On the value of queer writers

Don’t just ask us to be your token, or to speak out “as the gay person.” Just ask us to speak.

The world of writing has suffered from institutions neither understanding nor respecting the stories of minorities. We have only accepted these stories when reduced to caricatures. Alexander Chee writes of his first novel, Edinburgh:

“The submission process would go on for two years, and the book would be rejected twenty-four times. Editors didn’t seem to know if it should be sold as a gay novel or an Asian American novel. There was no coming-out story in it, and while the main character was the son of an immigrant, immigration played no part in the story. ‘It’s a novel,’ I said when the agent asked me what kind of novel it was. ‘I wrote a novel.'”

Alexander Chee, “The AUtobiography of My Novel”

Chee’s editor even asked him to withdraw the manuscript from submission. Only after Chee left his editor and found a new (Korean American) editor was he able to find success for his story. The Korean American editor read the novel and said, “It’s the story of my life.” But no one had cared to publish it yet. Chee’s story went on to receive multiple prizes and significant acclaim.

The great injustice of the publishing industry and the great insult to many writers was that every immigrant’s story had to be a story about immigration. And every gay person’s story had to be a story about coming out. Of course, the publishing industry’s perception was that Americans simply wouldn’t buy books by diverse authors unless their stories fell into certain narrative stereotypes. The industry doesn’t have sole responsibility for this pigeonholing. The American public shares the blame as well. Americans wanted caricatures.

Thankfully, we see a trend in the opposite direction. Right now, many in the industry want books by and about LGBTQ persons. And as happened with the increased interest in racial diversity, the interest in queer writers and characters has led to an increase in diverse protagonists with complex stories in literature. Some literary agents even beg for stories about gay characters that aren’t coming out stories or failing in love stories. Queer narratives are becoming so much more than these tropes.

We need these varied stories. As a society, we’re more and more aware of the need for kids to have access to books by and about people like them. As someone who works in retail, I’ve come to appreciate how seeing only white dolls on store shelves can lead little girls to believe that only white kids with blonde hair are beautiful. Kids need dolls in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Likewise, I want the next generation of gay kids to have all the books I didn’t.

We as a society benefit from diverse stories told by diverse persons. At the same time, I also worry that the growing interest in diversity can lead to tokenism. I once heard an Asian lesbian attorney shared that her law firm asked her to be on pretty much every committee. “I don’t want to be on all your committees!” she had said. “I have my own work to do!”

I hear organizations and events in my part of the world (conservative-ish Christian world) criticized at times for their lack of racial or sexual minorities. At times, when I’ve seen my name put out as a possible “diverse” speaker or participant, I’ve thought, “But I don’t want to talk about race! I want to talk about the stuff that all the white people get to talk about! And I don’t want an invitation because I’m brown! I want an invitation because I’m the shit” (which, to be clear, I am). Like Chee, I feel that being gay gives me a unique perspective on the world, but I don’t want that perspective to be reduced to a trope, a stereotyped narrative, or a token. But, unfortunately, we often have to pass through tropes, stereotypes, and tokens on our way to understanding.

Today’s major cultural institutions can’t avoid minority questions and characters. We want stories and perspectives, and we don’t want the stories to just be straight white people’s assumptions about what brown gay people are probably like. Of course, being friends with gay people can be helpful for straight people who want more realistic and representative characters. Your stories will only be as large as the worlds you occupy, so it benefits a writer to have a diverse set of friends.

As I’ve dug more deeply into the writing world, I’ve tried to think more seriously about that special interest in stories about gay characters that aren’t just coming out stories or stories about romantic relationships. And I realized that I had one! A couple of years ago, I started my first children’s novel, a story about a group of friends who discover a mysterious boy in a magical wood. One of the friends falls for him, in a way, but not as a romantic partner – the characters are all children, perhaps around the age of puberty but too young to be aware of sexual urges and desires. They have a relationship that blossoms through curiosity and friendly affection. The story isn’t at all about them being gay and, unless you knew the characters intimately, you wouldn’t necessarily know that they were.

Reflecting back, I didn’t mean to make them gay. It wasn’t an intentional marketing choice, or a desire to find identification with certain audiences. The main character was gay because… he was based off of me, and I’m gay. It’s just the world that he and I occupy. And the other character was gay because the story was, in part, a reflection of my own experiences. He wasn’t gay to prove a point. Being gay, and conflicts about being gay, weren’t central to his story or identity. Being gay in his life… just was. Perhaps this will change as he grows older, but that’s not what the story’s about.

This, to me, underscores the need for diverse authors. We don’t write stories with gay characters because we want the stories to be “about” being gay, or because we want to market for a specific audience. We write these stories, because these are the worlds we occupy. It’s just the space we live in and the air that we breathe. And no one else can quite understand it in the way we do. Don’t just ask us to be your token, or to speak out “as the gay person.” Just ask us to speak. Chances are, we’ll give you something you haven’t seen before. It’s just who we are.

Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops. 

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