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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“Nice Altoids, Boys!”

In a honor of Gay Pride week I’d like to give the gay community a shout-out for their uncanny ability at predicting and/or creating trends. No group of people I know are as adept at predicting the future for fashion, neighborhoods and brands as this stylish minority.

Background: I grew up in the Lake View neighborhood in Chicago. During the 70’s New Town (as it was called) was vastly different from the bustling and trendy neighborhood it is now. Latin street gangs patrolled and regularly fought over turf in the blocks north and south of Wrigley field. The only time it was truly safe to traverse these troubled blocks was during home games for the then lowly Chicago Cubs.

Enter the first gay pioneers. Attracted to the housing stock and cheap rents, they saw something in the rows of battered two-flats and graffiti-ridden apartment buildings. Maybe it was the proximity to our lakefront or perhaps it was the closest to Lincoln Park their “kind” was allowed. Regardless, they arrived replete with big ideas and Donna Summer blaring on the radio. Window treatments went up. Gentry-fication erupted and never stopped.

I won’t comment on what kind of impact all this had on my adolescence. Watching two men go at it on a dumpster was quite a ‘slap to the cerebellum.’ More pleasant was the change to my scruffy, downright dangerous neighborhood. Within ten years Lakeview became one of Chicago’s darling neighborhoods -our little village. Without the collective intuition of my gay brethren none of this would have happened. Chicago owes them a debt of gratitude.

And so do many other phenomena, including the rise of numerous commercial brands. Absolut vodka comes to mind. This bit player became a huge phenomenon in American culture because of two things: a killer print campaign and the passionate following of gay consumers. They embraced the simple, clear bottle and the series of arty posters from TBWA, making both icons. For better or worse, disco music was gay music. John Travolta merely finished what countless other young men started. The same can be said for health and fitness. Working out was gay religion. Arnold’s movie, Pumping Iron, came out in 1977. The rest is history. And so on and so forth…

Indeed, watching the gay parade last week was like watching popular culture marching forward, the festive floats sponsored by countless forward thinking brands, and supported by a coterie of ambitious politicians. They weren’t there for the free condoms. They wanted support from the gay community. Same as all the sponsors.