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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.

In 2006, I wrote this short short story as my entry in a contest called “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words”. The story had to turn around this photo. It’s odd, I felt awkward writing to a visual prompt, but the story took no more than a couple of days to write. I still like it, so I’ve dusted it off for your reading entertainment.

 

Crossing the River

By spring the pain had dulled. It was no longer the unrelenting ripping sensation in Jake’s chest, as if he were a phone book being torn in half for a meaningless party stunt. Although he still was ambushed by grief occasionally, and wept helplessly then, he mostly now had calm. At first that calm had been the vague sweetness of Prozac, but Jake was done with that.

The counselors at the hospice had helped. They had gently prepared him last summer when the cocktail had stopped working, when in barely a month Howard had turned into a breathing skeleton barely able to smile, when the wasting and the lesions had rendered him nearly unrecognizable. Knowledge of what was to come had been nothing compared to the event itself.

Then they had helped him through those first horrible weeks afterward, when Jake could barely tie his shoes without help, the emptiness in the apartment so final, so silently perfect. They had helped him with the gnawing, wretched guilt of being alive, healthy and HIV-negative – and after nine years, alone.

Now it was different. The absence of the ripping pain was a relief. Now Jake just had absence. Work helped. So did the gym and his other routines. It was August, and he was functional. He gazed contentedly at the groceries in his basket. This afternoon he had managed all his errands and was ready to head home. Life was getting better.

“Excuse please, you are in line?”

Startled, Jake jumped and closed the gap that had grown unnoticed in front of him. “Sorry. I was” he turned, and froze. “…somewhere else.” Soulful blue eyes radiated from a stunningly beautiful Slavic face – high, sharp cheekbones, prominent nose, fierce, sensual mouth. Jake took in the tanned, lanky, muscular frame, the straw-colored short spiked hair, the exquisite toughness that coiled and corded under the tank top, cargo pants and sandals. “I’m staring. Sorry.”

“No, no, please. No sorry!” A smile blazed across the stranger’s face. “I hope you to stare. I follow you in this store many minutes, as I hope you wake up and see me.” The smile melted into tenderness. “You suffer like poet, I think.” He stuck out a broad, elegant hand, and the blazing smile returned. “I am Jiri, spell with chay, sound like why.  Very please to meet you. I also am poet.”

Jake took the offered hand. It was strong, so warm. “I’m Jake. Nice to meet you, Jiri. I’m afraid I’m not a poet, though. Sorry.” He pulled his hand back, but the stranger would not let go. All of Jiri followed the pull, until they were centimeters from each other. Jake felt panic steal his breath. He looked around for escape, some distraction.

“No, no, Chake, do not run, is OK.” Jiri let go of Jake’s hand, and motioned with his head for them to close up the line again. “I not hurt you. I promise.”

With a wan smile, Jake turned to put his stuff on the conveyor belt. He could feel Jiri’s animal heat, his electric presence sparking behind him, too close to be comfortable. He shivered, concentrating on organizing his items.

“You are poet, Chake. You have soul of poet, I can feel.” Jiri’s voice caressed him, flowing warm and possessive down over his body from somewhere just behind his ear. Then it brightened into firmness. “Wait for me, we have coffee!”

Off-balance, mesmerized, Jake waited bags in hand while Jiri came through line and approached, beaming. “So, Chake, my house, two blocks. Starbucks is on corner, OK with you?”

He lifted his shopping bag. “Well, I have things here that shouldn’t get warm.”

“Is no problem!” Jiri decided for him cheerfully. “You put in my fridge, we go for coffee. You pick up after.”

Outside it was hot. Before they got to the light, Jake felt the prickle of sweat. “Why are you doing this, Jiri? What are you doing? What am I to you?”

Jiri stopped and turned to grasp Jake’s shoulders. “I am having big adventure in Vancouver, Chake. You now important part of Jiri’s adventure.” He laughed, teeth and eyes flashing in the sunlight, overwhelmingly beautiful, exuberant. Male. He leaned into Jake and whispered conspiratorially, “We talk more over coffee. You will understand.”

Jake understood in a tumbling fall free of common sense that they would end up in bed. He was almost sure didn’t want that.

Jiri’s apartment building was small, plain. They climbed the three flights to his apartment. Jiri paused, key in the lock. “You will like Sascha. He will like you also. Very much, I promise.”

Jake blanched and fought nausea. “Three? No, Jiri, I’m sorry, I’m just not…” but a wriggling tempest of brown, white and black enthusiasm leapt into Jiri’s arms through the open door.

“Chake, meet Sascha. Sascha, Chake.” Jiri pushed the terrier/whatever into Jake’s arms and grabbed his groceries in one motion. Jake found himself struggling to hold onto the whirlwind that whimpered, twisted and licked in a frenzy of happy greeting.

When Jake put Sascha down, Jiri had already deposited the groceries in the fridge, and stood at the kitchen entrance grinning like a madman. He stepped over Sascha to take Jake’s face gently in both hands. “What you feel, Chake, right now? No thinking. Feeling only. What?”

“I – I’m frightened, I don’t know what’s happening, I…”

“You look alive, Chake, like snorting stallion, eyes rolling. Strong, not sure, so, so beautiful.” Holding Jake’s face captive, Jiri leaned forward and kissed him tenderly. When Jake’s lips stayed closed, Jiri made a soft noise of disappointment, licking the sealed crevice.

“We have coffee now, Chake.” He grinned and winked with unabashed certainty. “Then we come here, you let me make love to you. Part of adventure!”

The Starbucks was busy, but they found a table in a corner, so small that their knees touched when they sat down. Jiri slid his shin forward on the outside, pressing inward against Jake’s calf, a knowing leer playing across his face.

Jake moved his leg away. “Tell me, Jiri – how am I a part of your big adventure?”

“Yes!” Jiri nodded enthusiastically. “Six months I am in Canada, from Belarus. I am student, hydro-electric engineering, from National Technical University, Minsk. I travel in Canada, studying systems, environmental measures. I visit Robert Bourassa station Quebec, Churchill Falls of Newfoundland, Columbia River and Peace River, BC. I take many notes, many ideas.” He smiled proudly. “I make outstanding graduation study and thesis!”

“Are you here on scholarship?”

Jiri nodded, shrugged. “I have uncle in national gymnastics program. He help me get scholarship.” His eyes narrowed, flashed. “I earn, also!” He laughed. “All part of Jiri’s big adventure. Today I walk to store, buy food. I see beautiful man walking, but sleeping. I follow, get ideas. This man so sad. I understand this sadness, I think. I will help this sad man wake up. I want him naked with me.”

Jake stiffened, rage taking him. “How dare you! You have no idea. You say I’m a poet, but I’m not. Howar–” The name stuck in his throat, and a vision rose, of Howard reading in his armchair, long brown hair falling around those goofy wire-rim glasses. “Howard was the poet, not me. And he’s dead. You have no right to think you can use my sorrow to get me into bed.” He sneered, wanting to hurt Jiri. “I bet you’re no poet, either.” He pushed his chair back and stood, trembling.

“Chake. You sit. Now.” Jiri’s voice was kind, but unquestionably in charge. Against his will, Jake sat.

Jiri leaned forward, eyes dark. “I understand suffering. You so proud of your suffering, no? Only you can suffer this way. So tragic! Jiri can’t understand, for sure! I tell you about suffering. When I am little boy, my country is downwind Chernobyl. Half my country is poisoned. So many dying. No one dare say why. My older brother is god, GOD to me. Too soon his lungs full of cancer. No hope. I watch him die. I want to die too.”

He slapped his chest. “Maybe Chernobyl still waits for Jiri, here in body. No one knows. We find out one day for sure. Jiri have adventure until.” He released Jake’s hand, patted it. “Yes, Jiri understand. He see Chake mourning. But he is part of Jiri’s big adventure. Jiri will wake him up, even if Chake not want. But I think Chake want. I think maybe Chake is little afraid of what he feel for Jiri. Is so?”

Jake nodded, mute.

Jiri’s irrepressible smile unfurled. “Outstanding! Jiri will be good for Chake.” Jiri took Jake’s hand and held it in both of his and crooned, “Wake him so gently, so well, Chake never go back to sleep again! We go to my house now, yes?”

Jake nodded, mute.

Later, in the half-light of early evening, Jake lay spent in Jiri’s arms while Jiri snored softly into his neck. He shifted slightly, and Jiri woke.

“I am outstanding lover for Chake, no?”

“Yes, Jiri, outstanding. First since Howard. It’s been so long, over a year. My body – I’d forgotten. But I’m not ready for a relationship yet.”

Jiri rolled on top of Jake and peered at him in the half-light. “Relationship? No. Too soon. You are swimming man, Chake. In middle of big, cold river, very fast. Howard one side of river, no going back. You stay in river too long, you drown. I am rope for you, not other bank of river.” He rolled again so Jake was on top, and wrapped his long legs around Jake’s waist, squeezing. “I pull you to land. That is Jiri’s work. What you do on new side of river is work for Chake.” Jiri smiled wickedly. “I think for Jiri to get Chake to dry land take many nights, though.”

“You are a poet, Jiri,” Jake murmured, “and very wise. And beautiful. And sexy.”

Jiri rolled again, beaming, and leapt to his feet. “Come, I show you something. No clothes. Just come.” He strode into the living room and lay down on his back, arms flung apart. “Sascha, come snuggle! Snuggle, Sascha!” The dog galloped over to where Jiri lay and squirmed onto his back in the crook of Jiri’s arm, legs splayed, tongue lolling. Jiri brought his arm around Sascha and scratched his tummy. “I teach him this trick. Clever, yes? Now I teach you! Chake come! Come snuggle, Chake!”

Laughing, Jake lay down on Jiri’s other side, and imitated Sascha, including the tongue. “Is perfect, Chake! You learn fast.” Jiri drew his arm around Jake and scratched his tummy. “When I return Minsk, you take Sascha, yes?”

“What?”

“I find Sascha six weeks ago, abandoned. So alone. I take him to vet, all shots, very good. I return Belarus in one month. When I go, you take Sascha, yes?”

“You had this in mind all along, didn’t you? You picked me up because you want me to take your fucking dog!”

“No. Not only. Most, I want you wake up. But I also want you share Sascha with me. Jiri and Chake stay close through Sascha for long time.”

“God, Jiri, you’re making me crazy! Let me think about it.”

“You think three days. Condition is you sleep here each night. I not finished waking up Chake, who is too beautiful for one night only.”

Jake rolled onto an elbow and gazed down at Jiri. “You are one helluva rope, Jiri. If you can’t pull me to shore, no one can.”

Jiri grabbed Jake’s balls, laughing. “I pull hard enough, not more.”

***

Jiri had been gone for over a week, and Jake was at Bess and Sarah’s place out in White Rock. Full of barbequed chicken with trimmings, Jake snoozed in the sun on the back lawn. He was startled by a wet nose against his cheek. “Sascha, come snuggle! Snuggle, Sascha!” The dog jumped across Jake’s face to land in the crook of his arm and rolled onto his back, tongue dancing, dripping. Jake laughed, and sent a kiss to Jiri. Jake could feel the whole earth under his body. He was on solid ground again.

 

Lloyd Meeker, © 2006, all rights reserved.