Thursday, June 9, 2011

Can a Straight Woman Write Gay Characters and so on and so forth

I’m a straight woman, Jewish, from New York and a grandma who’s been married nearly 50 years. But in my fiction I’ve created a variety of characters, including gay men and lesbians, African-Americans and people who are Catholic and Protestant, as well as Jewish.

The other day, a post on an fiction discussion board took issue with straight women who create gay male characters, arguing that a woman writer could not portray an authentic gay male viewpoint. Similar criticisms have been made of white writers who create African-American characters – including the characters of “the help” in the bestselling novel by that title..

These critics raise a valid point – members of any group, whether they be African Americans, Jews, Hispanics, gay men or lesbians, etc. know their world from the inside, in a way that most outsiders cannot hope to.

Yet the members of any group are not “peas in a pod.” My fellow Jews differ greatly from one another; the gay men and lesbians I know are no more like each other than are straight women. And for me, it would be limiting indeed to create fictional people exactly like myself.

When I write fiction I don’t feel, in fact, that I am creating my fictional characters. They come to me full-blown and demand to be written about. And as other fiction writers have experienced, they often take the story to places I never expected it to go.

It’s true that it involved less research for me to create the character of Sheila, the protagonist of A Departure from the Script, who is also a Jewish grandma from New York -- and whose daughter has suddenly told her she is planning a same-sex wedding. I was speaking in a voice that I was much more familiar with than, say, that of David, the gay man who is protagonist of A Different Sin.

There certainly was more research involved in developing the character of David, and his lover, Zachary. But A Different Sin, takes place during the American Civil War. It was more difficult for me to understand the outlook of a person who lived in those historical times than to write the love story between them.

In fact, even when I am writing about characters much closer to home, so to speak, I find that these fictional people are different from me in ways I sometimes find difficult to bridge – and which would never occur to critics who urge writers to write only with their own authentic voice.

For example, in all of my novels, my characters have relationships with their brothers and sisters. I’m an only child. It was harder for me to think my way into a relationship with a sibling, when I’ve never had one, than to imagine what it would be like for a woman to fall in love with another woman, which happens in two of my books. But should I limit myself to writing about only children?

In the early Nineties, I attended Outright, a conference of GLBT writers. I had just finished and published In a Family Way, a novel about a custody fight over the child of a lesbian couple after the birth mother is killed. The biological mother, the co-mother contesting for the child, the gay man who donated sperm and is now suing for custody, and his partner are the four viewpoint characters.

One afternoon I had lunch with a lesbian writer, a woman of my age (late 40's at the time) and, like myself, the mother of grown children. We discussed our books over lunch; she didn’t even comment on my choice of two lesbians as viewpoint characters. But she said she understood completely that the hardest part of developing the character of the co-mother for me was imagining a woman with grown children who would be eager to start all over again raising a baby. "It would be a reach for me as well," she said.

To me, a lot of what makes writing fiction exciting and worthwhile is making that reach -- into the minds and hearts of people who are not just like me. And I am thrilled when someone of another race or sexual orientation tells me that yes, I “got” a character right – when the director of a local Black History Center told me I understood how the fugitive slave who is the protagonist in my first novel (As Far as Blood Goes) would have felt, or when I received an email from a gay male teacher who said that A Different Sin had helped him in his journey of coming out to himself.

So I'll go on writing the characters that invade my writing imagination, and hope that empathy, extrapolation and observation will help me to understand and write their stories with as believable a voice as I can. 

(I'd love feedback on my books, by the way. They are all available on, in either print or Kindle format. You can read more about any of the four -- as well as a few of my short stories -- by clicking on this link:    )

Friday, March 18, 2011

Young Love, Marriage and Tipping Points

Our younger grandson has been accepted to several colleges in different parts of the county – two in East Coast cities, one in the Midwest, yet another in California – and now must decide which he will attend. His girlfriend attends college in one of the Eastern cities, but I have no idea how that will influence his decision. And this isn’t about my grandson, who is quite capable of choosing a college without his grandma’s input.

Rather, I was reminded of another young couple, who were profiled in the Washington Post sometime back in the Nineties, to the best of my recollection. She was valedictorian of TC Williams High School in Alexandria; he was salutatorian and they were very much committed to their relationship. But they had also been admitted to their first choice colleges – one to Stanford, the other to a top-ranked Ivy League college on the East Coast. The article took up some two pages of newsprint, with lengthy interviews with these high school sweethearts about the choice they would have to make, and was illustrated with a number of photos of them.

But it wasn’t their dilemma between young love and the best college for each that struck me. It was this: The Post didn’t say a word about their race or ethnicity, but the photos were of a racially mixed couple. She was white, he African-American.

And I realized, as I stared at the photos, that here in Virginia -- the state that in 1958 arrested a similarly mixed couple for the “crime” of marrying, and fought for its law for nearly ten years, till the US Supreme Court struck down laws banning interracial marriages in 1967 -- a tipping point had been reached. It was possible for an interracial couple to be accepted by family, friends and classmates, and even celebrated in a major American newspaper. Yes!!!

Saddened as I was by the failure of our neighboring state of Maryland to pass same-sex marriage this year, I was heartened to see in today’s online news that opinion polls show that, for the first time, a majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage. Let’s hope that this tipping point in public attitudes spreads to every state, including my still backward state of Virginia.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Let My Daughter Marry - I Want to Go to Her Wedding

I was disappointed this morning to read of the delay, in the Maryland House of Delegates, of passage of the bill legalizing same-sex marriage. 

By chance, this is the date that my daughter and her partner of nearly ten years celebrate as their anniversary. Like other GLBT couples, they have picked a date meaningful to them, because they do not -- and cannot -- have a wedding day to celebrate. 

Seven or eight years ago, I wrote the plea below. (It was posted at that time on the DC PFLAG website, and also appears in a textbook on writing.) The front lines of this struggle for equality have shifted from state to state since I wrote it. And thankfully, we now have a president who is working toward ending discrimination rather than more firmly establishing it.  But my opinion and feelings have remained the same, and I want to share them once again.


I want to go to my daughter's wedding.

My younger daughter is 37. I thought she'd never be ready to marry, but, finally, she's found her soulmate.
The two of them share a cozy rambler, filled with family photos and gourmet cookbooks. Together they grow vegetables, create salads and casseroles, walk the dog. Together they've decided they are tired of just living together. They're ready to "tie the knot."

This daughter dislikes formality. It's unlikely she'll be married in a satin gown; a simple suit is more her style. But her dress isn't important. What is important, she says, is "a personal, beautiful celebration of our love."

I want to go to that celebration. So does my husband, our older daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren. We all want to go to her wedding.

But we can't – because the warm and caring person she chose to share her life with is also a woman.

I don't understand. They live together. They love each other. Why can't they get married?

Opponents of same-sex marriage say it's because marriage is for procreation. Yet my father and stepmother married when they were too old to have children. Why could they marry, while my gay nephew and his partner – parents of an adopted baby boy – can't?

Foes say they're protecting marriage. I don't see how my daughter, Jill, and her partner, Pam, threaten anyone's marriage. Would their married neighbors head for divorce court if Jill and Pam had a wedding photo on their dresser?

Marriage is a sacrament, the religious right argues. But same-sex couples just want the right to have a legal, civil ceremony. Churches, mosques and synagogues could still refuse to marry anyone but one man and one woman.

Still, many liberal churches and Jewish congregations do wed same-sex couples. Jill and Pam could be married by the rabbi of our humanist Jewish congregation. But Jill and Pam want legal recognition. They want the assurance that if one of them ends up in intensive care, the other won't be turned away when she visits. My nephew and his partner need those protections too, especially now that they have little Sean. What if something happens to one of them, and his other father has no legal connection to his son?

I tell Jill she and Pam can get married legally this summer, in Massachusetts. But, she says, besides family, they want "our friends around us too." And their friends are in the university town in Oregon where they live. I can't argue with that. Our older daughter and son-in-law also chose to marry where their friends were.

Jill emails that she and Pam applied for a marriage license at their county courthouse, but were turned away. I think of the Sixties. A college friend was afraid to visit our Virginia home because she is black and her husband was white. She had good reason. Only a few years earlier the state of Virginia had thrown mixed-race couples in jail for the crime of marrying across the color line.

On TV I see hundreds of couples, like my daughter and her partner, standing in the rain waiting to marry in San Francisco. I know even some gay rights advocates are telling them this isn't the right time.

I remember that same advice was given to the four black college students who staged the first lunch counter sit-in in 1960. There were more urgent issues, voting rights for one. Eating places did serve blacks at a rear window. What difference did it make where you ate?

What difference? Ask the man who's told he's not good enough to sit with the rest of the customers. Ask the woman who's told she's not good enough to marry.

Jill calls with news. Portland, Oregon, two hours from her home, is issuing licenses to same-sex couples. She and Pam wonder if they should take off from work and rush to Portland. Or maybe, she continues, they should go back to their own county courthouse. If the county attorney in Multnomah County says discrimination is against Oregon law, why should discrimination be legal in their own, neighboring county?

I wish her good luck. There's a new civil rights movement starting, and she and Pam are on the front lines. Then I shudder, remembering elected officials standing in school house doors to keep black children out, and police greeting civil rights marchers with fire hoses. Today it's the President of the United States, trying to amend the Constitution to deny my daughter equal rights.

I'm proud of Jill and Pam for being part of this new movement. But I wish it wasn't necessary. I wish they could just set a wedding date. Because all I want is to go to my daughter's wedding.

Friday, February 11, 2011

A Fight Against “Separate But Equal” 150 Years Ago and Today

Black History Month brings back memories of the civil rights movement, of admiring the bravery of black high school students no older than me who walked through hostile mobs to integrate formerly all-white high schools in the 1950s.

Later, in college, I marched in support of those who had the courage to sit-in for equal treatment at lunch counters, and in support of Freedom Riders and volunteers helping African-Americans register to vote – some of whom, white as well as black, gave up their lives in the cause of equality.

In 1963, along with hundreds of thousands of fellow marchers, my husband and I stood on the Mall to listen to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. trumpet out, “I have a dream” of equality and justice. Black and white, old and young were there together but, if memory serves, young people were in the majority.

Like many others -- both those who lived through those decades and those who read about them in history books – I look back on them as the birth of the civil rights movement. I’d known, of course, that the civil rights organization NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) had been founded early in the 20th Century. And I also knew – because years ago I read the autobiography of the famed fugitive and abolitionist Frederick Douglass – that Douglass had refused to submit meekly to unequal treatment in places of public accommodation.

But it wasn’t until I was doing research for my first novel, As Far as Blood Goes, the story of a fugitive slave who becomes a doctor, that I learned how widespread the struggle for equality in Northern cities was, even while slavery still thrived in the South. My fictional protagonist escaped to Boston, Massachusetts, and while researching I was lucky enough to discover the historical work, Black Bostonians: Family Life and Community Struggle in the Antebellum North, by James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton.

Among the struggles detailed by the Hortons was a boycott by black parents against the inferior segregated schools that African-American students in Boston were then forced to attend. The fight to integrate public schools started in 1844 and included petitioning the Boston Primary School Committee to end school segregation and – when that committee declined to integrate the schools – a suit brought against the city, argued by Charles Sumner.

Sumner’s argument that inequality was an inherent outcome of separate schools was rejected by the Massachusetts Supreme Court in a decision that served as a precedent for the infamous 1896 US Supreme Court Plessy v. Ferguson decision upholding the doctrine of “separate but equal.”

But after eleven years of boycotting the school provided for black children (with an alternative school set up in an African-American church and taught by a black minister and other African-Americans) a lobbying effort directed toward the Massachusetts state legislature was successful in getting a bill passed abolishing separate schools in the state. It was signed into law in April 1855, just short of 100 years before the US Supreme Court abolished “separate but equal” in Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954.

The information above is a summary of the much fuller account I found in Black Bostonians (and which I’ve since also found through searches on the Internet), and necessarily both simplifies and leaves out much of this history. But it left me with a deep appreciation of the struggles of earlier generations, not just my own.

 The 1954 Supreme Court decision ended all legal justification for “separate but equal” schools. But the fight for full equality and against “separate but equal” has moved to a new arena – that of equal marriage rights. In many states, including the neighboring state of Maryland, civil rights activists are arguing against setting up a separate category of civil unions rather than extend the right to a legal civil marriage to all.

I agree wholeheartedly with these activists – a separate category for those not quite “good enough” to marry would be inherently unequal. 

Saturday, January 22, 2011

I Found it on the Internet

            That statement often signals careless research and even gullibility. A case in point is the textbook “Our Virginia, Past and Present” recently pulled from many school systems because of historical errors that included the statement that thousands of African American soldiers fought for the South during the Civil War. According to the Washington Post of December 29, “The claim is one often made by Confederate heritage groups but rejected by most mainstream historians. The book's author, Joy Masoff, said at the time that she found references to it during research on the Internet.”

Well, of course, we exclaim. Who does serious research on the Internet?

Well, me, for one.
That’s because the Internet, as I see it, is one giant library in the cloud. In the days when only brick-and-mortar libraries existed, a dubious report of information found in a book would be met with the question, “Do you believe everything you read?”

Hopefully you didn’t. Hopefully you brought some background information to your reading, as well as a bit of judgment and skepticism. That’s even more important on the Internet, where anyone can post whatever he or she pleases -- unlike library books which are chosen by professional librarians.

Research has been on my mind lately not just because of the error-ridden textbooks, but because the rights to my first two books, both historical novels, recently reverted to me, and I decided to give them a going over before having them formatted for the Kindle and other eBook platforms. Last winter, while snowbound for several weeks, I curled up with a warm computer. Besides some minor copy-editing, I spent most of that time online, double-checking my research.

The novels, As Far as Blood Goes (the story of a fugitive slave who becomes a doctor) and A Different Sin (a combined Civil War novel and gay men=s romance), were published in 1988 and 1993 respectively. I’m neither a historian nor Civil War buff, so I had to do a lot of research – nearly all of which took place in the Alexandria, Virginia public libraries.

I was fortunate that the Alexandria Gazette, one of the country’s oldest newspapers, was available on microfilm in the library’s Special Collections, and I spent hours squinting over microfilmed copies from the early 1800’s. (Let me tell you, an ice cream headache has nothing on a microfilm headache.) But hours were also spent wandering aimlessly through library stacks looking for relevant books on black and Civil War history.

Except for newspapers from the times, and a few reprinted memoirs, I relied on history books, not on original documents from those times. But hey, I was writing fiction, not trying to add to the body of historical knowledge. For As Far as Blood Goes I needed first to find out whether it was possible for a black man to have become a doctor in ante-Bellum America -- and yes, there were indeed a handful of African-American physicians at the time -- and then learn enough to know how the events of that time would shape and affect my characters. 

But research in a brick-and-mortar library has its limitations as well. For example, Michael, the protagonist of As Far as Blood Goes, is whipped as punishment for teaching his friends – also slaves – to read. I knew that teaching slaves to read was against the law, but I wasn’t sure what the penalty was. The card catalog doesn’t zero in on such details. I don’t remember if I consulted the reference librarian – who might have located the legal codes from 1831. Instead, I made the assumption that since 39 lashes was a typical punishment for infractions by slaves in much of the South, it would be what Michael would be subjected to.

When I checked my research last winter, I didn’t go to the library. Instead I brought up Google search. Within five minutes, I had found more than one history that explored this topic, including The American Slave Code in Theory and Practice: Its Distinctive Features Shown by Its Statutes, Judicial Decisions, and Illustrative Facts, by William Goodell, which devotes a chapter to the prohibition of education.  

This history quoted the relevant Virginia law, word for word. And I discovered that while I was correct that it was illegal to teach slaves reading or writing, and to assemble for such purpose – as Michael and his friends did – I was incorrect as to the exact penalty, which called on an officer of the law “to inflict corporal punishment on the offender or offenders, at the discretion of any justice of the peace, not exceeding twenty lashes.” Still a terrible punishment, but not quite as severe.

I’m working on a new historical novel now – this one taking place on New York’s Lower East Side among Jewish immigrant families like my those of my grandparents. But family stories go only so far in fleshing out the era. So if you ask me where I found this fact about laws concerning tenement buildings or that one about women’s fashions, or even when bobby pins were invented, I’ll tell you straight out:

I found it on the Internet.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Words Have Consequences

We think in words. Words and symbols.

We feel in words and symbols.

We perceive the world in words and symbols.

Often we don’t realize how our view of ourselves, of other people, of what is normal and what is not, of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable are all shaped by the words we hear, the symbols we see.

The feminists in the 1960’s understood that. That’s why they insisted on nonsexist language: mailman to mail carrier, chairman to chairperson.

Abe Pollin understood that in 1997 when he changed the name of his Washington, DC basketball team from Bullets to Wizards. The word bullets sent a message, however subtle: Guns are OK. Bullets are OK. Shooting people is OK.

Sadly, some politicians still don’t understand.

Putting a person in your “crosshairs” sends a message. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords  was one of the legislators featured in a map put up by former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin targeting members of Congress who had voted for the health care bill. The opponent Congresswoman Giffords defeated held a campaign event described with the words, "Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly."

Today Sarah Palin has posted on Facebook that she is praying “for the victims and their families.” She doesn’t see the victims as her victims. I don’t imagine Jesse Kelly feels responsibility for them either.

But words and symbols shape our thoughts and feelings, our view of what is right and what is wrong. Words and symbols have consequences. I’m sure Sarah Palin and Jesse Kelly meant to inspire their supporters to campaign hard, to get out the vote. I’m sure they never meant to incite them to kill.

I’m sure they felt that no rational person would take them literally.

But our words go out to the rational and irrational alike.  Once printed in a newspaper, once posted on the Internet, we have no way of knowing who they will reach, who will take them as justification for murder.

Please: No more words that incite to violence. No more symbols that incite to violence.

No more guns. No more targets. Never again.