Posted in Writing

Can a Straight Woman Write Effectively about Gay Males?

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We talked in my fiction workshop classes a lot about the potential difficulty in writing in the first person perspective of a member of the opposite sex, and it would certainly seem to be a challenge to write from the mind of a gay character of the opposite sex. More and more authors, however, take on these kinds of challenges, especially female authors who write from the first person perspectives of gay males. And many do succeed.

One of my favorite gay novels is The Front Runner, written by Patricia Nell Warren, and it is considered one of the first novels ever written about a gay male relationship. Published in 1974, the novel tells of two gay athletes — one a track coach, the other one of his protégés — who fall in love and struggle trying to keep their intimacies from being exposed to the unaccepting outside world.

I have read many gay novels, most written by men, but the very much female Patricia Warren manages, writing in the early ‘70s no less, to delve into the minds and hearts of two homosexual men trying to come to terms with their feelings, dreams, and desires. It’s a remarkable novel, and one made all the more astonishing because all of the realistic relationship drama and eroticism come from the mind of a straight woman.

Published in The New York in 1997, and then in a collection of short stories in 1999, the magnificent story Brokeback Mountain, written by the Pulitzer Prize winning author Annie Proulx, is even more quietly moving than the 2005 movie.

Told in a mostly linear fashion by an omniscient narrator, the story tells of two cowboys in 1963 who unexpectedly fall for each other and spend the rest of their lives trying to hide their forbidden relationship from the rest of the world. It’s one of those small little miracles that don’t come along very often for the gay male reading public, and again, all the details and intimacies are made all the more striking because a heterosexual woman is the author.

In The Best American Short Stories 2011, I was considerably moved by the story “Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart,” written by Rebecca Makkai, and originally published by Tin House. Told in the first person, past tense, Peter Torrelli tells of two gay friends, Drew and Peter, who have never been intimate together but who have always been a part of each other’s life, that is until one unfortunate evening.

Makkai, writing from the perspective of a gay man, gets all the small details right. Drew and Peter kiss, and then don’t speak for two weeks. While Drew moves in with a new man, he never forgets about Peter, and when Peter literally starts falling apart, Drew gives his old buddy the chance at a fresh start, with a role to play in the gala opening of his new museum.

Makkai handles Drew’s emotions, in his reluctance to ask Peter to the event, in his disappointment at Peter’s mistake, and in his acceptance of Peter’s exit from his life. I have had many gay friends come and go over the years, and I understood Drew’s ability to move on. But I also know the way such a departure can hurt.

In the end Makkai writes (and I’m paraphrasing) that people look up and say that something beautiful and important once stood here, but now I can’t remember his name. The names may not be memorable, but the experiences are, and Makkai made me remember with this story the great friends I’ve lost over the years.

She, like Warren and Proulx, was able to move past the surface and tell a deeply human and universal story about gay men, about their hopes and fears. These stories are important, and when they’re written this well by female authors, the future looks bright indeed.

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