under “Free Reads”, the second menu item under Publications in the menu bar. I hope you’ll take some time to read it and see whether it rings true for you or for your queer friends as you know them. Or you can use this link here.
Letter to a new Generation of Gate Keepers
I’m writing this letter to you in the fervent hope that you will come to believe something. If you don’t believe it now because it seems too crazy or impractical, I ask that you put the idea aside gently, making room for the possibility of believing it at some time in the future. This idea is the single most important thing that I can give you. When you do believe it, you will see with new eyes and new heart as the world offers unexpected possibilities to you—possibilities invisible to most.
You have been given a great and sacred gift—you are gay. Some peoples called us “Two-Spirited,” and held an honorable place for us in daily life. You might be surprised how many cultures viewed men like us with respect. That, as you well know, has not been the historical experience in mainstream North American culture.
I want you to believe that your being gay is not a meaningless fluke. You are gay for a reason—the Universe has entrusted you with stewardship of a certain kind of spiritual consciousness and power that no heterosexual man can ever carry. It is entrusted only to people like us.
I’m not saying this to make you feel grandiose. I’m saying this because you have important work to do. This work is found on a spiritual path that is open only to men like us, and traveled by comparatively few of those to whom the path is open at all.
When I say a spiritual path, I want to make sure you understand the distinction I draw between religion and spirituality. Religion is a formal system of doctrine, behaviors, and belief that offers to codify our relationship to universal spirit. I see spirituality as the evolving, unstructured, and direct individual experience of universal spirit. For some, the highly defined paths of religion provide an adequate spiritual experience. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But for others—and I think you are one of them—the inner guidance of the soul leads away from and beyond the comfortable certainty of those conventional structures. That begins a much more demanding journey, but its rewards are unspeakably beautiful and full of creative power.
The spiritual path for many of my generation focused on awakening—realizing that in spite of being taught that homosexuals were broken, disgusting, or pathetic, we were spiritually and morally right to be ourselves. We lucky ones then learned to live openly, insisting that we be given the same societal and legal rights that heterosexuals enjoyed. I think it’s fair to acknowledge that this spiritual awakening among us was resisted and condemned most vehemently by followers of religions who did not see our openness as a spiritual awakening at all, but the work of their devil. Although many of those religious folk might not agree, that battle is over. Spiritual awakening won.
Now a bigger job lies ahead precisely because that awakening occurred, and I think the job belongs mostly to you and your generation. What is homosexuality for, in spiritual terms? What does it mean to be a spiritually alive gay man bringing his unique gift into the world?
A beginning point in understanding the sacred gift of homosexuality is self-evident: you are different from the majority of human beings. Regardless of what ethnic or cultural minority a gay man might belong to, he is still a minority within that. I believe we are supposed to be a minority.
The core of our gift is the energy of the other—so similar, yet mysteriously different. Being different doesn’t mean better than others, but it certainly doesn’t mean less than, either. In our generation, some sought to establish an in-your-face defiance to honor our difference. Others wanted to get married and raise children in the suburbs, complete with dogs and a station wagon. While I don’t think either of those interpretations of our spiritual awakening is wrong, I also don’t think they are adequate models to guide your generation in expressing the beauty and power homosexuals can bring to society.
Bear in mind that our generation had very few who modeled for us what being openly, authentically, and triumphantly gay would look like. While we had many wonderful inspirational elders like Leonardo da Vinci and Walt Whitman to look to, we had almost no social mentors. We had to be our own cultural midwives. Defiance and assimilation were two of our most important experiments.
Some will suggest that you really are just like a heterosexual except for the incidental fact that you love your own gender. I disagree. I tell you that the reverse is wonderfully, shockingly true: you happen to love men because you are wired up radically differently from heterosexuals. I don’t think gay men should be concerned about assimilation or being defiantly different any more. There is no more need to be either artificially different or artificially similar to heterosexuals. Finding out what it means to be naturally, authentically both similar and different will lead you to spiritual power.
When I was coming out, I was fascinated to read that the Dagara people in West Africa call homosexual men Gate Keepers. In their way of seeing, Gate Keepers are responsible for maintaining the living connection between the earth and the spirit world. If this living connection between the invisible and the earth is lost, the earth will die. What an interesting vision—that the very survival of the earth depends on homosexuals!
What if this spiritual role of Gate Keeper were true not just metaphorically but literally? What if the job of every gay man was to keep certain energies alive in the earth, without which the earth would perish? I am absolutely convinced it is so.
How can you find out what—if any—of this is true for you? When I finally accepted that I was gay, I was a minister in my mid-forties, married, with a family. Since then my journey as a gay man—including divorcing, declaring bankruptcy, changing careers, getting sober, building a new life, surviving a pulmonary embolism, needing surgeries for cancer, and marrying a wonderful man—has required one thing of me: to listen to what originates from the other side of the particular Gate I keep. Any advice that I have for you is based on what I’ve learned by that listening.
Listening is a challenging and inexact discipline. It took courage for me to listen. What I heard through my Gate was so different from what I heard around me, often different even from my own internal voices. Learning to listen like this takes practice. As you practice, you will discover astonishing things about yourself and the world you live in. I suggest you try doing something gentle to raise your receptivity while you are listening. Meditation, writing, and music have been important for me. Tai chi, gardening, or working with animals could be just as effective, I think.
To listen well, I think you must cultivate a sense of wonder. The clever, bitchy ennui that has been fashionable among men like us serves no purpose in Gate Keeping that I can see. At the risk of seeming naïve, celebrate your happiness in small things—it’s great exercise for the spiritual ear. Being delighted to see things anew and to be amazed by the familiar will improve your ability to listen. Be open to noticing little surprises at the periphery of your perception and imagination. Not every such surprise will be a message from the spirit world seeking your attention, but some might be the envelope, so to speak, containing a message.
Practice kindness and friendship, hallmarks of spiritual strength. I can’t emphasize this enough, so I won’t try. Gate Keeping is a discipline of the heart, and through the heart you will find your tribe of like-hearted souls—straight and queer, all together.
This work will change you and, through you, the world around you. Whether those changes seem small or big to you, they will be profound. There’s much more to Gate Keeping than I’ve put in this letter, but I expect this is plenty for now. Think of Gate Keeping as a performance work-in-progress rather than a static, well-defined job. Given the chance to exercise, your spiritual gifts will grow and evolve with age. Learning to share those gifts with the rest of the world is a lifelong project from which there is no retirement. We lucky ones, we grow old and get more time to practice, more time to feel the fulfillment of being a Gate Keeper. May you be lucky, too.
You have a wonder-full path of pioneering ahead of you. You are a young man of remarkable quality and gifts. If there is anything I can do to assist you, to encourage you, to support your growth, I’d consider it an honor to help as I can. After all, my fulfillment as a Gate Keeper requires that I assist your generation in carrying our spiritual gift in ways that mine could not. But you will have to ask me for my input—otherwise I may offer more advice than you want!
I am certain that you and your fellow Gate Keepers will become more adept than we in my generation have been. Then you will help the generation after you in the same way. Only through this continuity will we ensure that the particular Gates between the visible and invisible for which gay men are responsible are sustained, that they flourish. I don’t know how you will do your part, but I am certain you will keep your Gate beautifully. Blessings in profusion to you on your journey.
© 2009 Lloyd A. Meeker, all rights reserved
After a week of dithering about whether it was “the sensible thing to do” (Of course it’s not! It makes hardly any sense at all, financially or logistically.) I’ve decided to attend the LLF-sponsored finalists reading in L.A. on May 15th. I had a big coupon from Southwest Airlines and deccided to splurge. Even if it isn’t the sensible thing to do, it feels right and I’m excited at the prospect of meeting and reading to a completely new audience.
So if you’re in West Hollywood, or feel like driving distance to attend, I’d love to see you there!
It’s on Friday May 15, 7:00 pm at the County of Los Angeles – West Hollywood Branch Public Library, 625 N San Vincente Blvd., West Hollywood, CA, 90069
It feels deliciously extravagant to be flying from one coast to the other to read from The Companion, as if I were a famous author with hundreds of thousands of adoring fans clamoring for an appearance in the city of stars. Still, the event is for 2015 finalists for the Lambda Literary Awards, and I are one. I have to remind myself of that every now and then.
L.A. is simultaneously seductive and repulsive to me, and I’m looking forward to being back in the Endless City. It may not be Emerald, but it sure seems Endless to this reclusive writer. It’s been a couple of years. And The Companion is set in Los Angeles, just a few miles from where I’ll be reading. That ought to count for something!
I hope to see you there. There will be at least seven other finalists reading from their nominated work, too. I haven’t read all of them, but I can tell you that the ones I have read are stellar, and I’m willing to bet the others are, too. You’ll have a feast of good fiction excerpts, and admission is free!
Just coming up for air after a wildly eventful two weeks. Not sure what happened astrologically or in some other energies I don’t manage, but it was like a dam broke and washed down my river without doing a stick of damage. Instead, cycles that have been in “pending” mode for months all sprang forward as if the Cosmos had flipped a switch.
Unnerving — and exciting! So here’s the executive summary:
Wednesday, Mar 4 I learned that my novel The Companion is a finalist in this year’s Lambda Literary Awards. A week later I’m still giddy about it, and probably will be for months to come. For someone who writes gay fiction, this is huge, and would have made a stellar week all on its own. It’s the equivalent of being nominated for an Oscar for us. Bob and I immediately bought tickets to the awards ceremony June 1st in New York.
An hour after receiving the news, I was in a rented a car driving to Orlando for the Dreamspinner Author Retreat. Not sure I needed a car, it felt like I could have floated there on my cloud of euphoria. Come to think of it, I could have saved twenty bucks on road tolls each way if I had!
March 5-8, I had a chance to immerse myself in the Dreamspinner community. Many authors I hadn’t met in person, but I felt right at home. Moreover, Elizabeth North, the Publisher, gave a truly visionary speech, outlining events and sales performance of last year, and the plans for the year coming. In a publishing environment where reported sales have leveled or declined, the increase in sales at Dreamspinner was breathtaking.
Later, in a meeting with Elizabeth and her Editor-in-Chief Lynn West I was thrilled to learn more of DSP Publications, their new publishing arm dedicated to mysteries, fantasy, horror, thrillers, anything that isn’t strictly romance. Best news of all was the gearing up of Itineris, their imprint focused on heroes undergoing spiritual or metaphysical growth in their stories. Since that is my core interest, I was thrilled that I’d found a home for those stories.
Needless to say, I left feeling like my spiritual journey stories like Traveling Light had finally found a place to land, and that was like having a door open onto a spectacular new garden for me.
On the 9th I got a call from Wild Rose Press, and learned that they want to contract Blood Royal and its sequels. Another huge leap forward! I wanted to re-release the story under my own name instead of Rowan Malloy, so I pitched the story to Wild Rose Press in February during the Florida Romance Writers conference. It happened fast, and I’m thrilled with the outcome!
Then on the 10th we closed on our house. Whew! A process begun back in October of last year. It’s been a fragile, erratic process, with lots of problems. But it happened! On the 11th, the movers arrived and we pulled up stakes. Can’t wait to set up my new writing nook! Will post pics when I can.
Still lots to do before we’re settled, but I wanted to post this update. Must take some vitamins…
What’s the best thing to happen in your week?
For years, I had a quote pinned up on the wall of my workspace attributed to congressional historian Daniel J Boorstin: “The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents, and the oceans was not ignorance, but rather the illusion of knowledge.”
With Mercury about to station retrograde October 4th, this is the ideal time for me to deliberately relax my grip on certainty, check my reality compass and make some room for discovery.
I’d like to share with you something of my respect for disillusionment – the loss of illusion. Discovery is an essential part of any plot, from clues in a murder mystery, to trust (misplaced, real or withheld) in a romance, geographic exploration in an adventure, or finding inner strength in the Hero’s Journey. While the need for profound discovery is always present in our stories, the context for the discovery is infinitely changeable.
Perhaps the first important variable is the protagonist’s own attitude toward discovery. That could be the beginning of his character arc: he may believe he doesn’t need to change, or that he is self-sufficient. He may believe a situation is hopeless. He may believe he is not worthy of love. Discovery is where the story gets really interesting!
An altruistic young person, full of optimism and naïveté, might believe that his altruism is a good thing, and should never change. He approaches the world of commerce as if everyone were as honest as he is. That person soon finds out that altruism, if it is to be a kind influence in his life must be tempered with realistic caution.
While I rhapsodize about the profound value of cognitive dissonance, I don’t enjoy the pain and sadness (or embarrassment!) I can feel when a cherished belief proves to be false. I believe emotional pain is probably the worst teacher of reality – certainly one of the harshest. The problem is that so often it’s the only teacher left to us because we’ve rejected kinder ones. We can be so damn stubborn about what we’re certain is true.
When faced with a discovery that disrupts his personal view of reality, a character can stay focused on his lost belief or welcome his new knowledge. This is great material for the character arc, because the transition is seldom easy, in novels or in real life.
In the case of Shepherd Bucknam, the protagonist in my new novel The Companion, disillusionment is a great but pain-inducing ally, in two particular instances. When the story begins, he doesn’t see any need for him to change. Privately, he carries a bitter disrespect for his dead alcoholic mother, believing that she didn’t really love him. He is also afraid that a recurring nightmare foretells his violent death.
In both these matters he discovers that what he thinks is true is not true at all, and the shock of discovery opens him to new experience and real growth as a human being. What happens next? Well, you’ll have to read the story to find out!
And I sincerely hope you do…
An earlier version of this post appeared first on Tara Lain’s blog.
Since Friday I’ve had interviews and articles posted on fellow author blogs, part of my effort to get the word out about the release of The Companion.
Thinking that some of those posts might be interesting to you in the meantime, me and my 500-lb gorilla marketing buddy are sharing the links to a few of them.
Thanks to Raine, Vastine and Tara for hosting me on their blogs.
It will probably be a while before enough reviews come in to give me a feel for the book’s general reception, but The Companion already has two reviews so far, with others scheduled to appear later in the week. Here’s the first, from Portia de Moncur at MM Good Book Reviews. Thank you, Portia! My gorilla thanks you, too!
Another interesting and very different review is at Sinfully Sexy Book Reviews, where I also do a video reading of a scene from The Companion. Hope you check it out!
Well, I’ve got a great cover, an interesting (I think, anyway!) story, promotional blog posts organized. Hopefully some review sites will pick up the book and say nice things about it, causing millions of eager readers to buy their own copies.
I’d like to say that the project is now out of my hands, but in current-day publishing the burden of ongoing publicity sits in the author’s lap like an eight hundred pound gorilla, and he’s there for the life of the book.
Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration. More like a friendly five hundred pound gorilla, very into hugs, sharing bananas and checking my hair for lice. For me the gorilla, friendly as he is, takes a lot of attention and energy, even for me just to keep breathing. Five hundred pounds is a lot, and I’m not a big guy.
I know it would be more social of me if I checked him for lice, too, but that’s still beyond what I’m prepared to do for book promotion. Just one step beyond checking for lice (and eating what you find, which gorillas expect) is doing drag karaoke with smudged mascara in a seedy bar at closing time, hoping someone will invite me to go home with him. I cling to the tattered shreds of my self-respect as it is… But I do share bananas with my gorilla. What can I say, it’s a start.
The only things that really are out of my hands are making word changes to the story, and whether people will like the story or not. There’s not a single thing I can do about those things. I’ve got twitter and facebook all primed, and most of my guest blog posts written. But right now all I can hear is — silence. As if I’m waiting for a storm to hit. Or maybe a movie deal! Uh-huh. In the meantime, it’s just me and my gorilla, hanging out, being friendly. I’ve got one banana left, and we’re probably going to have to share it before the first review comes in.
I should be patient about this. After all, the book took over a year to write, and then from contract to release was another seven months. But I’m fresh out of patience at the moment. Right now I want an avalanche of enthusiasm and gushing reviews to pour in on me and my gorilla friend, generating enough sales to keep us in bananas forever. Or at least until the next book is out.
I know there will be more rounds of publicity, more tweets, and hopefully a bunch of positive reviews. But right now it’s the middle of the night — 1:00am on the 23rd — with hours of darkness before the New York Times lands on my doorstep with its glowing review of the book, its crafted prose smooth as silk and oh, so clever in restrained, literary one-upmanship that lets everyone know they’re just a notch or two below the Gray Lady’s standard vocabulary. The review will be above the fold. Of course.
I’m not holding my breath for that. Or to be more accurate, if the five hundred pound gorilla in my lap actually allowed me to breathe, I would choose not to hold my breath. As it is, that’s already been decided for me.
Fellow author Jamie Fessenden wrote a very thoughtful post on his blog recently, about women writing M/M romance, which you can find —here—. It’s well worth reading and thinking about.
This is an issue that has arisen on discussion loops and author blogs for years, often in some combination of complaint, disrespect, snark and defiance. Recent posts on the topic are less strident, I’m grateful to see.
I really appreciate Jamie’s approach, since it offers real commentary, and avoids the outraged “Women don’t write us right!” or “I write werewolves, does that mean I have to be one to write authentically about them?” arguments, both of which which basically miss the point.
“Who the heck is this ‘us’?” this particular gay man asks. The diversity even just within the European / North American gay male demographic is too fabulously far-ranging to function with an individual spokesman. And with werewolves, an author can make up their behavior to suit any whim. It’s a more complex issue when writing about a gay man, since, you know, we actually exist.
Frankly, I’m relieved we’re getting beyond the “You can’t do it right!” vs. the “Yes I can!” arguments because they’re neither helpful nor relevant.
I don’t think anyone disputes that women can write great romance stories featuring gay male characters. They shouldn’t, anyway, since it’s so very obviously true. So what’s the real issue?
Is it that MM romance stories written by men might be a little different from those written by women? When I read one of our stories, sometimes the gender of the author is obvious to me, and sometimes I couldn’t tell if you paid me a fortune. (And if you offered to pay me a fortune, believe me I’d try. I’m an author, after all, and need the cash.)
Just as there are significant differences between one author and another of the same gender or orientation, so also there are significant differences between female and male authors. Why is that a bad thing? I see that as something to celebrate. It means we each can bring something new to our stories if we take the time and effort to do it.
I accept that Fessenden is right in seeing current MM Romance as an extension of its origins in slashfic, but speaking personally, I want our genre to continue evolving into one offering more satisfying emotional depth than slashfic. The baby is growing up, and the evolution I feel coming will require MM stories written by authors of every gender identity and sexual orientation.
I also agree with Fessenden’s observation that while MM romance might be about gay men, it doesn’t really belong to gay men. In fact, I’ll hike out farther on that limb — the genre doesn’t belong to either women or men, regardless of author or reader demographics. It belongs to whoever has compassion and respect for gay men and how we love.
Stating the obvious, women and men are different from each other — completely different emotional, psychic and psychological creatures. I personally believe those differences are stretched more along a shared continuum than isolated into two separate camps, but using John Gray’s simplistic analogy, some men are from Venus, and some women are from Mars.
Even though it doesn’t tell the whole story, there’s some value to looking at a bell curve. The trouble with focusing on exceptions is the same as the trouble with anecdotal evidence. Whatever general observation might be offered, no matter how rational and relevant it might be, it can be contradicted by recounting a single exception. “Well, I know a woman who…” or “I’ve known a man for years who…” That creates a logical impasse that prevents us from exploring what I see as an important and necessary evolutionary threshold for our genre.
Still, there are some fundamentals that are inescapable. Research indicates that a female’s brain matures faster than a male’s, which takes until about age 25 to get there. One of my criticisms of many current MM stories is that they’re essentially YA or New Adult stories, even if the main characters are over thirty, because they behave with the emotional maturity of a 22 year-old. That makes the story New Adult, as far as I’m concerned. YA and NA stories are an essential part of our genre, but what’s the point of having a New Adult story featuring two 30+ year-old males?
While chronologically mature men sometimes do act in immature ways, painting male characters over 25 as having little more than 20-something communication skills, insecurities, angst, values and behavior pushes me out of the story, becomes boring to me, and maybe to other readers. I’ll go further and say it’s insulting to men in general to portray a thirty-five year old man with the emotional IQ of a twenty year old — unless he’s psychologically puer aeternus and that’s the key to his character arc.
Of course such chronologically mature/emotionally immature men exist, but their frequent appearance in our stories raises a question for me — why would any author repeatedly write such characters? What’s the message in that? Is it a form of sexism, saying that’s what men are like? I hope not.
I suggest mature masculine psychology offers terrific material for MM romances, and is seriously under-represented in our stories. I believe that writing main characters emotionally older than 25 will force us to address the depth and complexity of the mature masculine in our stories. The downside is that an emotionally mature male character might take more work from the author to realize than opting for some familiar character shortcuts to emotional conflict that are plausible for an immature protagonist.
Ultimately, generalities prove insufficient in any real conversation, but there are any number of scientific studies that shed light on important psychological and emotional differences between women and men — the way we process images, grief, anger, forgiveness, sexual energy, relationship. Some differences might be cultural, others intrinsic to our basic sexuality. In some ways it doesn’t matter — they’re all important and wonderful. Diversity is a good thing!
If those differences are real and important and good, why then should the majority of gay protagonists feel the same way about trust issues, monogamy or marriage as the majority of straight women? Why should the familiar tropes of het romance dominate MM romance? Why should the story question, “Does she dare open her heart to love again?” be automatically translated into “Does he dare open his heart to love again?” Why should a gay man’s HEA look like a straight woman’s?
I’m not saying they can’t be the same — they certainly can. But isn’t there also room for more than that? What else might they look like? Let’s get adventurous! Some authors will dismiss these questions with the observation that this is how it always has been, and what “the market” demands. Those voices have every right to be heard in this discussion, but I personally don’t believe those voices are on the side of evolution.
I believe that MM romance is on the wonderful threshold of an evolutionary leap. Evolution is risky, however. The troublesome thing about change is that it brings change. I feel growth coming!
One of the most common impulses in a person who encounters unfamiliar diversity is to look for the common ground. In discussions of gay romance that’s led to remarks like, “gay men are just like other men except that they love men instead of women.” We’re not. Please accept that. Believe me, a man of some race other than Caucasian is NOT interested to hear, “You’re just like a white man except for the color of your skin.” That approach, while probably well-intentioned, is ignorant, and profoundly insults our differences.
In the most useful diversity training I’ve taken, I was instructed to first honor the differences just as they are without trying to smooth them down into comfortable common ground right away. There’s plenty of time later to find the common ground after the differences are acknowledged and at least partially understood.
The practice is first respect for the difference, and second for the gifts that the difference brings. That’s much harder work than the more naive (but usually equally well-intentioned) approach of claiming that we’re all the same. We’re just not.
I attended a writing workshop a few years ago with about ten other authors. During one session, the instructor gave each of us the same group of characters, same character agendas, the same setting, the same external events and conflicts. He had each of us write the scene, and later we read them aloud. Each one was completely different. I mean completely different. It was a revelation. I can’t write the same as my colleagues even if I try, and the same is true for every author.
In his post, Fessenden raises the startling question as to whether men can write MM romance. Of course they can. There’s a long list of wonderful male MM romance authors to prove it. Their stories aren’t — and shouldn’t be — the same as romance stories written by women authors. Is it politically incorrect to admit that the differences exist? It’s time to acknowledge and appreciate the differences for what they are, without bickering over which is “better” or “more real”.
So I’ve referred more than once to some looming evolution in our genre, and I feel obliged to get more specific about that. After all, I see it already occurring in the work of many authors I respect and follow.
I see us moving toward thematically deeper characters and varying-themed stories, moving away from slashfic-like work where a handful of familiar tropes, keywords, gimmicks and memes stapled to a slightly modified plot could pass muster. Every author has done that. Even though I’m still fond of it, I’m grateful my first book (a swords and sorcery effort) is out of print!
I see us expanding the parameters of romance beyond the rules inherited from het romance with its overwhelming emphasis on the story of deliriously happy monogamous dyads fading to black before the arguments about squeezing the toothpaste tube in the middle begin. Not abandoning all the ground rules, necessarily, just expanding our scope. This also is already happening, through a healthy variety of authors.
I see us accepting that quality of story always trumps convention, and that well written stories with compelling characters will inspire most readers to enjoy the journey into unfamiliar territory. Those that take the chance, anyway.
Not every author will write transgressive romance, or even write chronologically mature protagonists. Not every author will write protagonists under 25. Each writer of each gender identity and each orientation brings something of value in her/zir/his best work, and one way or another it contributes to our genre’s evolution.
I believe this respectfully inclusive, “room for everyone” approach will take us forward into a fecund, more emotionally powerful genre than any of us can presently imagine.
I’m so thrilled with the cover art for The Companion, finalized this week with Paul Richmond of the Dreamspinner art department! Original art by Dan Skinner.
Shepherd Bucknam hasn’t had a lover in more than a decade, and doesn’t need one. As a Daka, he coaches men in the sacred art and mystery of sexual ecstasy all the time, and he loves his work. It’s his calling. In fact, he’s perfectly content—except for the terrors of his recurring nightmare, and the ominous blood-red birthmarks on his neck. He’s convinced that together they foretell his early and violent death.
When Shepherd’s young protégé is murdered, LAPD Detective Marco Fidanza gets the case. The two men are worlds apart: Marco has fought hard for everything he’s accomplished, in sharp contrast to the apparent ease of Shepherd’s inherited wealth—but their mutual attraction is too hot for either of them to ignore.
Shepherd swears he’ll help find his protégé’s killer but Marco warns him to stay out of it. When an influential politician is implicated, the police investigation grinds to a halt. Shepherd hires his own investigator. Marco calls it dangerous meddling.
As their volatile relationship deepens, Shepherd discovers his nightmares might not relate to the future, but to the deadly legacy of a past life—a life he may have to revisit before he can fully live and love in this one.
The premise or underlying story argument (for those writer friends who love premise as much as I do) is “Courage leads to self-knowledge and love.”
So yeah, it’s a love story, with a little more on-page sex than my recent stories, but that’s in keeping with the protagonist’s character, his work, and how he experiences the world. It’s also inescapably mystical, as well as a murder investigation. A trusted critic and friend told me it was my best work to date, and I’d love it if that were true. Unfortunately, I have no way of telling on my own, although I think there’s more polish to the story than previous work. I try to learn something with every piece I write… I feel I learned a lot with this one. I think you’ll enjoy reading it.
The Companion goes on sale around the end of July. Pre-orders will be possible in a couple of weeks. I’ll supply the link when that happens.
So — picking up from Part One: a straight hero grows up in an automatic level of belonging—whether it’s the idyllic Shire, or some other culture in which the hero belongs to an identifiable majority—that a gay one does not. But there’s a great and powerful gift inside the pain of not belonging: it sets him free. The gay hero does not owe the same psychic allegiance to the heteronormative world and its cultural conventions that a straight hero does. He sees the culture in which he lives through a very different lens. As a result, he understands the familiar world from a perspective that is ideally equipped to bring outside-the-box thinking for change, insight, compassion and creativity. But it takes courage to do it.
In boyhood most gay males learn to be shape-shifters, which in itself is another kind of separation from the world. Generally speaking, he learns to appear to be something he is not and becomes highly skilled in the performance. This psychic fluidity is a double-edged sword, both strength and weakness on his journey. For him there are few identity absolutes. He’s likely hyper-vigilant in situations involving power or risk, and often he can adapt faster than his integrity can process. This is why coming out is still the single most powerful act a gay man can undertake. It’s an unretractable declaration of his true identity, from which there is no retreat. After that, his developed skill at shapeshifting can be put to other uses.
In the lingo of the hero’s journey, shape-shifters are usually presented as being ambiguous or unreliable, probably untrustworthy, possibly amoral or even dangerous precisely because they don’t owe the same psychic allegiance to cultural convention. (As an aside, I believe it is precisely this inherent and palpable lack of investment in the status quo that frightens social conservatives.)
How does that contrast with the usual characterization of a straight hero at the beginning of his journey? A straight hero is rarely shown first as a shape-shifter unless he’s a con man or a secret agent. He is often emotionally reliable, if not responsible. He might start out as an arrogant jerk, but he is also shown to be innately good. The storyteller is sure to have him “pat the dog” in some important way. We don’t even have enough examples of gay hero’s journeys to argue a clear distinction on this point, but hopefully the stories we tell will add to the conversation.
The gay protagonist must find an internally congruent, authentic way to belong in the straight world when he returns. That’s essentially what a gay hero’s first great journey is about. You may be writing about a subsequent journey for him, based on the place in the world that he’s already found, but the emotional echoes of this first journey, of belonging—still as an outsider, but now an outsider who belongs—will resound in whatever transformative adventure he undertakes, and the fears he faces on his journey might well reflect that.
For further reflection on a gay protagonist’s outsider status before he begins his journey, here is an interesting list of ways in which a gay man can be reminded he is an outsider.
I believe this list was compiled in 2002. Today some of the bullet points are not as relevant as they once were, but most still pertain.
There is one item not on the list, one that stands behind all the rest—a gay man belongs to an irrevocably permanent minority. A gay hero’s journey must in some way bring him peace with his original discovery of being unlike the majority of people around him. He may not always be highly visible, and he may not always be welcome—but if he survives his journey and returns with his life-nourishing gifts, he is always immensely powerful.
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Again: I wrote this piece focused on a gay male hero. I’m not seeking to speak for all gay men or make broad generalizations about what makes us tick, but rather to point to certain influences that might well have a bearing on a gay male protagonist separating from the world as he prepares for his journey. Further, I deliberately did not seek to expand my consideration to include LBTQ people. I’m not qualified to speak to their journeys except in the most purely archetypal sense. I look forward to reading—and learning from—contributions from those who are.