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.

Both of which I whole-heartedly support. The numbers bear it out. We desperately need more books that showcase the experience of diverse characters, whether that means race, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. I know from my own experience that reading a book in which I got to spend time with a character who was struggling with his sexual orientation saved my life as a teen, and I know that this can be true for all under-represented people. Moreover, having titles written by people from those under-represented communities is vital.

So I come to this article from a place of support. And I want to talk about writing across those barriers. And probably the area I ought to focus on is my own. So I’d like to focus on those who identify as straight writing LGBTQ characters. From there, I’d like to expand the question to other areas.

I see things. I don’t always comment, but I see what’s going on online. And after Becky Albertalli’s great novel, Simon vs. the Homosapiens Agenda became a terrific movie (Love, Simon), one thing I saw was discussion–sometimes heated–about a woman who identifies as heterosexual writing a gay male protagonist.

simon cover

It should be said that overwhelmingly people seem to support Albertalli, and for that I’m glad. But some of the comments I saw made it clear that the support is far from unanimous.

“If you aren’t comfortable with straight women writing about gay teenagers, I would avoid this book,” one blogger writes.

One reviewer on Amazon wrote: “So a straight adult female thinks she can write a gay male’s coming of age story? Presumably she thinks she has special insight just because she studied clinical psychology or perhaps she’s recounting patients’ experiences? Either way, arrogant and creepy. That kind of arrogance causes damage. Just keep moving, nothing to see here.”

This hurts my heart. And at the same time, I get it. Coming out is an experience that can’t really be approximated. Having to tell my biological family that I was different than them in a way that was disappointing to them remains one of the most challenging experiences I’ve ever had. So yeah, I get it.

But mostly it makes my heart hurt. Because I don’t agree that as human beings we can’t sit with other people’s pain, and feel it. And it takes more than empathy to do so, yes. It takes research, and courage, and a willingness to venture into your own rabbit hole of pain (worst metaphor ever) and sit there, and let it wash over you.

Which is why I feel this way about straight people writing LGBTQ characters:

You are welcome to my pain and my experience, so long as you are willing to go there in your own way.

So long as you are willing to find that personal bridge and sit there with that feeling, and write it, you are welcome to try. Yes, you will be under more scrutiny. Yes, haters will be waiting and watching for you to make a mistake, and they will pounce. That’s why I said it takes courage.

That said, if you are writing an LGBTQ character because you want to seem “woke” or you see it as a trend, then no, you are not welcome to my experience. That’s called appropriation. You don’t get to sit from your comfortable place and wear my pain as a badge of honor.

To me, it all comes down to whether you are willing to do the very hard work. To make the bridge. Which is a function of art.

Does that make sense?

As I said earlier, my expertise is limited to this one area. I cannot speak with authority on writing across ethnicity. As a white person, I am in a precarious position, and I don’t speak for anyone other than me. And as it turns out, I have recently ventured down my own rabbit hole. One of the two protagonists in my next novel, The Music of What Happens, is half Mexican, half Irish.

I did this not because I want to seem “woke.” I did it with open eyes, knowing I may be skewered for attemptiing to write across ethnicity. The reason I did it is because I visited the high school where the book is set, and I sat in a classroom for several days. And what I saw was a room basically devoid of white faces. This is where I live. This is what’s going on in the world in which I live. To have two white boys fall in love at this particular high school would have been whitewashing the true experience of the place.

So Max was born. And in writing across ethnicity, I sat in Max’s pain to the best of my ability. I searched and searched for my own bridge to what it feels like to grow up half-Mexican, half-Irish in suburban Phoenix. And where my own bridge failed to reach, I researched. And then, when I was done, my publisher hired sensitivity readers to take a look. That was a very helpful experience.

I say this not to cover my ass. I don’t think that’s possible, anyway. Regardless of what I write, there are going to be people who don’t like what I do. As a white man writing a non-white character, I recognize that there is always the possibility that I can’t access a feeling or experience that I think I can access. That’s hard for me to write, but I know it’s true.

My sincere hope is that my books help kids, and entertain kids, and adults, too. My fear is that something I write might do damage. But in the end, all I can do is write the best book I can, and that’s what I did.

Where do you stand on writing across race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability?