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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.

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.

Fellow author Jamie Fessenden wrote a very thoughtful post on his blog recently, about women writing M/M romance, which you can find —here—. It’s well worth reading and thinking about.

This is an issue that has arisen on discussion loops and author blogs for years, often in some combination of complaint, disrespect, snark and defiance. Recent posts on the topic are less strident, I’m grateful to see.

I really appreciate Jamie’s approach, since it offers real commentary, and avoids the outraged “Women don’t write us right!” or “I write werewolves, does that mean I have to be one to write authentically about them?” arguments, both of which which basically miss the point.

“Who the heck is this ‘us’?” this particular gay man asks. The diversity even just within the European / North American gay male demographic is too fabulously far-ranging to function with an individual spokesman. And with werewolves, an author can make up their behavior to suit any whim. It’s a more complex issue when writing about a gay man, since, you know, we actually exist.

Frankly, I’m relieved we’re getting beyond the “You can’t do it right!” vs. the “Yes I can!” arguments because they’re neither helpful nor relevant.

I don’t think anyone disputes that women can write great romance stories featuring gay male characters. They shouldn’t, anyway, since it’s so very obviously true. So what’s the real issue?

Is it that MM romance stories written by men might be a little different from those written by women? When I read one of our stories, sometimes the gender of the author is obvious to me, and sometimes I couldn’t tell if you paid me a fortune. (And if you offered to pay me a fortune, believe me I’d try. I’m an author, after all, and need the cash.)

Just as there are significant differences between one author and another of the same gender or orientation, so also there are significant differences between female and male authors. Why is that a bad thing? I see that as something to celebrate. It means we each can bring something new to our stories if we take the time and effort to do it.

I accept that Fessenden is right in seeing current MM Romance as an extension of its origins in slashfic, but speaking personally, I want our genre to continue evolving into one offering more satisfying emotional depth than slashfic. The baby is growing up, and the evolution I feel coming will require MM stories written by authors of every gender identity and sexual orientation.

I also agree with Fessenden’s observation that while MM romance might be about gay men, it doesn’t really belong to gay men. In fact, I’ll hike out farther on that limb — the genre doesn’t belong to either women or men, regardless of author or reader demographics. It belongs to whoever has compassion and respect for gay men and how we love.

Stating the obvious, women and men are different from each other — completely different emotional, psychic and psychological creatures. I personally believe those differences are stretched more along a shared continuum than isolated into two separate camps, but using John Gray’s simplistic analogy, some men are from Venus, and some women are from Mars.

Even though it doesn’t tell the whole story, there’s some value to looking at a bell curve. The trouble with focusing on exceptions is the same as the trouble with anecdotal evidence. Whatever general observation might be offered, no matter how rational and relevant it might be, it can be contradicted by recounting a single exception. “Well, I know a woman who…” or “I’ve known a man for years who…” That creates a logical impasse that prevents us from exploring what I see as an important and necessary evolutionary threshold for our genre.

Still, there are some fundamentals that are inescapable. Research indicates that a female’s brain matures faster than a male’s, which takes until about age 25 to get there. One of my criticisms of many current MM stories is that they’re essentially YA or New Adult stories, even if the main characters are over thirty, because they behave with the emotional maturity of a 22 year-old. That makes the story New Adult, as far as I’m concerned. YA and NA stories are an essential part of our genre, but what’s the point of having a New Adult story featuring two 30+ year-old males?

While chronologically mature men sometimes do act in immature ways, painting male characters over 25 as having little more than 20-something communication skills, insecurities, angst, values and behavior pushes me out of the story, becomes boring to me, and maybe to other readers. I’ll go further and say it’s insulting to men in general to portray a thirty-five year old man with the emotional IQ of a twenty year old — unless he’s psychologically puer aeternus and that’s the key to his character arc.

Of course such chronologically mature/emotionally immature men exist, but their frequent appearance in our stories raises a question for me — why would any author repeatedly write such characters? What’s the message in that? Is it a form of sexism, saying that’s what men are like? I hope not.

I suggest mature masculine psychology offers terrific material for MM romances, and is seriously under-represented in our stories. I believe that writing main characters emotionally older than 25 will force us to address the depth and complexity of the mature masculine in our stories. The downside is that an emotionally mature male character might take more work from the author to realize than opting for some familiar character shortcuts to emotional conflict that are plausible for an immature protagonist.

Ultimately, generalities prove insufficient in any real conversation, but there are any number of scientific studies that shed light on important psychological and emotional differences between women and men — the way we process images, grief, anger, forgiveness, sexual energy, relationship. Some differences might be cultural, others intrinsic to our basic sexuality. In some ways it doesn’t matter — they’re all important and wonderful. Diversity is a good thing!

If those differences are real and important and good, why then should the majority of gay protagonists feel the same way about trust issues, monogamy or marriage as the majority of straight women? Why should the familiar tropes of het romance dominate MM romance? Why should the story question, “Does she dare open her heart to love again?” be automatically translated into “Does he dare open his heart to love again?” Why should a gay man’s HEA look like a straight woman’s?

I’m not saying they can’t be the same — they certainly can. But isn’t there also room for more than that? What else might they look like? Let’s get adventurous! Some authors will dismiss these questions with the observation that this is how it always has been, and what “the market” demands. Those voices have every right to be heard in this discussion, but I personally don’t believe those voices are on the side of evolution.

I believe that MM romance is on the wonderful threshold of an evolutionary leap. Evolution is risky, however. The troublesome thing about change is that it brings change. I feel growth coming!

One of the most common impulses in a person who encounters unfamiliar diversity is to look for the common ground. In discussions of gay romance that’s led to remarks like, “gay men are just like other men except that they love men instead of women.” We’re not. Please accept that. Believe me, a man of some race other than Caucasian is NOT interested to hear, “You’re just like a white man except for the color of your skin.” That approach, while probably well-intentioned, is ignorant, and profoundly insults our differences.

In the most useful diversity training I’ve taken, I was instructed to first honor the differences just as they are without trying to smooth them down into comfortable common ground right away. There’s plenty of time later to find the common ground after the differences are acknowledged and at least partially understood.

The practice is first respect for the difference, and second for the gifts that the difference brings. That’s much harder work than the more naive (but usually equally well-intentioned) approach of claiming that we’re all the same. We’re just not.

I attended a writing workshop a few years ago with about ten other authors. During one session, the instructor gave each of us the same group of characters, same character agendas, the same setting, the same external events and conflicts. He had each of us write the scene, and later we read them aloud. Each one was completely different. I mean completely different. It was a revelation. I can’t write the same as my colleagues even if I try, and the same is true for every author.

In his post, Fessenden raises the startling question as to whether men can write MM romance. Of course they can. There’s a long list of wonderful male MM romance authors to prove it. Their stories aren’t — and shouldn’t be — the same as romance stories written by women authors. Is it politically incorrect to admit that the differences exist? It’s time to acknowledge and appreciate the differences for what they are, without bickering over which is “better” or “more real”.

So I’ve referred more than once to some looming evolution in our genre, and I feel obliged to get more specific about that. After all, I see it already occurring in the work of many authors I respect and follow.

I see us moving toward thematically deeper characters and varying-themed stories, moving away from slashfic-like work where a handful of familiar tropes, keywords, gimmicks and memes stapled to a slightly modified plot could pass muster. Every author has done that. Even though I’m still fond of it, I’m grateful my first book (a swords and sorcery effort) is out of print!

I see us expanding the parameters of romance beyond the rules inherited from het romance with its overwhelming emphasis on the story of deliriously happy monogamous dyads fading to black before the arguments about squeezing the toothpaste tube in the middle begin. Not abandoning all the ground rules, necessarily, just expanding our scope. This also is already happening, through a healthy variety of authors.

I see us accepting that quality of story always trumps convention, and that well written stories with compelling characters will inspire most readers to enjoy the journey into unfamiliar territory. Those that take the chance, anyway.

Not every author will write transgressive romance, or even write chronologically mature protagonists. Not every author will write protagonists under 25. Each writer of each gender identity and each orientation brings something of value in her/zir/his best work, and one way or another it contributes to our genre’s evolution.

I believe this respectfully inclusive, “room for everyone” approach will take us forward into a fecund, more emotionally powerful genre than any of us can presently imagine.