“I write gay romance.”
God forbid those words should ever echo past my lips into the room beyond. Not in the highly-religious, ultra-conservative state where I live (Utah). Not to my father, a New England blue-collar worker with more opinions than Fox News. Not to my sister, a born-again minister’s wife.
I cringe every time it comes out a hushed and hurried whisper under my breath. Because I’m not ashamed of it. I’m not ashamed of the people I’ve met in the course of my authorship. I’m not ashamed of the stories I tell, of fans who leave me in tears when I get an email saying “thank you.”
But I am most thoroughly ashamed of the people who make me feel I have to say it that way.
I have a good friend, one who used to go to the same church I currently do, who dared to speak up that he favored gay marriage. On Facebook. So about as public a declaration as you can have these days. He was shredded by nearly all of his so-called friends, berated and outright threatened (right down to threats against his wife and 3-year-old daughter) by supposedly upstanding members of this same church. I think he didn’t realize how vicious the outpouring would be from people who are supposed to be practicing “the pure love of Christ” or whatever version of that you believe in. I know I didn’t expect it.
Since then I’ve done a LOT of thinking. And realizing that for pretty much my entire life, I’ve been stuck in a stencil. Or sort of. I grew up in a conservative, religious atmosphere – Fundamental Baptist, to be precise. When I was eighteen, I switched religions but not the conservatism – in fact, I probably increased the conservatism by becoming LDS (aka Mormon). I’ve been shaped and driven by the so-called “norms” of conservative society: that something must be wrong with me if I didn’t have a boyfriend in high school (let alone college), that I was expected to get married and raise 2.5 kids (of course, the LDS notion is to repopulate the earth). My center was to be my home and my kids. And I know women who are perfectly content with this, to nearly lose any sense of their own identity in favor of husband and children.
I’m not. Never have been.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m straight – far as I know to this point. In talking to my BFF, who is bi, the only deviation of the needle I’ve ever had is a single “girl-crush.” But I’ve never been one to force my beliefs or morals on anyone. Hell, I figure I’ve screwed up enough times in my life I don’t have any cause to judge.
When I started college, I was a brand-new LDS convert on a campus of about two hundred not-LDS kids. The school had a rep for being a party palace (way Eastern Maine, apparently there was nothing else to do), and I was by no means even a novice party animal. But it occurred to me I really had only two choices: I could spend every weekend locked in my dorm room, or I could find a way to be friends with people who were different than I was. So I ventured out into the world.
And I discovered something. If I wasn’t giving them grief for things they did, very few of them gave me grief for things I didn’t do. And the few who did give me grief were always cuffed by one of the ones who didn’t care. I played quarters with soda, I managed to convince at least a dozen rather flown people that Berry Blue Kool-Aid in a Miller Mug (I love secondhand stores) was really some concoction called a “Blue Angel” (LOL – “It’s Kool-Aid, dork. Think who you’re talking to.”)
But I made friends. Good friends. Friends my bishop and my sister would have been aghast over. Friends who to this day I still occasionally get Wall posts from.
A lot of you at this point are probably thinking What the hell does all of this have to do with GayRomLit? I’m getting there, I promise.
As a result of college, I don’t see people as gay, straight, black, white, etc. I see them as people – all potential friends. I didn’t realize I had taken the first step out of the stencil. I didn’t truly realize I’d been in one.
And then I met Theresa. (That would be T.D. “Ebs” McKinney you all met at GRL)
Now, the gap between college and Theresa spans about seventeen years. And in that time, I just went along my merry little way, not paying a lot of attention to the world around me, just trying to make my happy little home and my 2.5 kids. There’d been a previous kid-less marriage (for which I’m grateful; stupidest choice I’ve ever made in my life) before, and five glorious years working at a community theatre before I decided it must be time to grow up and focus on my husband.
Only one problem with that. Much as I love my husband, we have nothing in common. And the LDS church teaches that once you get married (hopefully to your best friend), the friends of your single life should take a back seat. So all my theatre friends wandered off to their lives. Except one. He just moved to Japan. Thank God for the Internet.
Wil is still one of my best friends. But I didn’t know he had a secret. One he didn’t dare share even with me.
Anyway. I discovered fan-fiction, and discovered that I both liked to write and was decent at it. I also discovered a passion for forensics and profiling. This in turn led me to John Douglas’ website (for those who don’t know, John Douglas helped build the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit and to this day is known as probably the best profiler on the planet) and the forum. That’s where I met Ebs. We clicked almost immediately, and she promptly swatted me upside the head for being jittery that she was a published author and I was just a fanfic writer. A beautiful friendship was born.
We’d been playing around with a sort of alternate-universe version of her published vampire book, Dancing in the Dark (excellent read!), and I think maybe she was testing me out a little. One of the characters is bisexual, a vampire who doesn’t hunt but survives instead on a large seraglio of humans who both feed his hunger and please his body (and he’s a very generous master in return, and very caring). My fanfic agent found himself on the receiving end of a great deal of Jean’s interest. At first I resisted the direction the story was taking; I’m not sure if it was because I was personally uncomfortable with the idea or if it was just a product of the stenciled upbringing. But eventually I acquiesced; wasn’t like we were going to publish it, right?
I don’t remember to this day how we got started writing Portrait of a Kiss. The story drew me in, the ghost doomed to stay bound to a home and a town that had been so cruel to him all his life and then accused him of murder for no other reason than he was gay and he was friends with the young man who was killed, and of course no gay man could ever be just friends with another male and all the other crap assumptions. The cop willing to risk similar ostracization by finding and standing up for the truth. A little seed of outrage poked its head up out of my soul as we wrote, and I cried at the end when Brian had to leave. And I think maybe it was then I realized love stories are love stories, no matter the gender of the people involved.
“It’s ready to publish,” Ebs said.
And my heart stopped.
Oh God. It was one thing to write it…but publish it? What would my husband say? What would my family say? What would my church say? Was I setting myself up for the biggest freaking lightning strike in history?
I agonized over it for a solid week. I did tell my husband, and he didn’t take it as bad as I’d thought – not overjoyed by any means, but he didn’t divorce me on the spot. I still don’t know what he really thinks of it, even three years later.
I weighed it and weighed it and tried to not make Ebs feel like I was backing out. Because it was her story, too – and it was good. It wouldn’t be fair to her for the manuscript to just waste away in a computer file somewhere.
Finally, I decided to just leave it up to Karma, Providence or God, whichever you favor. I came up with a pen name from my maiden initials, stuck it on the manuscript and let her send it in to her publisher. My thinking was this: “If I’m not supposed to do this, it won’t sell.” At least this way I wouldn’t spend the rest of my life guilting over backing out on her.
It sold. It got great reviews. It was on the freaking best-seller list at the publisher’s site.
Well….shit. Now what?
That was three years ago. Today, we have seven novels written together, and she kicked my ass to finish and publish a hetero romantic suspense I’d had on my shelf since the 2005 NaNoWriMo. And what a journey it has been. I’ve had no less than ten male friends, men I’ve known for up to thirty years, tell me they’re gay. I’ve had a discussion with my husband (a tad heated) over his cousin, who is my dear friend:
Hubby: “He’s been at the family reunion for the past ten years with the same male friend and they share a tent. You didn’t know?”
Me: “Your cousin Marsha’s been coming with the same female friend for that long. Should I assume about them, too?”
And so on. I don’t tell my dad; the family consensus is that’s a wise choice. I ignore my sister and she ignores me, so that’s no big. I’m very, VERY careful about who I tell at church; I’ve gotten mostly positive feedback, but one negative one has made me far MORE careful. And I don’t announce it on Facebook. Not as me anyway. Terry Wylis can say whatever she wants because the people who know her agree with her. But Traci needs to stay quiet.
For my kids. For their safety.
I feel like I should apologize for that to every one of you I met in New Orleans.
So many people have said how wonderful it was to feel “safe” at GRL. For me, it was a different sort of safety. For the first time in my life I felt I was able to step out of the stencils and into ME. I liked who I found. I felt maybe other people liked who I found, too. I didn’t go off the deep end and do things that for me would be so out-of-character Ebs would lasso me and ask what the hell was I doing. But I didn’t have a shadow of guilt dogging my every step, either (and no, I didn’t tell my husband everything we did – I don’t feel I did anything needing an accounting).
It was a nice feeling.
I can’t wait for Albuquerque. It’s too quiet around here right now. And too…stenciled. On the outside. But my soul won’t ever be stenciled again. And I thank you all for that.