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.
I only have one thing to say:
Pitch it in Burbank.
Thanks for that suggestion, Sandy, but I’m so not ready for Burbank. I’m not yet ready even for my online course this October. It’s important encouragement to me that you think this is worth investigating further.
Excellent piece Lloyd. That the sense of separation exists within is something many of us have in common, straight and gay, but the way you portray the subtlety and the importance of writing with this understanding is outstanding. Thank you.
You’re right, Don – that separation has to occur for any hero, or he won’t undertake his journey. Part two gets a little deeper into this, but there are levels of “belonging” that are never threatened for a straight hero — at very least membership in the comfort of belonging to the sexual majority. These are the very levels that often represent critical risks for a gay hero. They also put the gay hero “on the outside” in ways that can seem threatening to those whose belonging isn’t questioned at the same depth. This multiplies the potential of a negative response from the status quo — and, it’s a gay hero’s strength, too, that he doesn’t owe the same allegiance to that status quo the way straight heroes do.
The gay hero has more options, in a sense, even if those options are available only to those who don’t belong. Shapeshifters aren’t always trusted or respected, but they are essential.
The essential differences in a gay hero’s journey is essential reading. I would not want to lose out on “The psychological richness of an internal driving force…” that is internally so different and yet so similar to my core values. At least the same subtleties are there for me and I have enjoyed all your books. Look forward to reading the next installment this summer!
So glad you’ve enjoyed my stories, Francine! I’m pretty much through the edits on The Companion with Dreamspinner, and should have a cover to pimp soon, as well as a release date which currently is just listed as “late July/early August”.
Thank you Lloyd for helping me realize just what a struggle I had in my younger days on my isolated personal journey. It seems for me, as a gay man who came out at 40 (married with children), spun me into a endless string of “heroes journeys!” YES!!! I continue to embrace that adventuresome man in me and love this deepening character as he steps further and further into the light…
Exactly, Rich! Every iteration of a hero’s journey gives a man new strength and consciousness. It’s the refusal of the call to adventure that makes him smaller and weaker.
In a world of assumptions and stereotypes, it is good to see your specificity regarding the inner life of a gay man. I have only guessed at the inner agony of isolation and sense of abandonment by the world. The courage it takes to stand upright and alone in the face of fear and ignorance touches me deeply. Please keep writing as I want to know more of this journey and that which precedes and accompanies it.
What a framework your strength provides. Whether straights know it or not, we stand upon this powerful framework as we find our way through our own journeys.
Lloyd, great post. I wonder too as LGBT become more integrated into society will we feel a separation from the world. As you point out, our percentage will not change, so the separation will always be there, but it will be buffered by how much our “world” separates us too. Fascinating stuff.
How did the class go? Are you thinking a book? or an Essay on this?