When Queers Read, Part II: Brokeback Mountain edition

Curse of Chalion again — I’d mentioned before that it had a SURPRISE HOMOSEXUAL, a guy who was pretty cool and shaping up to be my favorite, with only a “oh! so you’re… okay, I see” to change his orientation, which pleased me greatly. Bujold is very good at remembering that Gay People Exist in her fiction (which seems like a rather sad thing to be so grateful for, and yet).

On the other hand, she gets a headdesk and -5 points from Griffindor for having every gay subplot tarred with horrible tragedy.

Honestly, people.

Okay, so I have a theory about this. The majority of writers perpetuating the GAYS MUST SUFFER trope aren’t doing it because they hate gays; on the contrary, I think it’s intended as an odd gesture of respect. They, these gay-friendly but predominantly straight authors, are very much aware of the various ways that homosexuals have suffered at the hands of cultures hostile to them — whether through internalized hatred, vigilante gay-bashing, or institutionalized persecution of homosexual activity — and these authors want to make sure their (predominantly straight) readers really GET how fucked up and how much of a tragedy that is. Oh you liked this character? Well, thanks to people being DICKBAGS, he gets to live a life of unrelenting misery, PRETTY SHITTY, HUH?

And then, theoretically, these straight readers see that gays are people too, and that it’s sad when bad things happen to them for no reason except prejudice, and we win a few — if not quite allies — people who are sympathetic to our side.

Except goddamn I’m tired of hearing that story. Seriously, we should be over this by now. E.M. Forster was over it in 1913 when he wrote Maurice and was like, “No really, they’re going to live happily ever after, fuck all y’all,” even though that meant it didn’t get published until 1971 and still gets critical points deducted for being “wish fulfillment.”

And make no mistake, there are plenty of gay authors who’ve written gay tragedies too, because art echoes life and gay life, historically, has had the deck stacked against it for happy endings. Rightly or wrongly, we value realism in our fiction, and at many, perhaps most points in history, a happily-ever-after for gay protagonists would be patently unrealistic. Then just as we were coming out of that, the AIDS crisis broke, and proceeded to dominate gay narratives for the next twenty years. (I was born too late to really understand what that had meant to the people who lived through it until I read Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On, fucking spectacular piece of nonfiction there.)

I’m a fantasy geek who happens to be gay — I want the same story that everyone else gets, with magic and swordplay and high-stakes adventures, plus a well-developed romance that happens to be gay. That is my ideal. I don’t want my protagonist to be gay for cleverdick plot purposes, don’t want him to be gay as a metaphor for moral dissipation. I want him (or her) to be gay because some people are. Because gay people exist and always have, because not all of history’s heroes were straight and not all of fiction’s should be either. The end.

I don’t even object to unhappy endings, because tragedy can be brilliant when it’s clear that given these characters, in this situation, there was no other way it could have ended. My favorite manga, Miyamoto Kano’s Not/Love, is a brilliant example of characters being the instruments of their own unhappiness; there’s no one else fucking it up for them, they manage it just fine on their own. I haven’t finished Gemma Files’ hexslinger trilogy yet, but in A Book of Tongues, the writing’s on the wall from the very start — Chess and the Reverend are Bonnie and Clyde, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and we all know how those stories end. You can’t get angry about tragedy so inevitable, any more than you can get angry at the sky for raining.

But there’s a world of difference between tragedy as natural outgrowth of the plot vs. tragedy as object lesson. “Surprise tire iron to the head” is not natural plot progression, the-fucking-end.

8 thoughts on “When Queers Read, Part II: Brokeback Mountain edition

  1. I” don’t want my protagonist to be gay for cleverdick plot purposes, don’t want him to be gay as a metaphor for moral dissipation. I want him (or her) to be gay because some people are. Because gay people exist and always have, because not all of history’s heroes were straight and not all of fiction’s should be either.”
    Oh, this is my point exactly. If you won’t like Richard Stevenson’s series, I’ll… stop reading books :) The protagonist is a detective that just happens to be gay, and not a gay man that just happens to be a detective. That’s why I was so taken by these books. It’s just well written life with straight and gay characters living in the same world with its bad and good sides.

  2. Loved And the Band Played On. Fantastic piece of writing and journalism. If you want heartbreaking, then this is it, but also hopeful given the research that came out of the tragedy.

    Have you read The Long Afternoon by Ursula Zelinsky? It’s an older book, but lovely, about a family and World War 1. One of the characters is gay, heroic, and doesn’t die or end up abandoned by his family.

  3. FUNNY STORY, just yesterday I discovered that Sacramento has the “Lavender Library,” which is like all gay books ever written in one building. o_O !!! And they have all the Donald Strachey mysteries!

    It costs $40 a year to be a member, which I will TOTALLY do as soon as I don’t have a queue of 96 books to read, but you can read books in the library for free, and that is how I am going to read it. ^_^ The first one is Death Trick, yeah?

  4. Yes! And it’s a bit different from the others, as it tells the tale of the time before HIV; it reads to me a bit like a historical novel about gay culture from the seventies :) The book apparently served also as a cathartic way for the writer to come clean about his sexuality (to himself).
    I prefer the sequels but the first one is a necessary background for the two main characters and it IS interesting despite the melodramatic backstory of some of the lesser characters. And the banter is already there!
    The other books are fortunately tears-free.

  5. I know! I love my happy endings in general and it’s so hard to find for gay characters. I actually felt bad in a series I’m writing with a totally non-angsty lesbian couple that the last installment is a distant epilogue where one of them has died, even though it was of extreme old age and they were really happy and successful up until that point.

  6. Good on you. :) As others have pointed out before, a happy ending is knowing when to stop, but I wouldn’t even consider a distant, dying-of-old-age epilogue to be an unhappy ending, quite the opposite in fact. That’s a victory — a crap epilogue would have been “Oh yeah and by the way, they were happy for five years until one girl cheated on the other and they broke up, the end” or “It was great until one of them got hit by a bus.” Pointless, pasted-on tragedy, and I wish I could say no one ever actually did that, but they do. >:(((

    (Did you ever see Kissing Jessica Stein? If they’d ended the movie before they broke up, it would have been great. As it was, the last twenty minutes or whatever was just crap and pointless. The fact that she not only ended up with a dude, but with the SAME DUDE who had been deliberately shown to be such an irredeemable DOUCHEBAG in the beginning, ugh.)

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