Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Guess what? I'm queer.

Pardon me as I get over the anxiety of posting that.

Isn't this 2017?

Let me take you back in time, to what was apparently one of the most memorable events of my high school career.  Possibly my entire school career.  If my freshman English teacher reads this blog, I'm so sorry for posting this-- you probably won't remember this one remark, which has eaten at me for almost two decades.

It happened in 1998, when I was a freshman in high school.  My first book, In the Forests of the Night, would come out a few months later, but that didn't mean I was any less confused, overwhelmed, and anxious than any adolescent... actually, I was even more so than some, because I was also questioning my sexuality.  For me, the internal questions started in about seventh grade; I wouldn't come out to anyone until the spring of my tenth grade year.  That's what made my English teacher's words especially devastating.

We were reading The Color Purple, in which the female main character has a sexual relationship with another female character.  At one point she refers to disliking the way male genitalia looks; I believe she likens it to a frog, though I'll admit I've never reread the book since that time. At another point, the first-person text says, "First time I got the full sight of Shug Avery long black body with it black plum nipples, look like her mouth, I thought I had turned into a man" (24 and yes, I found the quote on Shmoop; like I said I haven't read it in a long time). So it was perfectly reasonable when a classmate of mine asked, "Wait, is she a lesbian?" The answer to that can be complex, but my teacher's answer was exceedingly simple: "It isn't appropriate for us to talk about that." She shut down the conversation.

The next time homosexuality would be referenced to me in the context of writing or literature would be an editor's note on Shattered Mirror, describing a scene as "too homoerotic." In that case, the scene absolutely wasn't intended to be sexy-- it involved two brothers-- but it was still the first reference to homosexuality in my professional writing career. And it was a bad thing. She could have said, "This seems too sexual to be a scene with two brothers," which is the important and relevant message I responded to while editing... but that's not what she said, and that's not the message I internalized.  It was homosexual, and therefore it was bad.

Eventually, I came to the Kiesha'ra Series.  Among the serpiente, sexuality is revered, but I still look back and notice a distinct lack of bisexual and homosexual representation early on.  I can tell you as author who the GLBTQIA+ characters are on and which hook-ups they're having (or not having, for the ace characters) on the side; these conversations were common on the message board.  But I was scared to write them openly-- because it wasn't appropriate for us to talk about that. 

My first gay main character ((spoilers)) was Oliza, narrator of Wolfcry.  Writing her book gave me such anxiety, I even considered what would happen if I had to break my contract, which I had signed before the first draft was complete.  I was afraid the book would be rejected by my publisher because the protagonist was gay, or that I would be asked to change her sexuality in revisions. I was equally afraid that I wouldn't do my first gay protagonist justice. I was 21 years old, and I could count the number of out lesbians I had met in real life on one hand, and I had never read a young adult book with a queer protagonist. What if I wrote her story badly? I was terrified she would come across as someone who "turned gay" to avoid her responsibilities.  I froze up.  What unfroze me was participating for the first time in the madcap adventure called National Novel Writing Month.

For one month, I turned away from Nyeusigrube.  I needed a break from high-pressure writing, so I decided to write a throw-away 50,000 word piece of fluff set in a random world I hadn't developed.  I asked for ideas, and a friend recommended gay smut.  That was safe; I didn't intend to publish it.  I made a few notes, and dove in.  "Unfortunately," with eight years of publishing novels behind me, I wasn't very good at writing trash.  I got too invested in character-building and plot, and never even got to the smut part.  Instead, I ended up with the first half of a novel that-- for a first draft-- was actually pretty good.  Less than a year later, I had a 300,000 word trilogy that it would take me three more years to characterize as fantasy-romance, and another five... six... seven...

Oh, who am I kidding? It still makes me uncomfortable to call it gay fantasy romance, because (you've guessed it) it isn't appropriate to talk about that. But it is a romance-- reading romance novels is a guilty secret of mine, and I can recognize the formula, even underneath an epic fantasy landscape and magical and political machinations-- and given the participants in the relationship are both men, calling it anything but a gay fantasy-romance is kind of silly.  I have a reasonable objection to the label (it's not entirely about "gay issues," whatever that means, and I don't want people to think it is), but that's a stupid reason, because the Mancer Trilogy is about intolerance, and fear of differences, and discrimination, and the desperation for acceptance, and finding love in a society that would revile your relationship as... well, inappropriate.  Yes, it's also about a battle over the control of the mortal realm between the infernal Abyssi and the divine Numini.  It's about a country that, in the face of national tragedy and subversive danger, elects a charismatic leader and embraces intolerance and despotism in a futile quest for safety.  And it's about people who live in a world that tells them they are wrong for existing, and even more wrong for daring to love.

Guess what, everyone? I'm queer.  I don't like the term lesbian for myself; there's nothing wrong with the word, but I never really felt it fit me.  I use the word gay in circles where queer is likely to be misunderstood, but I don't really like it either.  I came out for the first time almost 20 years ago, but believe it or not, this is the first time I have actively come out online. Not just responded to a question on a message board, or let people know that year, I'm in a relationship with a woman... actually come out.  It's scary.

But I'm sick of being scared.

Now I need to get back to this email about how female representation and LGBT representation in literature is important, which I froze up on this morning because that stupid refrain started buzzing around in my mind.  I need to change that refrain.  Representation is incredibly important.  It is, inappropriate for us NOT to talk about this.

Please help me remember that.

It is inappropriate to be silent on this subject.

I'm here.  I'm queer.  Mancer is full of queer folks.  So is Nyeusigrube, though their author's fear kept many of them quiet for a long time.  Let's let them all come out, shall we?

10 comments:

  1. I remember reading Wolfcry as a sophmore in highschool, and crying with joy at the realization that Oliza was gay. I identify as pansexual now, but in highschool I identified as lesbian and reading that, seeing a lesbian couple in a book series I love made me so happy words can't describe.

    I'm glad you shared your experiences, and I'm very happy you won't be silent on LGBT+ topics

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    1. ...the internet ate the rest of my post. :/ Basically, I said I too identify as queer instead of lesbian, but it took me a long while to realize that. Or feel allowed to correct people/stand up for how I really feel. Part of that was not seeing enough examples of who and what I could be, and I'm glad to see that's changing. So cheers to that! :D

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  3. Dear Amelia Atwater-Rhodes-
    Longtime fan here (hi! ::fangirling::). I wanted to commiserate to what you said about internalizing the things adults in places of influence say to kids and young adults. I had an adult call me stupid when I was describing an experience I was passionate about. Those two words caused shame and made me always wary to talk about it. It took years to find the wound and to let it heal. Or heal enough to feel comfortable talking about it in public. Which of the characters that you created struggle with something like that?

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  4. When I was in high school, I distinctly remember a family member making a comment that "bisexuals are just nymphomaniacs who don't know what they want." My family was very accepting of gays (I had an uncle who was gay), but this was the first time I'd ever heard anyone reference bisexuality as even an option, and it was in such a negative context. It certainly didn't help that the first out bisexual person I would meet would fit that description to a tee.

    It's not any wonder that it took me until I was nearly 20 to accept that I, myself, was bisexual. Small, off-handed comments can have such an impact on young minds.

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  5. I'm so proud of you!
    I'm publicly "out" as bisexual, but I've never actually directly addressed it with my parents - and I haven't dated a girl in years, so I'm not sure if they've figured it out or not.

    None the less I have a real bias towards writing straight romances. Some of my characters are bi but it hasn't come up in story yet. I have two storylines on the back-burner for lesbian MC's so we will see how they go....

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  6. Please, please, please make movies out of your books???? I'm in the middle of your Kiesha'ra series for the fifth time and just want to see all the creations you imagined come to life on screen.
    You are so wonderful and I've read every one of your books (numerous) times. You are an inspiration to young adults trying to find their way in life. Thank you

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  7. I just want to say thank you. I read the Kiesha'ra series cover to cover as a young teen and it gave so much to me not only as an outcast but as a developing nonbinary lesbian who didn't really know who I was or where I was going in life.

    It's incredible to look back so many years ago now and think about how much your novels did for me, and how they made it okay for me to be me. I only just thought about it while discussing them with my wife just now and deciding to look everything back up on a nostalgia trip and... It just seemed appropriate to thank you. I have no clue where I would be without the inspiration and comfort I found, and still find, in your words.

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  8. I've been reading your books since high school (early den of shadows/keisha'ra days) and have always loved you as an author. I am so sad that for so long your writing was held back by an off hand comment made so long ago from a teacher who probably just didn't want to have to deal with parental inquiries into how she answered it. It's just proof how important sensitivity is to all sorts of questions. You are loved. I'm reading Mancer now and loving it. I honestly need to know if Vance is gay or pan or not and omg please keep writing more well written gay smut.

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