This is obviously a photo of two young cowboys wooing Annie Oakley. Perhaps. Or, Billy the Kid giving a tip of his hat, asking the handsome young buck for a dance. Depending on your predisposition to an image, it could be either. Or neither.
A good friend reviewed my debut novel set a century in the future and said she doesn’t normally read LGBT fiction but really enjoyed the book and the main character. I got five stars. Friendship certainly had nothing to do with it. So the protagonist in The Chronicles of Spartak–Rising Son is bisexual and the other main character is gay. A few known straights are there too but for most it is unclear and unimportant to the story. Like in most books. And, hopefully, in real life too.
So it is a LGBT novel?
Genres can be very limiting. I wrote the book as speculative fiction, looking as how current political, economic and cultural trends could reshape America into a very different country and I wanted it told through the voice of a teenage boy living in the world we helped create.
In the 2016 political campaign for President, Bernie and Hillary warn of a dire future if we don’t change directions. And listening to the GOP candidates makes one sense a grim tomorrow. My story is about how the gleefully delusional, greedy, clueless, the self-important billionaire class, big business, the self-righteous religious conservatives—succeed, decade after decade. The middle class disappears; government shrinks and is largely ineffective. Not much of a safety net. Wealth concentrates. So what is that America like by 2115? And what is it like for a remarkable teenager, born poor, talented and ambitious. Spartak fights against corruption and for his freedom, not unlike heterosexual female protagonists have done in other books.
So, a gay novel?
I am reading Hanya Yanagihara stunning, brutal, wrenching novel, A Little Life, a Man Booker Prize finalist. It is listed as literary fiction, coming of age and family saga, among others genres. It is a very difficult book to read despite or because of the brilliance in description of human misery and depravity and creating characters we care about. I am reading slowly because I cry a lot and can only handle a little at a time. There are four main characters: one is gay, one who likely is, and a third questioning his orientation. And there are some graphic, very disturbing sex scenes.
So, not a gay book?
My novel also has some sexual situations. Spartak is experienced and actually likes sex. We know, of course, this is an anomaly because teenagers never have sex, at least not in YA novels. But with Spartak it is never taken beyond the implied. The only graphic sex scene is a female-on-male rape, straight, if twisted, sex.
So, still a gay novel?
If a novel has male/female sexual situations, it is a hetero book?
If Percy Jackson flirted with his satyr sidekick instead of the arrogant half-daughter of Athena, would it be gay? If Katniss Everdeen was paired with a tough and beautiful young woman instead of sweet, hapless Peeta Mallark, and their love was conveyed, as it so often is in YA fiction, in longing looks and pinched lips—would it be a lesbian novel? Or would we look at the totality of the story and say the sexual orientation was incidental to the action?
I am thinking about Rhett Butler during the Civil War as a swaggering female gunrunner standing at the bottom of the stairs as the pouty Miss Scarlett sashays down in her hoop skirt. How might that have changed Gone With The Wind? In that era—it was published in 1936—it would have killed the book and the movie never made. But have we moved beyond that today?
Book publishers like a book to fit a niche even if it is awkward, only partially revelatory about the content. You are often given two genres to list when it might take three, four or a paragraph. Supposedly cross-genre books are sought by the industry even if it makes it tough to make them fit in narrow definitions. Is it for children, young adult, near adult, adult? Is it gay, ghost, gothic, graphic, fantasy (general, contemporary, dark, epic historical, paranormal, urban), romance (western, time travel, suspense, comedy, paranormal, historical, lesbian, military, new adult)? You get the idea.
But if there is a homosexual protagonist, is it gay?
The Times of Harvey Milk, a great movie, based in part of the amazing biography, The Mayor of Castro Street by Randy Shilts, dealt with one of the nation’s first openly gay elected officials. There is tragedy, triumph, treachery, jealousy, love—the full range of human emotions.
But given the content, is it a gay book and movie?
So many important breakthroughs on LGBT rights in the last decade have moved the issue toward the mainstream despite some groups, politicians and individuals bitterly resisting. Even the inclusion of bisexual and transgender is an important step forward. When will homosexual situations and characters just be part of the story not its definition? It happens sometimes, like with A Little Life.
I understand that kids in many (but certainly not all) middle and high schools generally don’t worry about whether you are straight or gay and, in a few places, it is getting better for transgender kids. Brave people involved in the Gay-Straight Alliance and other such groups, and many courageous individual teenagers, have helped reshape the dimensions of tolerance and human sexuality. Will it take the passing of a generation for the range of sexualities to be fully accepted and rarely commented upon? And how about in literature?
I thought about writing my novel about a twisted America with a traditional male/female lead: The prince and the poor girl find true love, Bathsheba seducing King David. Or, maybe, Alexander the Great romantically entwined with his boyhood friend and general, Hephaestion, or the eunuch Bagoas (as brilliantly told in Mary Renaults’ amazing Fire from Heaven, 1970). But I only considered the question for about five seconds. I decided the time had arrived for broad acceptance of a teenage action hero who happens to be bisexual. I have no idea if I am right or this if is the right story. So–
Spartak is out there, saving America, or trying to, and nobody cares about his sexuality in his time, just in ours.