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:    )