I was reading an interesting discussion on heteronormativity on the Brandon Shire Website. What a long and interesting word! For those who may be puzzled by the meaning of this term, it means ‘representing the gay experience in heterosexual terms’. The post focused on how sexual relationships in some m/m romance books (please remember these are not gay literature) present the sexual relationships between their characters in terms of top and bottom, while lots of gay men are versatile and switch. I think this is a very good and clear point to start my thoughts on heteronormativity.
If m/m romance makes the mistake if seeing gay sexual relationships as straight, I believe it doesn’t stop there: the gay experience, or experiences, does not start or end with sex. Being gay is not just having sex with people of the same sex, there are implications in terms of identity, often imposed by society, which we cannot forget. The experience of most gay men is often, I would say in the almost totality of cases, one of total isolation in the formative years of your life. This makes the formative years of gay men different from all other minorities: put simply, if you are a member of a minority and are bullied for it at school, you have a family as reference, a family who has very likely told you and taught you to be proud of your identity. You will also likely have friends in your own minority with whom you can discuss your identity: you are not alone. This is not the experience of the great majority of gay adolescents: if you are bullied because you are (potentially) gay at the age of thirteen, it is very unlikely that you will be speaking to your parents about it, and even if you are one of the few lucky ones who can rely on their parents’ support, assuming you have already come to terms with your homosexuality (another journey we so often have to take on our own) and already come out to them, the chances are that they are straight, so, even if they can give you support, they are not likely to be able to be an example for you. Sometimes elder siblings can, with gay families, this may change in the future, but at the moment, growing up gay often means being alone.
What is more scary in life than loneliness? Not even death in my opinion. I would so welcome a real study that investigates how such experience affects social and emotional relationships later in life. Maybe that will explain why, in percentage, gay men seem to have less stable relationships than other groups? It is hard to trust a partner for life when you grew up not being allowed to communicate your deepest feelings.
Unless you have had a very intimate experience with this ‘hidden adolescence’, you are unlikely to be able to communicate it in your writing. That is why I believe the great works of literature in the gay world have often focused on the formative years.
This has also a big effect on how gay literature relates to literature as a whole: diametrically opposite to m/m romance, which takes previous formats and adapts them by substituting straight relationships with gay ones, gay literature has a very deep, Oedipal relationship with other works of literature: when a gay adolescent reads a classic at school, he (or she) dos not only see that the relationships do not describe his sexual orientation, but often sees that the very structure of the book does not represent his (or her) way of seeing the world: taking the example of lesbian literature, The Color Purple starts with total isolation: Celie can only speak to God. This experience means that the bonds she creates later on in life are deeper, they are based on the bond with God, not the bond she has with her family. At the same time, when reading, for example, Great Expectations, a gay boy will not simply think that Pip doesn’t fully represent him because he is straight, but also because Pip can talk to Joe, as well as Biddy etc. The fact that he keeps his guilty secret for himself is a choice, in a gay adolescent’s case, there is often no choice…
This is also why, as a consequence, I think contemporary gay writers are more original and more creative than others: gay literature, because of the ‘gay experience’ finds it easier to break given patterns and find new ways of expression.
If you wish to follow the discussion on heteronormativity on the Brnadon Shire website, here’s the link: