based on experience

Gay Characters, Authenticity, and Writing What You Know

I’ve been reading a lot of blog posts and a few interviews dealing with gay characters, authenticity, and stereo-types. And like all blog posts where authors are being interviewed, I found most to be safe and lacking fundamental information. I get this and I don’t blame them. Most either don’t know what they are talking about and they are winging it, or they don’t want to say anything that might offend anyone and hurt book sales. These days, it seems like everyone is campaigning for something.

The one thing I never see…anywhere in any form of the media…is that the LGBT community is probably one of the most diversified communities in the universe. Just look at LGBT: there are four different categories lumped into one group, and everyone in those four different categories is unique.

As an openly gay man, I base all my characters on my own personal experience. If you read about a grouchy gay man, with effeminate qualities and plucked eyebrows in one of my books, it’s not a stereo-type. It’s more likely a conglomeration of four or five different gay men I’ve known over the years. If you read about a gay republican attorney, with conservative values, who is well-educated, drives a European car, and lives for designer clothes, I based him on my own personal experiences through the many gay men I’ve know who are like this.

I rarely write about lesbians because I don’t know that many. But the lesbians I do know are either butch or lipstick. When I owned my gallery in New Hope, I remember a ninety year old lesbian who used to live in a grand old colonial house at the end of the alley where my gallery was located. We used to call her “Denny.” She and her partner owned an antique shop in Philadelphia for many years. Her partner was soft and feminine, but Denny was rough, level-headed, and masculine. Denny was an old guard Smith girl, who graduated from Smith during the depression. She wound up working at an all girls school in Connecticut, and then retired in New Hope and opened a lesbian book shop. She wore camel hair sport jackets, mens hush puppies, long sleeve shirts with button down collars, and corduroy slacks with cuffs. She had her hair cut at the barbershop and carried a pocket watch. Once, while she was talking to me and had her back to the gallery entrance, a man passing by asked her directions and mistakenly called her, “Sir.”

And I loved her. I used to listen to her talk about her Smith days, and how she gave up a career in advertising to work as a teacher in order to support her family. They’d lost everything during the 1929 crash, and wound up depending on her for the rest of their lives. And when her partner of forty years died, she lived alone in that big old house at the end of the alley until she was one hundred years old.

I didn’t see anyone like my old friend Denny mentioned in the interviews I read about authentic gay characters. All I saw was a bunch of garbage about love and being real and complexities. Blah, blah, blah. One blogger in particular thinks she knows it all, but doesn’t know jack shit. I guess if you talk about anything long enough, and do it with a slant, you actually start to believe it yourself…and you’ll get a ton of other people to drink the Kool Aide and believe it with you.

But for me, it’s more about basing characters on personal experience, through real people I’ve known, that makes them authentic LGBT characters. This is one of the reasons why I’m always open to any challenges regarding my characters. You can’t go wrong if you stick with the truth. And I don’t think you have to be gay to do this. I’ve read many excellent books by straight women who’ve nailed it. I just wish they’d start speaking up more. We need to hear their voices, because there are too many loud voices handing out some very bad advice.