Can Straight Authors Write Queer Too?

In 2003, Allison Burnett’s debut novel Christopher was published. Since it features B.K. Troop, a gay protagonist, the editor just naturally assumed the author was gay as well.

But he was not, and furthermore, he felt very uncomfortable upon learning that he would have to keep his heterosexuality a secret. (His agent told him to do so, at least until the editor had committed to the second novel in the series.) After some rationalizing, Burnett agreed to go along with it. There came a time, though, when he felt compelled to spill the beans, yet luckily, there was no backlash: Burnett says his editor “could not have been sweeter and more understanding.”

By assuming he was gay, Burnett’s editor made an understandable mistake, because why, after all, would a straight man want to create a gay protagonist? Burnett explains his choice this way: “I wanted someone to narrate the life of a young, straight man in New York City in 1984, but I wanted the narrator to be deeply invested in him. …A neighbor who was in love with Christopher would fit the bill, but the thought of [the narrator] being an older woman did not excite my imagination. An older gay man did, as I had had many older gay men take an interest in me and my life in my 20s.” Burnett followed Christopher with another B.K. book, The House Beautiful. The latest in the series, Death by Sunshine, comes out in the fall. Burnett says writing B.K. has been “an effortless joy.”

Like Burnett, Lambda Award-winning young adult author Ellen Wittlinger (Hard Love) does not find writing about a different sexual orientation to be difficult. “After all,” she says, “I’ve written male characters, and I’m not male. I’ve written African-American characters and I’m not black. I’ve written characters who speak to God, although I’m not at all religious. … I don’t think writing outside of my sexual orientation is any more unusual than any of the other ways in which I stretch myself to understand the human psyche. …I will admit [though] I knew very little about what it means to be transgendered and I did worry that I wouldn’t get it right in Parrotfish [which features a transboy]. In fact, I would never have attempted to write a transgendered main character if I had not met my daughter’s friend, Toby, who is a transman. And I wouldn’t have written the book if Toby hadn’t agreed to let me interview him about what it felt like to grow up trans. The book doesn’t tell the story of Toby’s life, but it does make use of the feelings he described to me, the small incidents along the way that hurt or helped. Toby also agreed to vet the book for me when it was finished and in the end I felt it was almost as much his book as mine.”

My writing teacher, Rachel Sherman, has written about women who have female crushes in her novel Living Room and her collection of short stories The First Hurt. Her advice to other straight authors is to “write as if [you] are writing about any kind of love.”

Lynn Isenberg wrote a series of chick lit novels featuring bisexual protagonist Maddy Banks. (The latest of which, The Funeral Planner Goes Global, will be out this June.) Surprisingly, Isenberg based a good part of Maddy on several heterosexual roles Sandra Bullock has had. “The characters she’s played in While You Were Sleeping, Miss Congeniality, and Two Weeks Notice are akin to Maddy, who is [also] extremely ethical, can’t dress at all, and very bright, but rarely recognized for her talents and skills.” One of Isenberg’s happiest moments came when she received an email from a female reader who praised a scene in which Maddy expresses grief in front of her ex-girlfriend, Sierra. “It was one of those rewarding emails that made the risk worth it!”

There were other things that made the risk worth it as well: The Funeral Planner became the inspiration for a business, Lights Out Enterprises, and the experience of writing about Maddy helped Isenberg discover that she, too, is ambisexual. The power of the pen indeed.