Some years ago, my dad visited my house for the weekend. He borrowed some books when he left—my dad was a voracious reader, always borrowing books. He’d say, “Read anything good?” and I’d give him a stack of whatever I’d enjoyed recently. He’d bring them back with dog eared pages, broken spines, and motor oil thumb prints.
I’d frown and sigh and grumble, but I’d give him another stack before he left. He was my dad, you know?
That visit, Sacrament by Clive Barker was among the books I sent off with my dad. I’ve enjoyed all of Clive Barker’s work, but Sacrament is probably my favorite.
My dad called me up a few days later and said, “What did you give me this gay book for?”
I was talking to my mom on the phone. I said, “We’re going to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
My mom said, “It was pretty good until they all turned lesbian.”
This isn’t about how my parents are bad people who find homosexuality offensive. They aren’t and they don’t.
It’s about how heterosexuality is so dominant in mainstream fiction, whether books or television or film, that having an openly gay character is seen all out of proportion and becomes the dominant theme.
I’ve read a lot of criticism of the portrayal of Tara and Willow’s relationship in Buffy—that Tara dying and Willow turning evil is punishment for having gay sex, even though sex is pretty complicated for all the characters in Buffy. They don’t have to be gay to end up evil, dead, or both. Way before Tara got killed and Willow went nuts, Angel had one little (heterosexual) orgasm, lost his soul, became evil, was stabbed by his lover and shoved into a hell dimension to be tortured for hundreds of years.
But Willow and Tara are gay, which, to some people, automatically makes everything that happens to them about being gay.
It’s not that being gay isn’t an important part of who a character is, but it’s only a part. To see a character only as gay, to interpret everything that happens to them as being about their sexuality, makes them into caricature.
The burden of creating gay characters not defined solely by their sexuality or based on stereotype and cliché is the responsibility of the writer. To look past a character’s sexuality and see their humanity is the responsibility of the reader.
I’m thinking about this a lot because I recently read Songs From the Other Side of the Wall by Dan Holloway, and I loved it. To me, it was a story about a young woman coming of age in a changing world, the conflict between east and west, future and past, dreams and heritage. Oh, and Sandrine’s gay.
And when I finished reading Songs, I wondered, who can I recommend this book to that won’t say, “Why’d you give me this gay book?” or “It was good, except for all that lesbian stuff.”
Dan’s writing is beautiful, his story is resonant, and I would hate to see Songs marginalized or dismissed because of who Sandrine falls in love with.