Essential differences in a gay Hero’s Journey – Part One
I’m developing materials for an online course to be presented this October under the aegis of the Florida Romance Writers, focusing on the differences in the Hero’s Journey for a gay protagonist. I’ve been fascinated by the Hero’s Journey since I read Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces as a teenager. It wasn’t until decades later–after I came out–that I became sensitive to the heteronormative overlays in the Journey as it was usually described. At first I was offended, but I soon realized that those overlays were perfectly appropriate for straight heroes, and that “somebody” ought to get busy and examine the differences for a gay male hero. So here are some comments about how a gay Hero’s Journey might present unique opportunities for a writer.
Now before anyone asks about other queer heroes (other than a gay male), let me beg those who are qualified to contribute to this body of understanding to do so. All I can do is speak what I’ve got to say, knowing that it’s not the whole picture. It’s just my part, and only as I presently understand it given my own evolution.
So with that out of the way, here is an initial commentary on the first stage of the Hero’s Journey, Separation from the World, the first part of two.
The first stage in the Hero’s Journey is often described as “Separation from the World.” In this post I want to focus on this part of the Journey, and on the profound differences that it presents to a gay protagonist in contrast to a straight one.
For any hero this Separation from the World can be represented as a moral restlessness, such as having an idealistic, seemingly impractical dream or some resentment at an injustice. Something isn’t right with the world, but the hero-to-be can’t exactly put his finger on the problem. Harry Potter lives under the stairs, living an unhappy, persecuted life—but it seems the best he can manage, given his unfortunate circumstances.
The Separation can also be sudden, although this usually combines the separation from the familiar world with the next step, the Call to Adventure (the inciting incident). The hero can be fired, or kidnapped. He can witness a murder. He can find a million dollars in his gym bag, and the story is off and running.
It’s tempting to slide over the more subtle Separation, what I called a moral restlessness, because current literary fashion insists a reader must be “grabbed by the throat” in the first five pages or the story isn’t worth reading.
But take note of one difference: the separating moral restlessness comes from inside the hero, who by then is already growing. His growth is creating uncomfortable pressure in his experience of reality. In the standard start-at-a-gallop story, Separation/Call is an external event that happens to an internally passive hero. The psychological richness of an internal driving force is lost, at least for the opening moments.
In writing gay protagonists, another temptation is strong—to make them just like straight men except for their sexual attraction to other men. After all, a gay man could find a million dollars in his gym bag as easily as a straight man.
Writing gay male characters as if they were essentially straight is a terrible disservice, not only to gay men and the distinct spiritual gifts we bring, but also to those who genuinely seek to understand us. It misleads everyone with a glib untruth.
So long as the action originates outside the hero, the author can probably get away with pretending straight and gay heroes are the same—for example, writing a gay paranormal “alpha male” just like a straight one. Maybe he’s a navy SEAL assassin wolf-shifter Krav Maga master who restores pre-Raphaelite paintings in his spare time. His persona is pretty much a construct of externals, except, of course, for his Great Wound. When writing the hero’s internal response to external events, however, the differences between gay and straight become unavoidable–and important.
When the gay hero’s sexuality, or some other core aspect of his internal life drives the story, Separation from the World takes on deeper meaning, because a gay hero is forced to separate from the world before puberty. He discovers he’s an outsider in the heteronormative world. The difference this makes to a gay hero’s journey is massive, and in this post I can only point to one or two of its facets.
The first difference is the most obvious. It’s so obvious it’s usually overlooked entirely, yet the psychological ramifications can be a rich resource when creating a gay protagonist about to go on a great journey: we are a minority. Even among our own race, our religious community, in our most intimate circles of beloved family, clan or kin, we are a minority. What’s more, we always will be a minority.
Nations will come and go, cultures will rise and fall, technology will change, but we will likely remain about the same percentage of any population. This is so significant that by itself it can provide the basis for a gay hero’s journey: he is different from almost everyone else around him, even in his nuclear family. I suggest that some element of a gay man’s Great Wound is “not belonging,” even if it’s a minor one.
What impact might this discovery have on a boy’s psyche, to understand that he’s fundamentally different long before he really understands what that difference actually means?
He might look for role models in the usual places. Will he find them?
“Within the typical secondary school curriculum, homosexuals do not exist. They are ‘nonpersons’ in the finest Stalinist sense. They have fought no battles, held no offices, explored nowhere, written no literature, built nothing, invented nothing and solved no equations. The lesson to the heterosexual student is abundantly clear: homosexuals do nothing of consequence. To the homosexual student, the message has even greater power: no one who has ever felt as you do has done anything worth mentioning.”
— Gerald Unks, ed., The Gay Teen: Educational Practice and Theory for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Adolescents, Routledge, 1995, p. 5.
Although citing this lack of role models might seem like a complaint, it’s not. In the twenty years since this quote was written, tremendous changes have occurred, and the gay teen is no longer a Stalinist nonperson, at least not by definition. But even when the day comes that gay teens enjoy full acceptance, respect and equality, they will still be in the minority no matter their culture. A gay teen will still have ten times the straight role models as those he finds wired like himself. The psychological ramifications of this one difference should not be overlooked when creating a gay hero: he’s an outsider long before the journey begins. And painful as that may be, that’s the way it should be.
Certainly, gay men should be respected and not persecuted. But the first great subliminal learning for a gay hero is this: This will never be my world. It belongs to straight people. I own only my own gifts and how I bring them—and this sets me free.