The main character of “Sweet by Design” is gay. Do I even have the right to ‘go there?’

August 2, 2010


My home office, not a “closet.”

My last post was a rebuttal of sorts to a comment made on this blog challenging my ability to create a gay main character in my new novel, Sweet by Design. I replied, tartly, that I’d been doing it for years, citing the campy Altoids campaign as evidence. They didn’t call it “curiously strong” for nothing.

Yet, the blogger’s challenge is a fair one. And damn intriguing.

A reader and contributor to this blog, Charletta Lynn Barton, an African American, provided great insight into the possible motive behind my heckler’s jibe. Actually, several comments on the post are worth reading. Another commenter, Bryan Carmody pointed out that straight actors have been portraying gay characters forever. And vice versa. Can you say, Rock Hudson? This got me thinking…

Many years ago, I had the pleasure of sitting next to Tom Burrell on a flight from Los Angeles to Chicago. Tom, as many of you know, is the founder of Burrell Communications, one of America’s first advertising agencies devoted primarily to the African American consumer. He is also black.

Tom Burrell

Among other things, I debated with him whether an advertising agency could (or even should) be an expert on African Americans in the first place. Was that not racism in reverse –that only black people can sell to black people? I was trying for idealism but probably came across as naïve. Still, I think in a perfect world a good writer should be able to understand and then write for any segment of the population. Including blacks. Including the opposite sex. Including gays. That’s the job.

His response was not surprising. “It’s not a perfect world. Not only are black people woefully underrepresented in agencies but they are portrayed incorrectly by them as well.” I’m paraphrasing Tom but those were his points and they were good ones. Still are.

Yet, part of understanding people from other cultures is to walk in their shoes. While that is not literally possible it is possible in literature. And art. And copy. Moreover, I think it’s critical we try and that we try to get it right. Empathy comes via sharing experiences. No other way. Writing is one of them.

And so I endeavored to be empathetic to gay life. I have that right. Maybe it’s even an imperative. We have a black President. We almost had a female President. And, if the current scholarship on Abe Lincoln is to be believed, we may have already had a gay President.

As my former creative partner, Mark Faulkner (who is gay) once told me: “It’s not a lifestyle; it’s a life.”

I invite you to read Sweet by Design. Did I get it right? And just as important, Is it a good read? Let me know. The story comes free. And I’ve added various interactive elements to make it more entertaining, including a design contest in which the winner gets an Ipad! Work has already been submitted, and, as fate would have it, by an African American: Sweet by Design (the first cover!)

My previous novel, The Happy Soul Industry

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6 Responses to “The main character of “Sweet by Design” is gay. Do I even have the right to ‘go there?’”

  1. Can someone from a different race, culture, of ethnic group convey a “message” from or about a particular group? Absolutely! All people are more alike than unalike. We all have the same basic needs for subsistence, love(receiving and giving), companionship, support, criticism, good health, and many more commonalities. I have often written about lesbian relationship, but I am not gay. I am a woman who understands the plight of womanhood. However, it is possible that a man could perceive things about a woman that she couldn’t see if it stood right next to her. There are people who believe you can’t understand issues in the black community unless you are part of the group. I have found this to be very untrue. As a matter of fact, many non-black dedicate lots of time and money to our causes. I believe they do it because they understand the humanity of all people. My neighbor who is gay said, “You always know when a neighborhood is coming to become trendy. Gay people always move in first. The artist come afterwards. Then, I always expect the pretty people to come in and stake their claims.” I happen to think he’s right. So, I think it is an honor for gay people and everyone else to have their experiences portrayed in any media. It was not so long ago that being gay was taboo. In the 1970’s and early 1980’s homosexuality was still considered a mental illness in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used by mental health professionals. Our global society has come a long way from those past days. However, I guess for some people that progress and acceptance will never occur.

  2. The question comes up because by assuming another group’s identity or voice, you also in meta form assume to speak for them and put a substantial piece of work into the world that represents them. It also brings about fears, both subtle and grand as to how another whom is not part of the intricacies of that subculture might portray, imply, and ultimately judge them.

    And though this may seem semantic, you are not writing ABOUT a gay man. You are writing AS a gay man, assuming the voice you have decided represents a character and a world.

    While irritating to an author, it is a fair question and challenge to pose. It has been done before, both well and horribly.

    The question ultimately is not whether you SHOULD write in another’s voice, but whether you CAN. And that is something only the work can answer, not the author.

    • SRP said

      Landis-

      As a gay person, your criticism and ultimately your advocacy of this story is greatly appreciated. Your distinction about me writing AS a gay man as opposed to ABOUT a gay man worth reflecting on…

  3. tracy said

    “We all have the same basic needs…”

    It would be fair to say though, that there are unique cultural aspects to different groups created by societal experience and external influences? And that might come into play in how you speak to those basic human needs?

    And understanding that is no different than understanding any other element to any other audience? Yet there’s this PC bit of clumsy self-consciousness that trips many of us up…and that we certainly don’t experience when writing for other audiences whose demographics are different than our own.

  4. Tracy,

    I cannot speak for every writer or artist. However, I can accurately convey the thoughts and actions of various groups of whose experiences I do not share. I am able to take on the “unique cultural aspects” of a murderer while I am writing, but I haven’t killed anyone. I’ve written as a man, Caucasian, Jew, Bigot, and several other characters and get it right. Every author puts a little bit of their personality into a tale. However, the willingness to understand the ways and means of others can bring author right on point – if they are willing to see and convey life from different perspectives. I have never allowed political correctness to interfere with my personal life or my writing. Yet, I absolutely understand your point.

    If you are interested in seeing what I am talking about, then check out my short stories at http://www.facebook.com/clynnbarton. Click the “Notes” tab and read the horror I can write without ever coming close to it. Give’ Serenity Beckworth’ a read. It is a tale about a white, lesbian, and deaf woman. I do not fit any of those profiles.

    Disclaimer: I am not attempting to advertise my fanpage. I want to show an example of potraying characters which haven’t been experienced a writer. It can see so real that people may believe it is NON-FICTION.

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