Note: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and should not be assumed to reflect the views of Deep South Voice or its affiliates.
They’re Just Not That Into Me
A dear friend recently confided that she does not read my books. She did this in an apologetic, gentle way, with no intention of being mean. “I’m just not into that,” she confessed, as if this were all the explanation needed.
I knew exactly what she meant by “that.” Most of my books feature gay characters. No matter how good my writing might be, there seems to be the impression that they are “gay books” and consequently not real books about real people dealing with real problems.
I also knew exactly what she was doing. She was labelling my books, then giving herself permission not to read them or take them seriously since, as “gay books,” they would obviously be of no interest or concern to her.
Labelling is a strategy employed to marginalize a minority community. Whether the gay community, the black community, the Muslim community, or any other marginalized group – transgender individuals, illegal immigrants, Mormons, fans of Miley Cyrus – if you can slap a label on it, you can successfully marginalize the voices coming out of that community. The label suggests that the concerns and points of view expressed in a novel or a film or any other work of art are of limited interest to the population at large.
Since my books are “gay books,” it is perhaps not surprising they are not mentioned in the local press. As “gay books,” they must be of limited interest to most readers. And even though I’ve published fifteen novels and a screenplay (which was nominated for a best screenplay award by the Thailand Film Association; I was also nominated for a Lambda Award for my novel “Bilal’s Bread”), it’s probably not surprising you’ve never heard of me.
This may also be the reason I sometimes have trouble setting up book signing events at local bookstores. When I mention that a book features a gay character, the tone of the conversation will usually change and I’ll be given a polite “we’ll get back to you on that.” For example, when I explained to the lady behind the counter at a local bookstore that the plot for “Shaking the Sugar” involved a gay single dad whose deaf son helps him find a boyfriend, she allowed as to how she wasn’t sure it would be “appropriate” and that she would have to “talk to the people upstairs.” Of course, I never heard back from her. Had I said the book was about a single mom whose deaf son helps her find a boyfriend, I would have received a much different response.
Labelling works both ways. I could approach a novel like “Oliver Twist” (or “Gone With the Wind” or “The Shining” or “As I Lay Dying”) and label it as a “straight book” and obviously of little interest to my big old gay self. You would laugh, and you would be right to. And I would be the one missing out on great stories and great writing and important discussions of issues that involve all of us. Just because Oliver Twist is a straight boy doesn’t mean he has nothing to say to me. His sexuality is not the point of the novel – and the sexuality of my characters is not the point of my novels. And just because Charles Dickens was a straight man does not mean that I’m unable to enjoy his way with words. On the contrary; he’s my favorite author. My life – and my understanding of the world – would be much poorer without Dickens.
My latest novel, “Raise It Up”, is a semi-autobiographical story about a boy growing up during the Cold War in a hothouse right-wing religious environment. He is surrounded by nutty conspiracy theorists who are convinced the world is about to end in nuclear annihilation. The narrator’s sexuality is just one fact of life among many.
Am I the only one who grew up during the Cold War and went to bed at night not knowing if I would wake up the next day? Am I the only one who grew up surrounded by religious extremists with their hell fire and brimstone approach to spirituality? Am I the only one who struggled to find my voice in an abusive environment? Am I the only child of an alcoholic who couldn’t understand why liquor was more important than I was?
I’m thinking no.
As a gay man who is also a writer, I also marvel that the fact of my sexuality is often the only thing people notice about my work.
“Raise It Up” is a No. 1 New Release on Amazon’s historical fiction chart for teens. It’s been riding high and doing well on several of their charts and generating a lot of glowing reviews, but slapped with the “gay book” label, my work is all too easily dismissed and trivialized.
And that’s the whole point of marginalization: to silence voices we don’t want to hear. This “not hearing” gives us permission not to examine ourselves and our conduct and to avoid uncomfortable questions. It allows us to comfortably demonize people we know very little about.
I submit that we will never truly understand what happened in Nazi Germany during World War II until we’ve read some of the accounts of holocaust survivors. Nothing brings home the reality of a situation quite like firsthand accounts.
I would also submit that we will never truly understand a marginalized group like the LGBT community until we read first hand accounts of their lives.
As a gay man in my fifties, I often marvel at the fact that while friends and relations have had so much to say (for decades now) about homosexuality and gay rights, not one has ever gone directly to the source and asked me what was going on. They had no problem making their views known to me, but these were one-sided conversations. I always found it odd that one could judge and condemn but never once bother to get the other side of the story. But that’s marginalization for you.
As a gay man who is also a writer, I also marvel that the fact of my sexuality is often the only thing people notice about my work. Were they to dig a little deeper, they would find stories about gay men adopting kids and creating families. (As a licensed foster parent in the state of Mississippi, I know a little something about that.) They would find stories of young people struggling to be true to themselves while navigating a confusing world. They would also discover that some of my books are not based on gay characters at all, such as my murder mystery series that features a Buddhist monk who solves crimes. The first book in that series, “Mindfulness and Murder,” was made into an award-winning movie which is currently available on Netflix.
There are all kinds of minority communities that are routinely marginalized and silenced in our society, and we do ourselves a disservice when we refuse to allow these people to speak for themselves.
If you think a gay writer has nothing to say about oppression, spiritual confusion, struggling with personally painful truths, about all the things that make us human – loving, hurting, coping, praying, despairing, having courage, speaking truth to power, just getting through the day with some small amount of grace and dignity – well, you might want to put a pin in that thought and think again. You may discover that we are far more alike than we are different.
You may purchase Nick Wilgus’ latest release, “Raise It Up,” on Amazon by clicking the link below.