Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Trans Man Who Loved Me

Most of the stories I write are made up. This one isn't. This one's true.

A long time ago -- in the early '80s, to be more exact -- I lived in a resort area and worked at a country inn that had a casual but quite excellent restaurant. (See, this is the kind of job you end up with when you have a couple of useless degrees and decide the corporate world isn't for you.) One of the cooks was from a nearby city. He was a gay man, the one I mentioned in my post, "Don't Want No Corvette Cocks," at the Chicks and Dicks blog. I think I called him Billy. Two or three of Billy's gay friends would often visit him on weekends. One was, technically, bi. I'll call him Carl. He was rather effeminate and had a decided preference for men, but once in a blue moon he would crush on a woman. I became a member of that exclusive club. And, believe me, it was pretty damned exclusive. Carl figured he'd had about 500 male lovers and maybe 10 or 12 who were female. (HIV-AIDS hadn't yet, by the way, made a significant incursion into that part of the country.)

This resort area in general and the inn owners in particular were rather laid back and liberal. So Billy and his circle of friends had no real problem finding acceptance. Except for one buddy, Sal, who was a talented silversmith. He had a great sense of humor and was every bit as much fun as Billy's other friends. Problem was, Sal was perceived as a "bull dyke" instead of a man. Because he was born female.

Testosterone injections and sex reassignment surgeries were as expensive then as they are now, and a whole lot harder to come by. There was no way a humble artisan could afford either one. Public understanding was even more elusive. Not much press had been given to transgender persons.

When Sal became infatuated with me, I didn't know what to make of it. When Sal became jealous and resentful of my relationship with Carl (because Sal considered himself far more masculine -- and, in many ways, was), I became even more confused. In an attempt to understand, I visited Sal at his jewelry shop. We had a long and enlightening visit. It was the first time I'd heard anyone talk about being born into the wrong body, about feeling a severe and disturbing disconnect between his physical person and the one who was trapped inside him. I got it, though. His sincerity was impossible not to get.

Sal kept telling me, "Try it; you'll like it" (his exact words). He meant having an intimate relationship with him. The appeal left me dumbstruck. I was 75% straight woman and 25% gay man. That mix didn't allow for attraction to Sal. In fact, I wouldn't have been attracted to Sal, except as a friend, had he been born a heterosexual male. I didn't want to say that, though, because I didn't want to hurt his feelings. All I could say was, "I don't think it would work," and apologize.

It was an intensely uncomfortable situation all around. I had a mostly gay lover (and dealt with over-the-bar snark and scorn from one of my former straight-dude hookups because of it). I had a transgender "admirer" who was hung up on me and stared daggers at Carl whenever we were together. Poor innocent Billy didn't know what to do, since we were all his friends. I was guilt-ridden as hell and had no idea how to make any of it better. So I just rode it out.

Six or seven years later, I wrote a novel called Every Long Season in which there's a main character modeled after Sal. It was pretty good but pretty grim, and I never submitted it anywhere, because back then, nobody would have wanted it. In a way, the story was my apology to Sal for feeling his pain and not being able to do a damned thing about it except try to comprehend it. I couldn't change who I was any more than he could change who he was.

So what's my point? I guess it's this. Regardless of our open-mindedness and good intentions, we can't be everything to everybody. Guilt is pointless. We can (and should) be understanding and sympathetic and supportive, we can (and should) try to fight the good fight or help others fight it, but at some level we're immutable. We can't alter the essentials of who and what we are. From our prenatal lives onward, a host of forces shape us. Tastes and opinions can and often do change, but we can't simply morph from one mindset into another or replace an aversion with a preference because we or other people would like us to. And that isn't bad, unless it's . . . BAD. Like mean-spirited and destructive. Like abusive-partner and serial-rapist and mass-murderer and child-molester bad; like con-man and Somali-pirate and Westboro Baptist Church bad. However, if someone is simply trying to do the best he can with the hand he's been dealt, he's doing okay, as far as I'm concerned. It's all about the Golden Rule.

I couldn't help being reminded of this chapter in my life when Jessewave got thrown into the centrifuge. We writers and readers of m/m romance aren't narrow-minded numbskulls. Hell, we wouldn't have anything to do with this genre if we were. But we can't be everything to everybody -- no matter how warmly we embrace the rainbow in our hearts and, whenever we can, in our daily lives. That doesn't make us "stupid" or "juvenile" or "despicable." It sure as shit doesn't make us any kind of "phobic." And we aren't "oppressors." Lordie, people, think about the meanings of words before you start flinging them around like toxic confetti!

I wish there weren't so many blame-throwers around, so many self-appointed arbiters of righteousness. What the hell is with that? Do they think they can read our souls? I wish people who routinely got on their high-horses would fucking dismount once and for all. Can't all these sniffy, judgmental individuals see that most of us aren't shit-for-brains ignoramuses or evildoers? Can't they see we're not trying to hurt or disrespect anybody before they go into full-tilt, finger-pointing boogie mode?

Guess not. But it would benefit the human population a whole lot more if they targeted the true and frightening enemies of GLBTQ people. There are a Million Moms out there, for starters, to fuel their disgust.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Jackson and Adin . . . and Carny

Here's another excerpt from Carny's Magic (unedited)
coming June 12 from Loose Id.
Taking pity on Carny Jessup, the battered 19-year-old who wants to be his apprentice, the wizard offers to temporarily take him in. Carny is the narrator. He sometimes has trouble keeping his foot out of his mouth.
“You don’t have a place to go, do you?” Jackson asks.
“I can find one.” Yeah, maybe for a day or two.
I suddenly realize I haven’t thought this through very well. My acquaintances either don’t have the room to accommodate me or wouldn’t welcome the intrusion. Or both. I haven’t made a secret of being gay, so that could be another issue. My last resort would be a sex-for-shelter trade, but that kind of arrangement seriously rubs me the wrong way. As much as I enjoy nookie, I don’t like being expected to put out. Especially for some gnome with a sense of entitlement. Man, I’d feel like a drop-kicked piece of shit.
“So stay here until you find a place,” Adin says. “We have the room. And we obviously don’t have an issue with your being gay.”
I’m kind of flabbergasted. Call me a cynic, or a dreamer, but I’m beginning to wonder if they want to get some kind of ménage thing going. That harness I saw tells me they’re not a totally vanilla couple, and considering their ages (thirtyish to fortyish), maybe one of them has a hankering for a twink, even though I don’t see myself that way.
I’m not sure how I feel about this possibility. I mean, yeah, they’re both hot as hell, but—
“Something wrong?” Jackson asks.
Apparently my forehead’s been collapsing toward my nose. Only now do I feel it. “Uh…you’re not, like, looking for…” Fuck. How do I say this? “Do you kind of want…a third?”
Now Jackson’s forehead is collapsing. He stops chewing and stares at me. “A third what?”
Adin’s trying unsuccessfully to hold in a smile. “I think he means dick.”
Jackson swallows with effort. “Huh?”
Oh, man. Now Adin is snickering and Jackson is looking back and forth between us and I want to grab my faux-twink ass by the back of my pants and pitch myself out the door. “I maybe didn’t say that right,” I mumble. “I mean, I don’t…I’m just trying to figure out why—”
My throat seals when Jackson’s eyebrows hitch up, like he suddenly gets what I meant. “Are you serious?”
Adin rises from his chair to clear the table. He’s sort of bent over because he’s trying to contain his laughter but can’t. I get up too, mostly to pull myself free of Jackson’s color-shifting eyes. But they continue to follow my every move.
“You think we're looking for a playmate?”
He’s so incredulous, I now feel like a drop-kicked piece of shit that’s broken into a hundred little turdlets. So of course I get defensive and lash out again. “How am I supposed to know what you’re after? It wouldn’t be the strangest thing in the world for a couple of middle-aged queers to want—”
Jackson shoots up from his chair like a goddamn rocket. Dishes and silverware clink together. Good thing my hands are empty, because he grabs me by the shirtfront and literally yanks me onto my tiptoes. I’m five-eleven, so I’m no midget, but he’s got to be at least six-three. That gives him four inches of lifting room. His iron fist bumps the underside of my chin. Fucker’s got big hands and plenty of muscle to put them to good use. I wouldn’t be surprised if he battled demons by punching out their lights.
“You want me to mentor you?” he says in a low, graveled voice. It’s like a fine spray of grit hitting my eardrums. “Okay, here’s Lesson Number One: learn…some…respect.” He hangs onto me a few seconds longer.
I swallow, feeling my Adam’s apple bob along his knuckles, and eke out a nod. “Sorry,” I whisper. Forming the word feels strange to my mouth. I don’t use it often.
“FYI, we don’t want or need a ‘third’.”
Adin returns from the kitchen and gives me a reassuring pat on the back. “Believe me, Jackson has enough cock for two men.”

Friday, March 09, 2012

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Religion in Popular Fiction

Ever eager to acquire fodder for my still-kinda-new Kindle, I recently downloaded a free read titled Scream.  (You all probably know horror is my second fictional love.) The novel sounded promising. I didn't bother searching for reviews because, hell, it was free.

After downloading it, I did check its reviews. The book wasn't criticized for its premise or its bad craftsmanship. (From what little I read of Scream, the author's style was workmanlike and inoffensive, and the story's opening provided a solid hook.) Rather, the publisher was criticized -- for not informing readers upfront that this was CHRISTIAN fiction.

Whoopsie. But who would've guessed? It's classified as a horror novel, for crying out loud, and the cover clearly signals that.

When I saw one Goodreads commenter complain that the book "went born-again" halfway through, I decided to delete it from my Kindle. Evangelical testimony, regardless of the guise it's wearing, tends to trigger my gag reflex.

Still, this experience got me thinking.

First, I wondered if publishers should slap some sort of descriptive tag on "inspirational" fiction. (I hate that term, by the way. In my world, all good fiction is inspirational. And dogmatic fiction is rarely good.) Doing so makes sense. Many readers find such content objectionable, just as many readers find erotic or violent content objectionable. Granted, it's usually easy to steer clear of the inspie stuff -- either the blurb or the name of the house or imprint will alert you to it -- but, obviously, readers are sometimes fooled. Free or not, I would've been royally pissed if I'd invested any time in reading this book, only to discover it was a "Jesus Saves" tract.

What do you think? Would an alert be appropriate?

Then I started fretting a little over how my next release will be received. Religious faith is an integral part of A Hole in God's Pocket. What drove me to write the book (in addition to my lifelong fascination with human belief systems) was something I'd read online a while back, an opinion piece by a queer guy who lamented how the issue of spirituality was usually overlooked in queer fiction.

He was right. Authors don't hesitate to cast fundamentalist homophobes as villains, which is perfectly understandable and justified, but not many in the m/m romance genre want to tackle the importance of faith in the lives of gay men and the painful struggle that often results when orientation clashes with theology. None of the so-called Abrahamic religions -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, in nearly all their various sectarian manifestations -- takes a kind view of non-heterosexuality.

So I considered the difference between Christian manifestos disguised as fiction (the Left Behind series, for example) and religious faith as a theme in fiction. Although I still haven't breathed a sigh of relief, the difference quickly became apparent. The aim of evangelical writers is, essentially, to proselytize. Spreading the Word is part and parcel of their raison d'etre. But the rest of us, whether it's Marie Sexton or Andrew Grey or Shelter Somerset or authors of "literary" GLBTQ stories, aren't ideologues. We're simply trying to examine a significant and often troubling issue that shouldn't be ignored.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Book Lovers, Beware!

Interior of Collyer brothers' home, 1947
Last night's episode of "Hoarders" on A&E featured a Chicago couple so fond of books, they'd managed to accumulate hundreds of thousands of volumes (by one estimate, possibly more than 500k). Over the course of 40 years, their home had turned into a warren of floor-to-ceiling stacks and shelves, and aisles so narrow, an adult had to ease sideways down each one. Landslides often occurred -- tumbling towers of tomes that could easily bury or at least brain a person.

People (I wanted to scream at the TV), haven't you heard of e-books? And I hugged my Kindle.

This show dovetailed with a nonfiction piece I happen to be reading (thanks again for the tip, Val!) Ghosty Men is about the legendary Collyer brothers, a pair of eccentrics who literally hoarded themselves to death in their once-mansion-like Harlem brownstone. (Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow is a fictionalized version of their story.) Sad to say, even e-books wouldn't have saved these guys.

The obsessive-compulsive disorder that is hoarding has always fascinated me. I've known people with this disease and I've seen, firsthand, the results of it. As much as I recoil from clutter-gone-wild, I understand the allure of frenetic collecting. Hardcover books, especially old ones, have always been a Siren song to me. The same is true of vintage Christmas decorations and folk art. If life hadn't staged multiple interventions and regularly forced me to rid myself of possessions, my collecting could easily have gotten out of hand.

So, to reinforce this cautionary tale and to celebrate Read an E-book Week, here are more period photos of the Collyer brothers' residence. (And you know what? As foul as this place was, and as tragic as Homer's and Langley's fate, I still find myself zeroing in on all the antiques and feeling covetous!)

Junk removal begins.

Check out the windows!

Can you make out the body on the sea of garbage? That's Langley, crushed and rat-gnawed. By the time he was "unearthed,"  he'd been dead over a month. Homer, who was blind and totally dependent on his brother, died of starvation shortly thereafter, also in a bunker of trash.