When I first confronted the fact that I was gay as a teenager, after years of denying it, I began to seek out books that featured gay male characters. In a very real way, I was searching for role models — for examples of gay men who managed to find happiness with other men. Unfortunately, I seldom found that. Instead, what I found time and time again were tales of raunchy sex, misery, and death.
This was the early 1980s and the local bookstores didn’t carry many books featuring gay men. For the most part, all of the novels I bought during these early years came from Annie’s Book Swap, a local used book store.
There was Patricia Nell Warren’s The Front Runner, which I still love, in which a college gym coach has a wonderful romance with his star athlete — until the athlete is shot in the head and killed when he’s competing at the Olympics. I consider this to be a great novel, but it certainly didn’t give me hope for a happy future.
There were a number of other novels in which the main characters were killed, or committed suicide, or ended up alone and miserable. So many that I began flipping to the last few pages of any novel I picked up before purchasing. If there was no mention of a partner — a living partner — at the end, I put the book back on the shelf.
Then there were books like those by Gordon Merrick. Now Merrick was a pioneer. He was one of the first American authors to portray happy gay relationships that were still happy gay relationships at the end of the book. I have immense respect for him. But as a teenager, I had a problem with his novels. They were full of musclebound men with enormous cocks who flounced around calling each other “Darling” all the time. That was about as far from me as it was possible to get. I was just over a hundred pounds, not a muscle on me, and well…my cock isn’t enormous. I have also never mastered the “gay voice.” You know the voice I mean — the voice every gay man is either supposed to use in his day-to-day life, or at least be able to put on for company. I can’t do it.
As a gay man, I’m dull, dull, dull. (I was once interviewed on a show that featured drag queens. Talk about contrast.)
Also, the Merrick books had romance, but it was wrapped up in tons of raunchy sex. It was better than the short stories in the gay porn magazines Manhunt and Torso, which I’d picked up under much duress from a convenience store. Those stories were nothing but sex. I wanted romance — someone to love me forever. My church upbringing had claimed that gay men were incapable of real love, and these stories weren’t doing anything to convince me that this was wrong.
This was a miserable time in my life. I’d been a devout Christian, as a teenager, until I could no longer deny that I was gay, whether I liked it or not and no matter how hard I prayed. That realization made me feel cut off from my church, my family and society. I turned to these books for some guidance and reassurance and what I found was depictions of a future devoid of hope and devoid of real love. According to gay novels in the 80s, I had nothing but raunchy sex in porn theaters to look forward to, in between nights of loneliness and despair, until I committed suicide or died of AIDS.
Then I stumbled across The Catch Trap, by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Here was a novel with very little sex in it, but a very intense romance between two men in the circus in the 1950s. And at the end…they don’t die. They may, in fact, have a future together. It was amazing!
The Catch Trap had an enormous impact on me. It was about this time that I discovered Maurice, another gay romance with a happy ending (In fact, it wasn’t published until after E.M. Forster’s death, because the happy ending was considered too controversial!), but frankly it lacked the emotional impact of The Catch Trap. Looking back, I think it was probably twenty years before I came across another novel with a gay romance in it that really drew me in, although that one ended unhappily (The Herald Mage trilogy by Mercedes Lackey).
Over the past decade or so, M/M novels have finally come into their own. You can now find gay romance (for men) in all genres, with happy endings, sad endings, or ambiguous endings. There are enough on the market that you don’t have to peek at the ending to see if the book will end badly — you simply buy one that’s advertised to have a happy ending. For those of us old enough to remember how things were, back when homosexuality was still labeled a mental illness, the change is miraculous. There is still a long way to go, I think. The sub-genre is dominated by M/M, which I prefer, but I’d like to see more variety: more lesbian romance, more trans romance, more polyamorous relationships….
I write GLBTQ literature for myself — for that teenage boy who was desperate to find love and acceptance, and had to wait decades for it. The world has changed for the better, for the GLBTQ community, but there is still a long way to go. That’s not to say that I only write serious stories about issues facing the gay community. I don’t. I write whatever strikes my fancy: Victorian romance, science fiction, silly comedies, psychological dramas. But I write the type of stories I wish had existed then, when I needed them, to add to the pool of stories available to today’s teens and adults, for when they need them. Because we need to find ourselves in the stories we read.
As part of the Rainbow Book Reviews bloghop this weekend, I’ll be giving away a free ebook copy of my novel, By That Sin Fell the Angels, which will be out on August 29th from Itineris press. It’s a drama about how the suicide of a gay teen affects the people in his small town. Just comment on this blog entry or send an e-mail to jamesfessenden @ hotmail.com to put yourself in the hat for a drawing!
It begins with a 3:00 a.m. telephone call. On one end is Terry Bachelder, a closeted teacher. On the other, the suicidal teenage son of the local preacher. When Terry fails to prevent disaster, grief rips the small town of Crystal Falls apart.
At the epicenter of the tragedy, seventeen-year-old Jonah Riverside tries to make sense of it all. Finding Daniel’s body leaves him struggling to balance his sexual identity with his faith, while his church, led by the Reverend Isaac Thompson, mounts a crusade to destroy Terry, whom Isaac believes corrupted his son and caused the boy to take his own life.
Having quietly crushed on his teacher for years, Jonah is determined to clear Terry’s name. That quest leads him to Eric Jacobs, Daniel’s true secret lover, and to get involved in Eric’s plan to shake up their small-minded town. Meanwhile, Rev. Thompson struggles to make peace between his religious convictions and the revelation of his son’s homosexuality. If he can’t, he leaves the door open for the devil—and for a second tragedy to follow.