On Writing and Identity, Part 1

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This started as a FB comment on a article in McVoices by Jim Murdoch, about gender and assumptions and identity, “An Honorary Woman”. It’s here http://mcvoices.weebly.com/jim-murdochs-blog/an-honorary-woman if you want to read it.

Many people are surprised that I write gay male erotica, ’cause I’m a like, girl, y’know? They ask, “How could you know what that’s like?” My comeback is always, “So Thomas Harris [the guy who wrote Silence of the Lambs] is a cannibal serial killer then?” “Oh,” they say, “yeah, I guess that’s right.”

Get that? They, that ubiquitous they, can understand that one needn’t be a murderer in order to write books about murderers, and even in some cases from the point of view of the murderer. It’s not a problem, to the point of not ever having even thought about it, for a writer to get inside the head of an psychopath. No white-coated doctor put Edgar Allen Poe under observation. (OK, maybe they did, but not because they thought he was walling people up in his cellar or had a collection of dead-but-beating hearts stashed under the floorboards.) I’m going to belabor the point: it never even occurs to people to question whether the writer of horror/thrillers is a killer in disguise.

And yet, let a woman write from a male point of view, or a man from a female, and suddenly people are all, “Wait, how can they do that?” like a gender that one is not truly is from another planet, or some weird creature that lives in the deeps of the ocean. Even in the excellent article Murdoch wrote, he’s careful to identify himself as a straight man, and stresses that fact. Stressing that he’s male, or as he puts it “a man”, in this context makes sense, since he’s talking about gender identity, people’s perceptions, and writing. Murdoch writes from both male and female points of view, and in the examples given in the article, in first person. (Meaning he writes as “I”, for those who may not be familiar with the terms used in writing.) So do I, but predominantly from the male point of view.

And therein lies the problem. (Not for me, but for some people.) How could I, a presumably straight woman, have any clue what goes on in the male head?

Why is it always issues of sex and gender that confuse us? Nobody asks me how I could write, in first person, from the perspective of a psycho killer (and I have, in more than a few short stories), or a child, or a person who’s had a stroke, or the multitude of other characters whose identities I’ve assumed in order to write. But write in first person as two gay vampires and boy-howdy, I get questions and raised eyebrows.

Why? What is it about gender, sexual identity, and sexual orientation that scrambles our neurons to the point we ask questions we didn’t even think of asking about other issues? Are we so rigidly nailed (you’ll excuse the expression) to our own concept of what it means to be born male or female, gay or straight, that we can’t imagine shaking that loose in order to write?

When I see that kind of rigidity, in myself or in others, little red flags pop up and there’s a hint of a klaxon in the air. That kind of rigidity usually signals a bit of prejudice, recognized or not. Please understand, I’m not pointing at Murdoch. I suspect from what I’ve read, that he harbors not an ounce of conscious prejudice. I applaud his use of the distinction between gender and sexual identity, in fact. I’m generalizing, because it’s an excellent and well-written article and as such, has made me think. (Dangerous stuff, that thinking.)

Prejudice, and its derivative, homophobia, can be conscious or unconscious. Those of us of a certain age will remember in the times surrounding the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s and 70s, some “liberals” (code for those who opposed segregation, among which number, I was) could at times be heard to say, “Some of my best friends are Negroes/black/African Americans.” Whenever that was said, some of us raised eyebrows. If that’s true, the friends statement, why is it necessary to stress that fact? If they’re your “best friends”, why do you pay attention to their skin color? Unconscious prejudice. Deep-seated, unrecognized prejudice, a feeling that those of another race were somehow different in fundamental ways. Many of the people who made the statement were honestly working very hard to overcome the codified discrimination and prejudice that ruled in that time. They had no conscious prejudice at all. Many of them, again among which number I was, even recognized inculcated unconscious prejudice within ourselves and worked very hard to overcome that as well.

Today, there’s the statement, “Some of my best friends are gay.” Really? Why is it important to stress that fact? Why does someone even notice the sexual orientation of someone unless they’re considering bedding them? What does it matter?

It’s a sign of one of two things, one laudable, and one not so much. First, and laudable, is the deliberate identification with the LGBT, or more accurately, LGBTQQIA, community, the deliberate placing of one’s straight self on the side of the community. It is a statement of solidarity, and perhaps a bit of defiance: “Look, these people are just like me, which means they’re just like you, too, so take that, you ignorant….”

Laudable indeed, for it was through the alignment of the white community with the African American community that codified racial bigotry was eliminated in this country. (I am not so foolish as to believe that racial bigotry itself was eliminated.) Today, it is the alignment of the straight community with the LGBTQQIA community, that bold statement that we are indeed fundamentally the same, that will bring an end to codified gender/orientation based bigotry in this country. It is absolutely necessary, and for that reason, when someone who is visibly working hard to overcome bigotry and inequality makes that “best friend” statement, I silence that hint of a klaxon. From those allies, that statement is much needed.

From the others, the ones who seek the acceptance of those around them, those klaxons and red flags are well-founded. They are banners proclaiming, “Prejudice lives here.” It may well be unconscious inculcated prejudice, though that’s more likely the case among allies than among others. That statement says “I mark the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’.” It is by its very nature, divisive. Lines are drawn in the sand with that statement, and the non-allies who make it bear watching. Perhaps they see injustice and disagree with it. If so, watching them will make that obvious, and gentle tutoring should be effective in eliminating the offense that statement can be to the community. If that statement is simply picking up a costume to wear, if they are social chameleons, poseurs, that, too, will become obvious over time, and different tactics can be brought into play.

I’ll bring this back around to writing in a subsequent post.

[Note: “Inculcated” means a belief or viewpoint that has been subtly and persistently imposed by society (culture) upon us. We are all inculcated. It is impossible to be human living with other humans and not be.]

[Image credit: Bigstock Photos, original by kmitu, used under license]

About suzanawylie

Suzana Wylie is the not-very-pseudo pseudonym of Susan Wylie Wilson, because let's face it, there are lots of Susan Wilsons around, and as an author, I want readers to find ME and not the bazillions of others. I've been writing all my life - since I learned to hold a pencil anyway - and can't NOT write. Other people have to breathe to live; I have to write.
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3 Responses to On Writing and Identity, Part 1

  1. Diane Nelson says:

    Excellent post. I’m looking forward to round 2.

  2. Scarlet Darkwood says:

    Literature is a wonderful place to safely explore the dark sides of human nature, the transgressive, as well as the joyful moments and the painful. Nobody really gets hurt, and that’s why fiction entertains. It lets the reader suspend judgement and reality for a while, and if they can truly do that, go along with the writer and the story that’s been created. When I wrote my novel, I had to get into guys’ heads too, and if I had a hard time doing that at times, I either asked a male, or read the reviews of certain products reviewed by males to get some idea of how things felt or what something meant to them. It wasn’t that difficult. What’s the hardest, I’ve found is truly getting into your own head or deep within yourself, especially if you tend to like being one who keeps a stiff upper lip!

  3. Well said. The parallel with the Civil Rights movement is fully justified.

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