I recently was honored to have the opportunity to join in a book club discussion of my novel Angel, which tells the story of a male pastor whose career and self-image are challenged when he finds himself attracted to another man.
One of the discussion questions came from a gay man who wanted to know, “How do you know how it feels to be a gay man?”
The answer, of course, is I don’t. I can only imagine what it feels like to be in my protagonist Paul’s position just as I might imagine what it feels like to have children (an experience I have not had) or to be diagnosed with a life threatening illness or any other fictional situation I might want to write about.
When it comes to gender and sexuality it seems as though we get a bit distracted. There are many attributes that define any person but there are only certain ones that we tend to focus on as making up someone’s identity. We think of a man as a different category of person from a woman. We are less likely to think of, say, an extrovert as being a different category of person from an introvert. Or a nervous person as a different category of human from a calm person. Yet these are all aspects of a person that influence how they think and behave.
The fact of the matter is I don’t actually know what it feels like to be a “straight woman.” I don’t know if I am typical of that category or not. I don’t know if my heterosexuality is like other people’s heterosexuality or if my femininity is like other people’s femininity. I can’t claim to know how it feels to be anyone but myself.
It would be terribly boring, though, if I only wrote about myself. Believe me, no one would be interested in reading that. So I do what any writer has to do. I trust that I can combine my observations of what other people do and say with my subjective experience of thinking and feeling and use that material to tell the story of a fictional person. I know how I feel and I take the chance that feeling things is fairly universal. Being attracted feels like being attracted– not gay or straight attracted. Falling in love feels like falling in love– not gay or straight falling in love. Worrying about social status feels like worrying about social status. Fearing rejection feels like fearing rejection. Jealousy feels like jealousy, and so on.
As I pictured my characters, I saw them as different from myself and distinct from each other. The two main protagonists each had their own quirks and fears and passions and foibles. I did try to make them authentically men. For example, Paul is a gentle man. He is in a caring profession that is in what is generally considered to be the “feminine” sphere of spirituality. Yet when he is under stress he often reacts by showing his temper, snapping at someone and regretting it later. When the second protagonist, Ian, is brought to tears he instinctively tries to hide it. This is also something a man would be more likely to do than a woman. But as I wrote, I didn’t think about these things, I just thought about who Ian was and pictured the scene accordingly.
Had I done extensive research into how gay men as a group are supposed to feel, I think I would have been more likely to try to create characters that were meant to represent that research and be stand ins for all gay men. The result could easily have been a stereotype. Just as I do not know what it feels like to be a “straight woman” only to be myself, no individual gay man could possibly be typical of everything that is true of gay men as a group. That was the chance I took in writing. It is the chance that every writer has to take whenever she writes.
(This post originally appeared in March 2012 on author Jeff Erno’s blog.)