This month I was reading online news about Barry Manilow coming out— speaking up about his long relationship with his husband, one that they hid for decades. They clearly made many sacrifices to stay closeted, from time apart, to necessary lies, to not sharing important public moments. And their story resonated with several of the books that I was rereading – starkly reminding me of the cost to all of us from society’s narrowness. How much we all lose, by treating some people as more acceptable than others. Both the cost to the people who are directly hurt, like Manilow and his husband Garry Kief, and the cost to the world.
Take Alan Turing – a guy whose brilliance was enough to help save Western society, but whose intellect was seen as so contaminated by his being gay, that the British government was willing to torture, break, and lose him, rather than admit a gay man had that much to offer. How many others, over the centuries, did we lose, to that idea that a person’s value is related to how well they fit the norm of society’s elite?
That applies to more than LGBTQ folk, of course. We lost the work of women composers and scientists, of people of color condemned to jobs and lives that fit them poorly, when they might have been doctors or mathematicians or teachers or painters. Of others scorned by the successful mainstream, and kept from ever showing their talents. And they paid the personal price.
For LGBTQ people, the losses from bigotry have an added dimension that’s not as obvious, tied to secrecy. To hiding. Every move made carries stress and weight, when coming out could mean losing your education, job, creative life, even freedom. And yet, unlike for most women, or people of color who were and are oppressed by social bias, hiding the LGBTQ and not coming out has sometimes been an option.
M/M is a good medium for helping people outside the community feel the impact of those less obvious costs. Our main characters let readers experience the internal and personal strains and hurts. The cost to a person’s heart, energy, and focus from keeping a double life, from lies and self-denial. The cost of pretending to be straight, or cis, knowing that everything gained from that pretense could be lost in a moment. Knowing that other people like you had failed to keep it secret, and paid. Knowing that something essential about yourself has to be denied, over and over, not three times but three hundred, three thousand, in words and actions and implications large and small. And the bitter, deadly, fatiguing need to watch yourself for slips, and take no chances without weighing the risk. The cost of deciding not to step into the dangerous light, over and over. In our books, we can show the harm that does, and how much it takes away from our main characters, and from everyone they interact with.
The people who think Barry Manilow should have “just come out” and that “no one would have cared” have very short memories. None of us have the right to judge anyone else for the choices they made, then or now, to share that part of themselves with an unaccepting world. And we have to wonder, how much did Barry, his family, and even his fans, lose by the lies and half-truths he felt compelled to live? How much of his time and energy went into the facade he created? How often did he and his husband debate, worry, anguish, quarrel, fear, and decide again and again that the time wasn’t right? How much love and time and music was lost in that battle? Unless he writes an autobiography, we may never know.
It’s a topic we see with wonderful clarity in some M/M fiction. I think our genre books are one way to broaden the understanding of readers who are not LGBTQ.
In Dead Ringer by Sam Schooler and Heidi Belleau, we see, through the eyes of his gay grandson, the fictional James Ringer, a brilliant actor of the Golden Age. A man who seemed to have it all, but whose life and work was deeply damaged by the pain of denying the love of his life. We’re reminded of the compromises and pressures on people whom the outside world saw as brilliantly fortunate and golden.
In Amy Lane’s “Johnnies” series, especially Chase in Shadow, we feel different kinds of pain of the closet. Chase can’t even admit to himself that he’s gay, because tragedy and the bigotry of his father made “faggot” the one awful, fatal thing Chase can’t be. He puts huge amounts of energy into making and rationalizing choices of all kinds, down to how he kisses his girlfriend, to not be that one thing his father hates. He’s a bright guy, thoughtful and kind, athletic, studying to be an engineer, and yet death sometimes seems better than being gay. How many Chases did we lose in real life?
M/M stories echo the real world. It’s been said that LGBTQ is the minority who most often face rejection by their very own families. We live the pain of the valedictorian violinist or cheerful athlete who goes from loved and college-bound, to selling themselves on the streets, in the sudden outlash of bigotry from their parents. In M/M we try to redeem those guys and give them hope. In real life, the teens who sell their bodies to survive far more rarely reach the HEA they deserve.
We can show readers the military men or women whose contributions to their country ended in disgrace, for something that had no bearing on their talent. How many strategists, medics, translators, leaders did our forces lose, for a policy of hate? And what about the collateral damage? The General and The Horse Lord by Sarah Black tells us about two very successful military men, one a pilot, the other who rose to become a general. They have a deep abiding love. And yet the long, secret hunger for a family, for a life in more than snatched moments, led pilot Gabriel to marry a woman he could never love as much, and have children with her. That family pays a price for being the second-best answer, the only legal answer for a man who could not be gay in the Armed Forces. How many wives (and husbands) and families suffered from the need for a beard, and the impossibility of true happiness when someone can’t be more than second-best in your heart?
Our books don’t have to be overtly political, to be relevant to the politics of today. All we have to do is tell the truth. Show the pain. Make those who haven’t experienced it, feel the pain, and just as much, the joy when it’s removed. Show the life and love and creation possible when everyone can walk openly under the sun. We have new anti-LGBTQ politicians rising into power— it’s more vital than ever to remind potential allies of the deeper, subtler and less obvious costs of bigotry, as well as the visible ones. And the value of acceptance.
I’m finding it hard to write these days. I see other authors say the same, overwhelmed by the cascading of real life disasters. But as I reread favorite books— as the talents of their authors immerse me in the cost of social prejudice to beloved characters— I’m reminded that stories change hearts and minds. So I hope we will all continue to write the books, ones that not only entertain and give people respite, but that also bring the political necessities down to the human, personal pains of men whom readers love. It’s still a job worth doing.