This post is a continuation of On Writing and Identity, Part 1 (pretty obvious, that). If you haven’t read that, you might want to. [Note: in this post, when speaking in generalities, I use the pronoun “he” or “him” to avoid the awkward “she/he/it/they” construction that is more inclusive. It’s a matter of semantics and style. I have no wish to exclude anyone.]
Bringing this back around to writing, as promised. I made it clear in the last post that I’m female. I also made it clear that I write a lot of first person from inside the heads (so to speak) of gay men. How can I do that?
Let’s take a look, a good look, at the photo (which I think is amazing, BTW, as is much of Joan Crisol’s work, and yes indeed, I received permission to do so before using it). That’s pretty obviously a guy on the stool, yes? And a danged attractive one at that. Very masculine, lots of brio contained in that leather.
OK, now look at the shadow. See that? The shadow is ambiguous. Could be a man, could be a woman. If the camera had been placed so that all we see is the shadow, it would be hard to know, wouldn’t it?
And that’s what writing outside of one’s gender is like. The model — the writer — isn’t ambiguous as far as gender goes. (We’ll leave aside orientation.) The shadow he casts — the story told by the writer — is so ambiguous as to gender as to make it impossible to be certain.
Some examples from my own work. These are all the openings of the longer pieces they’re excerpts from.
The first is from a short short (under 1000 words) titled “Sharisa”. Can you determine the gender of the speaker, the “I”, just from reading this?
It’s all in her eyes, those molasses-covered-coal eyes. The wisdom of the ages, the freshness of tomorrow; the madonna gentleness, the succubus fire. And what her eyes don’t say, her lips behold, full, kiss-slicked as they wait for more. Her cheeks are velvet heaven for trembling fingers, cheekbones angel-winging toward the meandering curves of her delicate ears. Sunlight glints from the hoop of dangling gold that would swing and bobble if she moved. Amber and myrrh take their fragrance from the bliss held willing captive by the hollow of her neck. The ranked rows of her wrap, marching wisps of cream floating atop her mocha skin, almost cloak the slopes of her breasts, the dip of her back, the rise of her rump. She stands, just so, that perfect cheek resting against the tree limb she caresses.
It’s impossible not to want her.
I don’t even pretend anymore. It’s been months since I stopped telling myself little lies about beauty’s siren call to the artist in us all. I didn’t believe me anyway.
From a flash fiction (under 300 words), titled “Del”.
He was the boundary. Demarcations seemed to aggregate around him, iron filings to the magnet of his being. Sky on one side, land on the other. This to his left, that to his right. “On” nestled beneath his head, “off” snuggled to his feet. Cold dry air from the Plains meeting hot wet air from the Gulf, and where they did, the storm of him.
God, he was magnificent! Long lean line of muscle draped carelessly over discarded bones, but then he moved and careless drape and discarded bone became polished consummation of design. The splotches of reflected color across his arm, chest and face were a swift museum exhibition of modern abstract art.
“Come here,” he demanded and I, suddenly witless, obeyed. “I want it.”
Another, this time from a flash fiction (right at 500 words) titled, “Hellway”.
For the gateway to hell, it didn’t look like much. I’d have expected such a thing to look more … I dunno, impressive, I guess. Demons and gargoyles and flames. I kept looking for them, glancing back to check for a sneaked-up imp with a stiletto yearning for my kidneys. Or more likely, his elder brother, sharpened eyes wide as he snicked out his claws to slash a tic-tac-toe board on my soul. I would have laughed at myself for thinking such things, except I know better than to laugh at death-dealers and soul-stealers. What was that saying years back? Been there, done that, have the scars to prove it.
The closer I got to that door, that door for a toothpick giant, the more attention I paid to the curling smell of damp that I knew had set up housekeeping somewhere along my olfactory nerves, determined to leave only when I threatened it with scrubbing the bathroom down with straight bleach. Damp. My grandmother’s cellar, full of jars of pickled peaches and crabapple jelly. There would be no shelves filled with gleaming glass through this door. Or if there were, the glass would hold pickled freedom and blood-gut jelly.
OK, what did you think about “I”‘s gender (geez, that’s hard to punctuate!)? The voices are different in each. In “Sharisa”, the speaker is female, which is hinted at later, through snippets about her occupation. Yes, she’s attracted sexually to Sharisa (she’s looking at a framed print, which also is more apparent later). OK, I’m a woman, so that’s not a stretch.
In “Del” the speaker is male. His name is Vic. He’s Del’s bedmate. I wish I could say “lover” but that’s not the relationship they have. Is there anything in that excerpt that makes you think “I” has to be a woman, or that the writer has to be?
“Hellway” is a bit different. In the other full stories, the gender of “I” becomes apparent at some point. “Hellway” is ambiguous. There’s no way to tell anywhere in the story whether the speaker is male or female. Frankly, I don’t even know myself. I kept thinking, as the story unfolded, that I’d get a feel for one or the other, but it never happened. And it doesn’t matter. The story works even though we don’t know the speaker’s gender.
If I’ve done my job well, the position of the writerly camera, if you’ll indulge the metaphor a bit longer, emphasizes not the writer-model, but the shadow-story in each case.
But how do I know what it feels like to be a gay man? You might call it research; I call it life. I’ve watched a fair amount of gay porn, for one thing. More importantly and much more helpfully, I’ve spent a lot of hours in the company of gay men, hanging out, working, discussing philosophy, religion and politics, watching craziness on YouTube — living in the company of gay men (and women). I’ve gone on road trips, hung out in bars, gotten tipsy (OK, more than tipsy), laughed, cried, shouted, argued with, and yes, even been held close by gay men. (It’s a complete misconception that gay men don’t like women. The ones I know like women just fine; they just don’t get aroused by them.) I’ve developed relationships, in other words.
Relationships that are so comfortable that I can actually ask what sex is like for them, how they experience it. Why they’re tops, or bottoms, or versatile. If they could tell the difference in being with a man and being with a woman if the only sensory input they had was through their genitals. Exactly how one learns to deep throat.
Let me make two things perfectly clear: 1) my friends all know I’m a writer and what I write, and 2) I did not cultivate these relationships in order to do research. The friendships came first. Always. As I allowed myself the freedom to live more fully in the LGBTQQIA community, the dynamics of MM relationships began to be a topic I wanted to write about. I did not become part of the community in order to write MM. I write MM because I am part of the community. (If that raises the question for you about my own orientation, I’ll ask you why it matters. It’s not that I don’t want to answer; I’ll tell you. But I want to know why you want to know.)
If you write MM and aren’t willing to identity with the community (as an ally, if you’re straight), then perhaps the red flags and klaxons I talked about in the first part of this post should get your attention. There’s some us/them going on, probably on a subconscious level. Perhaps it’s time to take a hard look at your own motivations for writing MM. If you write MM because it sells or it’s trending, that, my friend, is exploitation. If that’s your motivation, great. I’m not going to judge you. But we all should be aware of why we write what we write. Otherwise, we’re not living the writing life. We’re reading it, one step removed from who and what we are. I love reading. But I want to write my life, not read it. I hope you feel the same way.
[Image credit: Joan Crisol, used by kind permission. Further work can be found at https://www.facebook.com/joancrisolphoto Many thanks, Joan!]