No Place Like Home, Er, Openly Straight

We are consolidating at our house right now. Which means that I come across things, like  long-expired gift certificates to Barnes & Noble from 2006, and mix CDs I made in 2004 (we no longer have a CD player). Also zip drives.

Zip drives are great because you can never be sure what you’ll find on them. And what I found today was a treasure trove of old creative writing stuff.

I found the first story I wrote in my first creative writing class in grad school (terrible!). I found the first draft of Audibles, which became OUT OF THE POCKET. And I found the very first words I wrote for the book that became OPENLY STRAIGHT!

It was called, at the time, NO PLACE LIKE HOME. And yeah, I’ve made this joke before, but it was going to be like The Wizard of Oz, but gayer.

I wrote the very first words in the very first draft of that book  on April 8, 2009.

It looked like this:

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This makes me so happy. As you can see, Rafe wasn’t quite Rafe yet. I was playing with an idea. The notion was to turn a coming out story into a going in story, which is what I did. But almost everything else is off, voice especially.

I’m interested that I got Claire Olivia’s name right away. Her name, I had always thought, came from Claire Olivia Casey, or Claire O. Casey, or Claro Que Si, which means “Of course” in Spanish. But apparently I either already knew that, or the joke came organically from the name choice. I don’t know.

The parasol story relates to my nephew, who used to dance around our kitchen with a parasol. And what followed that was a story my friend Bob told me about coming home from kindergarten after his first day. His parents asked how the first day was, and he said, “They have nice curtains.”

Neither of those stories made the novel, but the lesson here is don’t tell me stories or do stuff in front of me. It WILL wind up in a book.

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Other People’s Pain

A few weeks ago I went to a conference called Men2Men. It was co-sponsored by the Men’s Ministry of the Historic Chapel AME Church and Arizona State University’s Project Humanities, and it was held at a church in downtown Phoenix. It was billed as “an opportunity for men across the Phoenix to have intergenerational, interdenominational, and meaningful, critical conversations about pressing issues directly related to men’s lives.” 

There were seminars about all sorts of issues, from sexual harassment, to dealing with law enforcement, to youth bullying and self harm.

What an experience. And in a session on race-based stress, I had an epiphany of sorts. As one of perhaps two white men in a room of African-American men, I realized something both simple and complicated:

I will never, ever, be able to experience what it’s like to be an African-American man living in the United States.

I can have great empathy for those who are living that experience, but I cannot have it. The closest I understand is not all that close; as a gay white male, any time I want to pass, any time I want to get away from the sometimes exhausting experience of being “the other,” I can pass. I can choose to show up visibly as a gay man, or not, depending.

As I said, simple and complicated. Because of course I can’t. But the truth is that as a person who has great empathy, I sometimes think I get it. But what I took not so much from the words but from the anger exhibited in that powerful session, I realized that no, that’s outside of my realm of experience.

It made me think about one of the reigning issues in Young Adult Literature: the We Need Diverse Books movement, and the #ownvoices movement.

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Is Ben Physically Attracted to Rafe?

I get emails. Great emails. I respond to them all (I should say I strive to, in case I accidentally missed yours), though it often takes me some time to get to them.

I got a bunch of great emails in the last couple weeks that put me in a good mood this morning. One of them included a question that I thought would be of interest to a lot of my readers.

Here goes, courtesy of Anissa:

Did you consciously choose to have Ben never mention being physically attracted to Rafe?

I’ve gone through the book (HONESTLY BEN) for the second time and it stuck out to me that while Ben goes into extensive detail about what he finds physically attractive about Hannah, he never mentions how he feels about Rafe’s physical characteristics or appeal.  He only says Rafe is very fit.

 Did you intentionally structure it so that Ben  focused solely on their emotional connection?

 It seems odd to me since they were physically involved. I wondered if it was another way for Ben to buffer himself from the realization that he was attracted to a boy.

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Great question! This is what I wrote back:

A lot of times, what comes out on the page is instinctual for me. Meaning that I sit in the chair of the character and I look for their truth. The only way I can answer your very smart question is to say that I think the amount of time Ben spends thinking about Rafe physically is authentic for him. It may be a sort of buffer as he is not fully comfortable being attracted to a boy, and it might be that he’s attracted to Rafe in a more holistic way. My gut feeling is that it’s a combination of both.
This question made me think, even after I sent that answer. How does that work? How do we, as writers, pull off not just sitting in the chair of a character, but getting into that subconscious place where we make the right decisions for them? Because I believe to my innermost self that had I had Ben wax poetic about Rafe’s legs, it would have been inauthentic. And I don’t fully know why, as I say above. I just know, instinctually, that it’s not right. For me as a writer. Which is only half the equation!
And this is why books are alive. Because a reader’s understanding of a book’s truth is actually just as alive, just as important, as the writer’s intention in writing it. I think.
I mean, if a reader decides that Ben is buffering himself from his true feelings for Rafe’s physicality, who am I to say that’s wrong?
Thoughts? Why doesn’t Ben focus on Rafe’s body? What’s your understanding, from your reading? Does it differ from my explanation?
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Sexual Harassment in the YA Community

We just watched “Sixteen Candles” this weekend, and we were awed by the outrageous racism, homophobia, and the fact that Anthony Michael Hall’s character blatantly sexually harasses Molly Ringwald’s character, and he’s seen as the good guy. There’s a scene in which Hall goes in for a kiss, Ringwald pushes him away, and then, when he comes in for another one, she laughs and says it’s okay. Let’s not even talk about when Jake “gives” Hall’s character his drunken girlfriend. Ugh.
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Truth: When I saw this movie as a teenager, I didn’t see sexual harassment. I just … didn’t. It wasn’t part of my perspective. Was this the case for other viewers, or just me?
Similarly, we watched Ruthless People on Friday night. Oh my God. Funny movie, by the way, but what’s the deal with Sandy Kessler (Helen Slater), wife of Ken (Judge Reinhold)? She’s an infant. Ken has to explain every simple thing to Sandy, who even then seems not to understand anything about the world.
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I wondered if it had been written by a man, and indeed, of course it was.
Our cultural awareness of “isms” and of of sexual harassment has changed significantly in 30 years. That’s a good thing. It’s a good thing that movies nowadays don’t generally have characters like Long Duck Dong, who is interchangeably Chinese and Japanese and whose onscreen appearance is always greeted with a gong. And that if such a character were to be created today, it would be called out immediately on social media. Similarly, Molly Ringwald’s character in 2018 probably wouldn’t call Hall’s character a “fag.” And if that happened, there would be an outcry.
So we’ve moved forward, but there’s more work to be done. Obviously.
 
When I woke up Saturday morning to the story about sexual harassment claims in the YA community, I felt heartbroken. For the women (and men) who have been harassed. For the safety of this bubble that (I thought) we’d created. Yeah, I thought we were better than this, but the reality is we’re the same as everyone else, and these messy, unpleasant and entirely necessary conversations need to happen here, too.
I stand with those who have been victimized. And yes, I believe you.
Also, I call out the behavior of the men who have acted as predators. These behaviors are not okay, and it is time for us men–gay or straight–to recognize and act upon what we’re being told. That when we are in positions of power, or can be seen as being in a position of power, it is NOT OKAY to solicit sex from someone over whom we may wield power.
Got it, men? A rule of thumb: if you have power over a woman’s (or man’s) career, we need to put away our penises. In fact, if you’re in a professional setting, just go ahead and put your penis away. This is 2018, not 1988, and we know better now. We’ve been told. If you can adversely impact someone’s career, you simply cannot have sex with them. The end.
I hope we will work on policing ourselves better, and help each other when we see something happening that shouldn’t be happening. We must be upstanders, not bystanders.
As painful as it is, I’m glad the conversations are happening. And I hope we can eradicate predatory behavior from our industry. I’ll be here to do my part.
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Confessions of a “Like” Whore

It’s hard for me to remember what life was like before Social Media changed everything.

Before MySpace. Before Facebook took over. Before any of us ever announced what we’d just had for dinner, or made a snarky comment about an actor, or decided that everyone needed to hear our exceedingly valuable opinions about politics, or allowed the number of “Likes” on a post to dictate our mood.

What did we do with all that time?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, because I feel like I’m hitting a Social Media wall. I don’t know if it’s exhaustion or disinterest or a combination of both, but what used to be a fun sideshow has become to central to my life, and I think it’s time to change that. Which is going to be really hard.

I went back this morning and looked over my Facebook history, and it filled me with all sorts of feelings.

These were my first posts, back when I thought one’s name was the first part of any status update.

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I can’t recall whether I actually got no “Likes” or comments on these important shares, or if they’ve disappeared over time. I did notice looking back that “Likes” and comments do seem to disappear. For what reason, I do not know.

Leave it to a “Like” whore to feel the need to explain a lack of Likes.

Looking through my history, what I found was in some ways a history of my last ten years, and in some ways totally not a history of it. Because, of course, unlike a diary or a journal, we don’t generally share every thought we have on social media. And if we do, it’s called oversharing. And if we don’t, we are not being, perhaps, our truest selves, or we are showing the world only the good stuff, which is normal but not so authentic.

When something good happens in my life, my gut reaction today is to share the news on Facebook. I don’t like what this says about me. Am I really living in the moment if part of every experience is sharing it with 2,560 “friends” on Facebook, some of whom care, most of whom don’t, many of whom are probably judging me harshly for wanting or needing to share it?

Am I the only person who is exhausted, thinking about all this?

Am I alone in wondering if I might be better off not having my mood impacted by how many “Likes” I get on a certain post?

Looking back at the past ten years, starting at the beginning and scanning forward, these are some of the things I’ve learned about me:

  • I’m not as funny as I think I am, though I am often kinda funny.
  • Not every thought that I have is as important as I think it is in the moment. It might be okay to let some of them go.
  • I am kind. Except when I’m not. Probably like most people.
  • Moods come and go. If I’m struggling, I can rest assured good times are ahead. And vice versa.

I’ve broken up with social media in the past. It hasn’t stuck. It’s hard to do, and honestly I have mixed feelings about it. I have enjoyed connecting with people from my past, or friends with whom I might otherwise not have connected. But I do think it’s time for a change of priorities. And I’ve already started to make that change. I’m posting a lot less these days. I expect, in the future, to continue to de-escalate my posts. Perhaps share important milestones, but not daily updates.

So it’s not a breakup, but it’s a de-escalation. I’m going to try and teach myself how to exist as I did in 2007 and before that. Via phone, email, and in person. Back when I might run into an acquaintance in a bar and not hear, “I feel like I know what’s been going on in your life from Facebook.” And not think, “Yeah, I feel like I just saw you an hour ago.” And realize that we’ve been connected, but not really. Not in the truest sense of the word.

 

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On Coming Out, On Being LGBTQ

A young fan asked to interview me about LGBTQ issues. Following is that Q&A. Thanks to Caitlyn for the questions!

1. How do you feel about people who use “gay” as a derogatory term? What would you tell them?

I’ve been hearing people use “gay” as a derogatory term so long, and I’ve been fighting that usage so long, that I’m amazed when I meet people who still don’t understand why that’s not okay. I mean, who wants their label to be used to mean “bad”? It doesn’t make sense. I would tell those who still do that to substitute any other label and see whether they still think it’s fine. “That’s so Irish”? “That’s so black”? “That’s so cheerleader”? No group likes to be denigrated.

2. Have you been personally discriminated for your sexual orientation or gender identity? What does discrimination mean to you?

I have been personally discriminated against for my sexual orientation ever since I was very young. So many examples come to mind, and what they have in common is that I have been treated differently–worse–because of my sexual orientation. For instance, I remember moving to Billings, Montana, and our neighbor coming out and saying a friendly hello when we arrived. I could see him figuring out that we were a gay couple as we talked, and that was the last time we ever spoke. He actively ignored us after that, and he even made his children come inside the house whenever we were out in the backyard.
3. What would you say to people who are closeted and fear coming out?  To people who are open and want to “recloset” themselves as Rafe did in Openly Straight?

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Look for the Helpers

Earlier this year, I sat in a classroom of 8th and 9th graders in Washington State. A boy started crying. He was so afraid because North Korea had just put out a video threatening to nuke an American city. The boy’s sister lives in Seattle, and he was so scared that his sister would die in a nuclear attack.
 
It reminded me of being 12 and watching the movie THE DAY AFTER, and not being able to sleep for a week. To this day, even seeing a screenshot of that movie scares the shit out of me.
Notice I’m not putting a nuclear cloud up here. I’m not doing it because it’s terror porn. And you know what? The world is scary enough without terror porn. I don’t want to see a nuclear explosion, and you don’t, either. I linked the above article because it talks about how it terrified a generation of kids, not because I wish to terrify anyone else.
 
I didn’t know what to say to make him feel better. It is scary. And to say, “Yeah, it’s scary, but it was scary when I was a kid, too, and nothing happened, so don’t worry,” is the kind of bullshit that gets kids to not listen to adults in their lives.
 
I watched the news this morning about the newest North Korean missile launch and yeah, it’s scary. I’m not alone in lacking confidence about the man in the White House, and his ability to be an adult in the face of difficult decisions. I hope he will be, but his immaturity scares me. A lot.
And thinking about how to comfort myself and how to comfort any young people who are scared made me think of what Mr. Rogers would say. Because no one has ever been more comforting to me than Mr. Rogers.
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For those of you who didn’t grow up with Fred Rogers, he had a show on PBS called Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. He had a voice like strawberry yogurt, and his manner was as gentle as a down comforter.

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