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So — picking up from Part One: a straight hero grows up in an automatic level of belonging—whether it’s the idyllic Shire, or some other culture in which the hero belongs to an identifiable majority—that a gay one does not. But there’s a great and powerful gift inside the pain of not belonging: it sets him free. The gay hero does not owe the same psychic allegiance to the heteronormative world and its cultural conventions that a straight hero does. He sees the culture in which he lives through a very different lens. As a result, he understands the familiar world from a perspective that is ideally equipped to bring outside-the-box thinking for change, insight, compassion and creativity. But it takes courage to do it.

In boyhood most gay males learn to be shape-shifters, which in itself is another kind of separation from the world. Generally speaking, he learns to appear to be something he is not and becomes highly skilled in the performance. This psychic fluidity is a double-edged sword, both strength and weakness on his journey. For him there are few identity absolutes. He’s likely hyper-vigilant in situations involving power or risk, and often he can adapt faster than his integrity can process. This is why coming out is still the single most powerful act a gay man can undertake. It’s an unretractable declaration of his true identity, from which there is no retreat. After that, his developed skill at shapeshifting can be put to other uses.

In the lingo of the hero’s journey, shape-shifters are usually presented as being ambiguous or unreliable, probably untrustworthy, possibly amoral or even dangerous precisely because they don’t owe the same psychic allegiance to cultural convention. (As an aside, I believe it is precisely this inherent and palpable lack of investment in the status quo that frightens social conservatives.)

How does that contrast with the usual characterization of a straight hero at the beginning of his journey? A straight hero is rarely shown first as a shape-shifter unless he’s a con man or a secret agent. He is often emotionally reliable, if not responsible. He might start out as an arrogant jerk, but he is also shown to be innately good. The storyteller is sure to have him “pat the dog” in some important way. We don’t even have enough examples of gay hero’s journeys to argue a clear distinction on this point, but hopefully the stories we tell will add to the conversation.

The gay protagonist must find an internally congruent, authentic way to belong in the straight world when he returns. That’s essentially what a gay hero’s first great journey is about. You may be writing about a subsequent journey for him, based on the place in the world that he’s already found, but the emotional echoes of this first journey, of belonging—still as an outsider, but now an outsider who belongs—will resound in whatever transformative adventure he undertakes, and the fears he faces on his journey might well reflect that.

For further reflection on a gay protagonist’s outsider status before he begins his journey, here is an interesting list of ways in which a gay man can be reminded he is an outsider.

Straight Privilege

I believe this list was compiled in 2002. Today some of the bullet points are not as relevant as they once were, but most still pertain.

There is one item not on the list, one that stands behind all the rest—a gay man belongs to an irrevocably permanent minority. A gay hero’s journey must in some way bring him peace with his original discovery of being unlike the majority of people around him. He may not always be highly visible, and he may not always be welcome—but if he survives his journey and returns with his life-nourishing gifts, he is always immensely powerful.

* * *

Again: I wrote this piece focused on a gay male hero. I’m not seeking to speak for all gay men or make broad generalizations about what makes us tick, but rather to point to certain influences that might well have a bearing on a gay male protagonist separating from the world as he prepares for his journey. Further, I deliberately did not seek to expand my consideration to include LBTQ people. I’m not qualified to speak to their journeys except in the most purely archetypal sense. I look forward to reading—and learning from—contributions from those who are.

I’m developing materials for an online course to be presented this October under the aegis of the Florida Romance Writers, focusing on the differences in the Hero’s Journey for a gay protagonist. I’ve been fascinated by the Hero’s Journey since I read Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces as a teenager. It wasn’t until decades later–after I came out–that I became sensitive to the heteronormative overlays in the Journey as it was usually described. At first I was offended, but I soon realized that those overlays were perfectly appropriate for straight heroes, and that “somebody” ought to get busy and examine the differences for a gay male hero. So here are some comments about how a gay Hero’s Journey might present unique opportunities for a writer.

Now before anyone asks about other queer heroes (other than a gay male), let me beg those who are qualified to contribute to this body of understanding to do so. All I can do is speak what I’ve got to say, knowing that it’s not the whole picture. It’s just my part, and only as I presently understand it given my own evolution.

So with that out of the way, here is an initial commentary on the first stage of the Hero’s Journey, Separation from the World, the first part of two.

 

The first stage in the Hero’s Journey is often described as “Separation from the World.” In this post I want to focus on this part of the Journey, and on the profound differences that it presents to a gay protagonist in contrast to a straight one.

For any hero this Separation from the World can be represented as a moral restlessness, such as having an idealistic, seemingly impractical dream or some resentment at an injustice. Something isn’t right with the world, but the hero-to-be can’t exactly put his finger on the problem. Harry Potter lives under the stairs, living an unhappy, persecuted life—but it seems the best he can manage, given his unfortunate circumstances.

The Separation can also be sudden, although this usually combines the separation from the familiar world with the next step, the Call to Adventure (the inciting incident). The hero can be fired, or kidnapped. He can witness a murder. He can find a million dollars in his gym bag, and the story is off and running.

It’s tempting to slide over the more subtle Separation, what I called a moral restlessness, because current literary fashion insists a reader must be “grabbed by the throat” in the first five pages or the story isn’t worth reading.

But take note of one difference: the separating moral restlessness comes from inside the hero, who by then is already growing. His growth is creating uncomfortable pressure in his experience of reality. In the standard start-at-a-gallop story, Separation/Call is an external event that happens to an internally passive hero. The psychological richness of an internal driving force is lost, at least for the opening moments.

In writing gay protagonists, another temptation is strong—to make them just like straight men except for their sexual attraction to other men. After all, a gay man could find a million dollars in his gym bag as easily as a straight man.

Writing gay male characters as if they were essentially straight is a terrible disservice, not only to gay men and the distinct spiritual gifts we bring, but also to those who genuinely seek to understand us. It misleads everyone with a glib untruth.

So long as the action originates outside the hero, the author can probably get away with pretending straight and gay heroes are the same—for example, writing a gay paranormal “alpha male” just like a straight one. Maybe he’s a navy SEAL assassin wolf-shifter Krav Maga master who restores pre-Raphaelite paintings in his spare time. His persona is pretty much a construct of externals, except, of course, for his Great Wound. When writing the hero’s internal response to external events, however, the differences between gay and straight become unavoidable–and important.

When the gay hero’s sexuality, or some other core aspect of his internal life drives the story, Separation from the World takes on deeper meaning, because a gay hero is forced to separate from the world before puberty. He discovers he’s an outsider in the heteronormative world. The difference this makes to a gay hero’s journey is massive, and in this post I can only point to one or two of its facets.

The first difference is the most obvious. It’s so obvious it’s usually overlooked entirely, yet the psychological ramifications can be a rich resource when creating a gay protagonist about to go on a great journey: we are a minority. Even among our own race, our religious community, in our most intimate circles of beloved family, clan or kin, we are a minority. What’s more, we always will be a minority.

Nations will come and go, cultures will rise and fall, technology will change, but we will likely remain about the same percentage of any population. This is so significant that by itself it can provide the basis for a gay hero’s journey: he is different from almost everyone else around him, even in his nuclear family. I suggest that some element of a gay man’s Great Wound is “not belonging,” even if it’s a minor one.

What impact might this discovery have on a boy’s psyche, to understand that he’s fundamentally different long before he really understands what that difference actually means?

He might look for role models in the usual places. Will he find them?

“Within the typical secondary school curriculum, homosexuals do not exist. They are ‘nonpersons’ in the finest Stalinist sense. They have fought no battles, held no offices, explored nowhere, written no literature, built nothing, invented nothing and solved no equations. The lesson to the heterosexual student is abundantly clear: homosexuals do nothing of consequence. To the homosexual student, the message has even greater power: no one who has ever felt as you do has done anything worth mentioning.”

— Gerald Unks, ed., The Gay Teen: Educational Practice and Theory for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Adolescents, Routledge, 1995, p. 5.

Although citing this lack of role models might seem like a complaint, it’s not. In the twenty years since this quote was written, tremendous changes have occurred, and the gay teen is no longer a Stalinist nonperson, at least not by definition. But even when the day comes that gay teens enjoy full acceptance, respect and equality, they will still be in the minority no matter their culture. A gay teen will still have ten times the straight role models as those he finds wired like himself. The psychological ramifications of this one difference should not be overlooked when creating a gay hero: he’s an outsider long before the journey begins. And painful as that may be, that’s the way it should be.

Certainly, gay men should be respected and not persecuted. But the first great subliminal learning for a gay hero is this: This will never be my world. It belongs to straight people. I own only my own gifts and how I bring them—and this sets me free.

While all of us love a good romance, I’ve come to the conclusion that we read them for different reasons. One reason is no better than another, but I’m going to suggest that it’s important for an author to be aware of what basic reason they seek to serve when setting out to write a romance. Through that authorial choice, we extend an invitation to a reader as to how we expect them to enter our story.

I’m not claiming to be encyclopedic about this, (so let’s assume my list is incomplete) but I’ve identified three primary emotional invitations to a romance reader—that is, three distinctly different reasons why a reader might want to read a romance starring two men. I’ll be brief about the first two, because I want to spend more time on the third.

  1. Reader as Stand-in. 

The first is the most obvious—the traditional romance invitation, inherited unchanged from straight romance. This psychological structure invites the reader to enter the story through one of the main characters, and presumes that the other half of the romantic bond or pairing is considered legitimate relationship material, at least in fantasy: the powerful billionaire, the good-hearted veterinarian, the construction contractor, the youth pastor volunteering at the homeless shelter for queer youth, the geeky computer expert, the coffee shop owner, and so on. There’s a long list.

If one of the main characters doesn’t represent a satisfactory fantasy partner for the reader, the reader can’t relate to the other main character as an acceptable placeholder. The emotional premise of this kind of love story won’t work for a reader on that wavelength. I think it’s fair to acknowledge that this invitation is for a reader of the same gender identity and sexual orientation as the characters. How else could a reader identify as a stand-in for one of the characters?

For sake of full disclosure, this is the emotional approach I’m most inclined to take when reading a romance featuring two men. I’ve frequently finished one of our romances dissatisfied, and that’s what forced me to examine what other emotional invitations might exist for a reader. After all, our genre is full of wildly successful love stories that don’t use this basic premise.

  • Reader as Empathetic Cheerleader. 

The second premise presents a romance between two men without that explicit invitation to enter into this story through one of the main characters, or share their gender identity or orientation. Rather it presents the couple as legitimate relationship choices — for each other. We cheer for them and their happiness, but would never marry one. That presumption is unnecessary with this invitation. The reader then enjoys the story through watching the unfolding relationship. Alpha shifters, strippers and sex workers (depending on how they’re characterized), Navy Seal assassins, spies, and so on. Again, there’s a long list. 

I began to understand this dynamic better through a conversation with Poppy Dennison. She told me that she’d given up on het romance because she didn’t find much to identify with in the heroines she found there. As a result she was drawn to romance between two men, where she could appreciate both the unfolding relationship and the sexual heat without any of the expectations that go with being an emotional stand-in for one of the characters.

  • Reader as Healer/Caretaker. 

This third structure is significantly different from the first two, psychologically speaking. It invites the reader to engage emotionally with the characters without requiring a reader to think that one of the main characters as relationship material at all when the story begins, even though we know they will eventually find love. Instead, we want to rescue or heal them. The characters are, in a sense, entrusted to the healing care of the reader. 

This territory includes, amongst others, hurt/comfort tropes, starting with utterly safe, predictable wounds (he’s been cheated on and he doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to trust/love again – gasp! Clutches pearls…), and culminating in “the impossibly broken hero” who is so emotionally or psychologically damaged he’s incapable of being a love partner – when the story starts.

I believe this dynamic invites a reader to a completely different emotional experience, centered in the heartfelt conviction that everyone – even the most catastrophically damaged – deserves healing through love and a happy ending. 

In this case, I suggest the Relationship, with a capital R, so profoundly central to the concept of romance, takes a secondary role to the healing of one of the characters. Sure, the healing almost certainly takes place because of love, but I argue (and you’re free to vehemently disagree with me) this kind of story is about healing first, and love second.

I am suggesting that for this kind of story, the reader’s point of entry is not the legitimacy of the characters as relationship material, but the woundedness of one of the main characters. This story invites the reader to connect empathetically with one or both of the characters as a rescue or rehabilitation project. The reader helps nurse a good but wounded creature back to health and happiness, and that’s the real emotional payoff of this kind of story. The resulting relationship simply becomes the proof of the healing.

After thinking about this for a long time, I’ve come to the conclusion that this dynamic draws on a different kind of love in us – specifically, the maternal instincts present in women and gay men. Many of us, I believe, are hardwired to be nurturers, helpers, and healers. Indeed, if we’re not careful we can easily become chronic rescuers – which is not always healthy for us, or anyone around us. 

For better or worse, we nurturer-helper-healers are suckers for things that make us go AWWwww: skinned knees, wanting to save the baby bird that has tried to fly too soon, the hopeless hero who struggles to cope, broken by personal tragedy, or broken on the rack of heartless society in general.

So our maternal instinct allows us to feel love on a very different basis from the traditional premise of a romance. This psychological difference is significant and I think it’s valuable to explore some of the strengths and pitfalls of this approach. 

The most obvious strength of this approach is the emotional power it can pack for us caretaker/healer/maternal types. A deeply wounded, compassionately written character can set even a routine romance plot on fire. But here’s a serious caveat: if the tragic woundedness is used just for the emotional hook, I say that’s cheating the reader. Healing is far too significant and complex a human experience to be used just as a form of emotional kindling to make a story catch fire. For me, the healing has to have a real and believable arc.

The most obvious risk for these stories is crossing a line between writing a romance about wounded character(s) and losing credible claim to being a romance. A wounded character is one thing, being truly broken is another. If the character can’t logically sustain a romance relationship for a believable HEA, then it ceases to be a romance. Maybe the story turns out to be a terrific psychological thriller, or a mystery, or general fiction instead. But if such a story is presented as a romance, romance readers will subjectively feel the difference and be disappointed.

The first red flag for me in this kind of story is whether the story focuses more on the woundedness rather than on the healing. Take it from me, pages and pages of “battling his demons” is not the same as healing. Suffering does not necessarily equate to internal conflict. Conflict produces a change, no matter how small. Sure, there has to be some orchestrated set-up to show how wounded the character is, so there can be an arc. But his healing has to be a real arc, not a hundred and eighty pages of depressed, agony-laced self-loathing and twenty pages of miraculous, magical transformation into a viable relationship partner. In this kind of story, I suggest the hero’s decision (and real efforts) to heal must begin in act one — long, long before the “all is lost” moment.

In the real world we know that love alone is not always enough to save someone from themselves. They have to want to be saved, and have to accept help. In romance novels, the same is still true, even if some of the lines can be softened. Is there room for some compassionate tough love in a romance featuring a broken hero? I think so. It can help keep the story on track, instead of bogging down in a toxic quagmire of pity and angst.

My biggest beef with these stories is that too often the broken hero is passive – even resistant (perfectly understandable at first, increasingly loathsome as the story progresses) – toward his healing. Does he want to be able to sustain a HEA with someone, or is he just going to wallow defiantly in being unworthy damaged goods until someone else magically fixes him? That is, is it rational to expect even a dedicated romance hero to stick around for someone who won’t try?

So authors – show your wounded character as proactive in wanting to heal. Does he seek help? Does he try to grow and change over and over? Does he fight for his relationship? A passive hero is a limp hero, and there’s a big difference between being wounded and being limp. In romance stories a limp hero is unworthy of love.

Another question for authors to think about is how the healing comes. Psychological help is often given the briefest lip service if mentioned at all, but there’s a reason those folks are called therapists. Good ones help a client find a way to heal. If the hero is impossibly broken, love alone is not enough. He needs professional help. Can a deeply wounded protagonist ever earn an HEA? Absolutely. But it takes more effort than many MCs seem able to summon in order to get there. 

There’s no shortcut around that healing, and an author writing an impossibly broken romance hero needs to understand that. So authors, I beg you not to hike out into “impossibly broken” unless you’re willing to work as hard and as realistically for his healing as your hero must.

(This article first appeared May 2017 in my column “Through My Lens” for Genre Talk at http://www.thenovelapproachreviews.com.)