In 2003, Allison Burnett’s debut novel Christopher was published. Since it features B.K. Troop, a gay protagonist, the editor just naturally assumed the author was gay as well.

But he was not, and furthermore, he felt very uncomfortable upon learning that he would have to keep his heterosexuality a secret. (His agent told him to do so, at least until the editor had committed to the second novel in the series.) After some rationalizing, Burnett agreed to go along with it. There came a time, though, when he felt compelled to spill the beans, yet luckily, there was no backlash: Burnett says his editor “could not have been sweeter and more understanding.”

By assuming he was gay, Burnett’s editor made an understandable mistake, because why, after all, would a straight man want to create a gay protagonist? Burnett explains his choice this way: “I wanted someone to narrate the life of a young, straight man in New York City in 1984, but I wanted the narrator to be deeply invested in him. …A neighbor who was in love with Christopher would fit the bill, but the thought of [the narrator] being an older woman did not excite my imagination. An older gay man did, as I had had many older gay men take an interest in me and my life in my 20s.” Burnett followed Christopher with another B.K. book, The House Beautiful. The latest in the series, Death by Sunshine, comes out in the fall. Burnett says writing B.K. has been “an effortless joy.”

Like Burnett, Lambda Award-winning young adult author Ellen Wittlinger (Hard Love) does not find writing about a different sexual orientation to be difficult. “After all,” she says, “I’ve written male characters, and I’m not male. I’ve written African-American characters and I’m not black. I’ve written characters who speak to God, although I’m not at all religious. … I don’t think writing outside of my sexual orientation is any more unusual than any of the other ways in which I stretch myself to understand the human psyche. …I will admit [though] I knew very little about what it means to be transgendered and I did worry that I wouldn’t get it right in Parrotfish [which features a transboy]. In fact, I would never have attempted to write a transgendered main character if I had not met my daughter’s friend, Toby, who is a transman. And I wouldn’t have written the book if Toby hadn’t agreed to let me interview him about what it felt like to grow up trans. The book doesn’t tell the story of Toby’s life, but it does make use of the feelings he described to me, the small incidents along the way that hurt or helped. Toby also agreed to vet the book for me when it was finished and in the end I felt it was almost as much his book as mine.”

My writing teacher, Rachel Sherman, has written about women who have female crushes in her novel Living Room and her collection of short stories The First Hurt. Her advice to other straight authors is to “write as if [you] are writing about any kind of love.”

Lynn Isenberg wrote a series of chick lit novels featuring bisexual protagonist Maddy Banks. (The latest of which, The Funeral Planner Goes Global, will be out this June.) Surprisingly, Isenberg based a good part of Maddy on several heterosexual roles Sandra Bullock has had. “The characters she’s played in While You Were Sleeping, Miss Congeniality, and Two Weeks Notice are akin to Maddy, who is [also] extremely ethical, can’t dress at all, and very bright, but rarely recognized for her talents and skills.” One of Isenberg’s happiest moments came when she received an email from a female reader who praised a scene in which Maddy expresses grief in front of her ex-girlfriend, Sierra. “It was one of those rewarding emails that made the risk worth it!”

There were other things that made the risk worth it as well: The Funeral Planner became the inspiration for a business, Lights Out Enterprises, and the experience of writing about Maddy helped Isenberg discover that she, too, is ambisexual. The power of the pen indeed.

Tags: , , , , , ,

9 Responses to “Can Straight Authors Write Queer Too?”

  1. 24 May 2010 at 12:35 PM #

    I think there a terrible (intentional) sense of irony that LLF is featuring this essay when its rules for the Awards demand an entry’s author be LGBTIQ. I’m getting mixed messages whether or not the Foundation supports non-gay authors writing queer titles.

  2. 24 May 2010 at 5:17 PM #

    LAMBDA award winner Andre Aciman (Call me by your name) is another excellent example. He’s heterosexual but wrote an extremely moving gay themed coming of age novel.

  3. 25 May 2010 at 11:00 AM #

    Although there are few comments on this original post. The Facebook response has been great. I’m happy to see authors/writers/readers so excited and passionate about this subject. Let’s just hope they will comment here in the future. – A

  4. […] Can Straight Authors Write Queer Too? The Lambda Literary blog considers the question. Speaking for myself, I am inclined to argue that limiting the characters anyone can write to those with whom they have something in common is a ridiculous and ultimately self-defeating exercise; the thing I love about writing is it requires you to understand the world from the viewpoint of persons (that is, characters) vastly different from yourself. It virtually requires the development of tolerance and flexibility in order to succeed. To say that one group is so beyond the norm as to be incomprehensible to those not of their ‘kind’ is perhaps an arguable point, but not one to which I subscribe. No human being can claim with any certainty to understand the experiences of another; they can only use their imaginations and intuition, and hope for the best. […]

  5. 4 June 2010 at 11:28 AM #

    I agree with Steve’s comment and would like to see more discussion about this. I’m a straight female writer working on a novel about gay men, and I’ve often wondered how to market this work, and whether the crossover will offend the very community I’m writing for and about.

  6. 11 June 2010 at 5:23 PM #

    I am a female and ,like Jendi , I have so far written two gay(M/M) theme and at the finishing stages of the third. Usually my characters are college students( I have been high school teacher and now I retired as a university lecturer).

  7. 6 March 2011 at 9:03 AM #

    Women, especially in Japan, love guy X guy romance, sexual or just love-love. &^ apparently men are aware of this, because it seems almost impossible t o find a shounen manga without really suggestive gay overtones that garner the series a heavy increase of female fans, though shounen is intended for boys. Gensoumaden Saiyuki was so gay it got a target audience switch. Anne Rice was good for it in her early days, but ruined her whole series when she went all super-religious. Then there was Mary Renault who wrote on Alexandros & Hepheastion in “The Persian Boy.”

  8. […] […]

  9. 25 September 2013 at 10:48 AM #

    I came here because I have a love story between two men, and was wondering if it would be okay to submit it to gay lit mags even though I’m heterosexual. After reading the comments i’m still not sure.

Leave a Reply

Please fill the required box or you can’t comment at all. Please use kind words. Your e-mail address will not be published.

Gravatar is supported.

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>