Serving You Literary Realness

Somewhere, there’s a parallel universe in which I am a drag queen.

I’m at that age now where I no longer ask, “What am I going to do with my life?” and start fantasizing about what I might have done instead. So there are also parallel universes where I’m a college professor, a lawyer (think more Annalise Keating than Alan Dershowitz), and an opera singer. But every time I tune in to RuPaul’s Drag Race, guess which universe wins.

The truth is, I’ve always been a little in love with drag queens. Something happens to a man when he puts on a dress. It isn’t simply an appropriation of the feminine: while old-school “female impersonators” may have been trying to pass as women, at least for their time on stage, drag queens never let you forget that there’s a man under all that Revlon and bugle beads. What really happens is a strange and glorious melding of the feminine and the masculine, an alchemy that calls into question all our preconceived notions of gender. And that is, by definition, a good thing.

What drag tells us, in no uncertain terms, is that gendered behavior need not be limited by one’s biological equipment. You don’t need a vagina to wear a dress. You don’t need breasts to be nurturing. And you don’t need a penis to be powerful and self-reliant.

Drag tears down all sorts of walls. It’s performance art. It’s entertaining, yes, but it’s also a profound act of liberation.

I was at a show the other night where audience members were encouraged to join the performers by attending in drag. As I was on my way in, I ran into a stunning figure—tall and dignified, in a tight rhinestone-bedecked gown and beautiful makeup (eyeshadow applied in a rainbow pattern over lush lashes). She came up to me with a coy smile and a couple of flirtatious remarks that left me momentarily flustered. And then she walked determinedly away, confident, complete in herself. Only when she was gone did I recognize her as a quiet man I barely knew who had never been the slightest bit flirtatious with me.

Drag does things to people.

One of the saddest of spectacles is a person who is clearly uncomfortable inside his own skin. I’ve seen many of them—eyes glancing out of the face as if it were an iron mask. But, ironically, I’ve never noticed that in a drag queen—even an amateur one. Drag queens always look perfectly at home with themselves, even though their cinched and tucked bodies are part of the costume: their comfort in someone else’s skin seems to make them revel in their own.

I speak primarily as a fan, a fan with minimal experience of my own. But I do clearly remember those youthful Halloween nights when my sense of myself and the world became slowly transformed by the eyeliner, the lipstick, the stuffed bra, the dress, the jewelry, the wig—and at long last, the heels as high as I could manage. I would become brazen in drag—partly because I felt unrecognizable (oh, how naïve I was), but mostly because I felt free.

I shouldn’t need to add that gay people in general owe our freedom in large measure to drag queens—who, from the beginning, have challenged the status quo simply by being themselves, more loudly than most of us dare.

Drag isn’t easy—and not just because of the tight shoes. In a misogynist culture, a man’s decision to take on—or let out—the trappings of femininity is a radical act. By modeling this behavior—daring to unite the masculine and feminine sides of themselves—drag artists force us to confront the ways in which gender norms affect and limit our own lives.

Fear of the feminine is sadly pervasive in the gay community as well as the rest of the culture, if on a somewhat smaller scale. It’s perceived feminine behavior, after all, that turns a little gay boy into the butt of jokes and the victim of bullying. So it’s no wonder that, even after accepting our homosexuality, many of us keep our feminine side at a distance.

I wrote my latest novel, Channeling Morgan, in an attempt to understand that dynamic—to examine how even gay men who seem completely comfortable with their sexual orientation can be susceptible to the misogyny that permeates American culture. And because there’s no one more ironically ballsy than a drag queen, I chose drag as the vehicle for exploring this theme. The drag queen at the heart of the book challenges her lover to question his own assumptions about gender and what it means to be a man.

It takes a tough man to wear a dress. And a tougher one to own the fierce woman within.

Closet Space

There’s an old joke. A young man sits his mother down and says ominously, “Mom, I have news.”

“What is it?” says the mother, her face stricken with fear.

“I have brain cancer,” says the son.

“Oh no!” she cries. “My dear boy, anything but that!”

The boy smiles sheepishly. “Just kidding, Mom. Actually, I’m gay.”

For some reason, that’s the first thing that came to mind when I read Kevin Spacey’s tweet about his unremembered “inappropriate drunken” behavior toward Anthony Rapp 30 years ago, when the latter was 14. What started as a half-hearted apology veered quickly into a different kind of confession—basically, “I may be a pedophile. … No, just kidding, I’m gay.”

This would be a quite different situation if Spacey’s homosexuality hadn’t been rumored for years. He’d even started tiptoeing out of the closet recently, with his jokes while hosting the Tony awards (in Norma Desmond drag), not to mention the bisexual subplot on House of Cards.

But ironically, through his awkward and untimely coming out, Spacey has played right into the ugliest of stereotypes. If the current allegations are to be believed, he really did have something to hide—and it wasn’t his sexual orientation. By staying in the closet for so long (a Tony and two Oscars weren’t enough to solidify his career?), he made coming out of it particularly ugly. He may have been trying to make a distinction between homosexuality and pedophilia, but all he succeeded in doing was to draw an unjustified linkage between the two. And in the process, he has turned gay men into the usual suspects.

With the preponderance of accusations now flying at Spacey, I can understand why the producers of House of Cards have called a halt to production. Ostensibly, they need to make sure they don’t have a hostile work environment on their hands.

What I’m not so comfortable with is the tendency of many people to equate the art with the artist. One of my friends posted on Facebook that he had searched his DVD collection for any of Spacey’s movies so he could throw them out. Perhaps merely looking at Spacey’s face on the cover of The Shipping News or Glengarry Glen Ross would be enough to turn his stomach. Never mind all the other actors, writers, and crew who worked hard on those films and whose work may now be boycotted as collateral damage.

To avert that eventuality, Spacey is now being edited out of a completed movie, All the Money in the World. I’m not sure what purpose that serves other than to make the filmmakers feel better about themselves. Apparently they’re afraid Spacey’s presence will drive down ticket sales, but the cynic in me is dead certain that if they leave Spacey in the film, sales will go through the roof. That’s not a reason to keep him in the movie, but self-righteousness isn’t a reason to keep him out, either.

I’ve always been more than willing to draw a line between an artist’s flaws and the work itself. Allegations of Wagner’s anti-Semitism will never come between me and the transcendent experience of the Ring cycle. I even watched and thoroughly enjoyed Feud this year, despite the feud I was having in my head with Susan Sarandon over her endorsement of Jill Stein. And no doubt I will soon watch Thelma and Louise for the 15th time, though I may find myself cheering at the end. (Movies are a great way to safely work out your anger.)

The “me, too” campaign in the wake of the Weinstein revelations has been successful in demonstrating the scope of Hollywood’s problem with sexual harassment and assault—and with Spacey, the scandal has reached into the gay community, as well. Maybe what we need now is a more upbeat version: maybe this is the time for other gay actors to come out of the closet as happy, healthy people who are attracted only to adults. Let’s not let Kevin Spacey be the poster child on this one, folks.

Channeling Forster

E.M. Forster was one of the first men I fell in love with. He was long dead at the time, but that just made it easier for us to get along.

When I came out of the closet, one of my priorities was to read as much as I could by and about gay people, and Forster was at the top of the list. Maurice, published posthumously in 1971, is actually one of the earliest extant openly gay novels, having been written in 1914. Forster shared the manuscript with only a select group of friends.

I read his novels in order of publication—one hungrily after the other—so Maurice was the last one I got to. But the gayness was as clear in his earliest work, the heterosexual romantic comedies, as it was in this story of a man consciously struggling with his love for other men.

Gay sensibility is rather difficult to pin down, but you know it when you see it. In Forster, it manifests in a number of ways—chief among them, the fact that his female characters seem even more vivid than the men, and the snarky camp before camp even had a name. What straight man could ever have penned the line, “Harriet with a smut in her eye was notorious” (Where Angels Fear to Tread)?

Mostly, what I found in Forster was an outsider’s viewpoint: his narrative voice was that of a person just on the edge of the world he was depicting. I had the image of a young man sitting with a notebook in a corner of the room, observing his friends and relatives—present but somehow not part of what was going on. As the observer, he could see more clearly what was happening, and he could project himself into the minds of everyone else—especially the women.

As I reread his work (Forster is the kind of writer I want to read again and again, like an old relative I must continually visit even if he tells the same story every time), I started paying attention to the marginal characters and speculating about them, wondering why he had set them on the side of his narratives rather than at the center.

I thought about A Room with a View’s Freddy Honeychurch, the rebellious boy always in his sister Lucy’s shadow. I imagined that Forster had split himself into these two, closely related characters: Lucy got his feminine sensibility; Freddy, his masculine body.

The most telling moment in A Room with a View—or is it just the most titillating?—is the swimming scene, when Freddy coaxes George and Mr. Beebe to strip naked and “have a bathe” in the woods. There’s something at once innocent and erotic about the scene, and I wondered: what if this were a love story not about George and Lucy, but about George and Freddy? What if Forster, in those early days of his career, had been able to write and publish a story that hit a bit closer to home?

Thus, Channeling Morgan was born.

As any fan of the master knows, Forster’s middle name—which was favored by his friends—was Morgan. So, while my hero, Derick the ghostwriter, channels the voice of his subject, Clive Morgan, the title also refers to my attempt to pay homage to my favorite author.

Channeling Morgan is full of inside jokes that will be clear to people who know Forster’s work, particularly A Room with a View. I hope it also reflects a bit of Forster’s tone and sensibility, but I can’t claim to come anywhere near his genius. Forster had a way of painting a world in just a few words. His characters jump off the page, and his cleverness lies in perfect harmony with his remarkable empathy. I don’t know of another novelist who can be as witty and profound in the same breath.

So this one’s for you, Morgan. With love.

Coming Out Is So 20th-Century

Just before a recent trip back home to Boston, I mentioned to someone that I might look up old friends from high school. I had reconnected with a few people recently through Facebook and thought it would be fun to see them in person after all these years, but I had some trepidation, since our lives had diverged so much. (High school was a very long time ago.) In fact, I said, I had had to unfriend a couple of my old classmates when political conflicts erupted after the election; god only knew what other surprises they might have in store for me.

In what seemed a non sequitur to me, my friend asked if I had ever come out to these people.

“Come out?” I asked. “You mean, like, actually say, ‘I’m gay’?” I hadn’t had that conversation with anyone in more than 25 years. Surely it wasn’t necessary anymore. I posted my life on social media—pictures of my partner, political screeds about homophobic politicians. I’d published two novels featuring gay characters, for heaven’s sake. Why would I need to “come out”?

The last time I had come out, in so many words, I was 28 years old. Since then, I haven’t felt the need to—for a number of reasons, both personal and cultural. The world changed in the interim, and god knows I did.

The last time I’d “had the conversation” was before Ellen, before Will and Grace, before marriage and “don’t ask, don’t tell.” And, of course, before I had moved to the Castro.

Writing teachers make a big deal about “showing” over “telling.” In fiction, if you want to elucidate a theme or convey a point, it’s much more effective to do so by having your character do something than by simply talking about it. Instead of writing, “Joseph was a frightened man,” you put him in a situation and show him trembling, sweating. You paint a picture with words; otherwise, they’re just words.

So instead of saying the words, I long ago decided to live them. I no longer sit people down to tell them I’m gay: I casually mention my partner. I talk about Provincetown, the opera, RuPaul—the artifacts of my culture—as breezily as other people talk about sports.

The truth is that, even when I was doing it, I resented the coming-out ritual, the presumed need for it. I resented the notion that my sexual behavior came with an expectation of strobe-light disclosure. No one had ever pulled me aside to confess their heterosexuality. Why should I have to make a big deal out of telling them I’m gay? By living my life matter-of-factly and without secrecy, I was making all the statement that needed to be made. I was, in fact, making an even deeper statement, I thought: I was proclaiming that my sexual orientation was not an extraordinary thing. I was telling the world, by implication, that it was completely normal.

Of course, I didn’t always feel this way. Certainly not when I was growing up in barely working-class Chelsea, Massachusetts, where the word faggot was thrown at me every day of my adolescence. Now I have the privilege of living in San Francisco, where people are more likely to criticize you for wearing pastels than for being a bottom.

But San Francisco is indeed a bubble, and after 24 years inside that bubble, it’s easy to forget that the world outside hasn’t changed as much as I’d like to think.

For other people, because of where they live, what they do for a living, or how they were raised, coming out can still be as difficult as it ever was. With such thoughts rattling through my mind, that disconnect took over as the main theme of my new novel, Channeling Morgan.

The title character in the book, Clive Morgan, is a successful actor who fears what coming out could do to his career. The notion of a closeted actor, of course, is so familiar as to be cliché, but in this instance it was that very familiarity that I believed would help bring the point home. Gay rumors have followed movie stars all the way back to Charles Laughton; and even in our current era, there are only a handful of out film actors, despite the obvious attraction the profession has for gay people.

Just witness the difference between the Tonys and the Oscars every year: at the former, barely a male actor accepts an award without thanking his husband, but in the world of American movies, where success means appealing to a wider and less urban audience, you take your life into your hands by being anything less than butch. But are we really supposed to believe that stage actors are more likely to be gay than movie actors are?

I may not agree with my characters, but my job as an author is not to point the finger at them. My duty, rather, is to portray these characters honestly and as empathetically as possible. My duty is to see myself in them. In this book, that meant understanding the things that keep Clive and others from expressing their true identities.

So, I had to ask myself: What does it mean to be closeted in 21st-century America, in a culture that has often been called post-gay? What kind of pain does that cause? And why would you inflict it upon yourself? Surely, the Clives of the world know what they’re missing. Surely, even if they’re privileged in other ways, they are not immune to envy when they see how many of us are living more open lives.

Because these days, in this culture, the closet door is seldom locked from the outside. Like Dorothy and Oz, we all have the power to leave it at any time. That may mean leaving the things you’re used to—the place you grew up, the family or church that condemns you for being who you are, or the career that has made you rich as long as you agree to hide the truth.

In the course of developing Clive’s story, though, I realized that there are lots of closets out there. And some people just trade one for another. So that had to play into the story, as well.

I’ve always believed that sexism lies at the heart of homophobia, at least when it comes to men. Homophobes seem to make a clear distinction between the sexes: men as strong, women as weak. But that same belief can infiltrate the gay community as well. Witness how often bottom is thrown about as an epithet (usually with passive-aggressive facetiousness) among gay men. While many proclaim they have no issue with being gay, for some, there’s still residual shame in being fey.

We all have our closets, of one sort or another. And though I like to think I’ve broken out of mine, I can’t deny that I still carry a piece of it with me. Perhaps we all do.