This week I’m pleased to introduce a writer who I met several years ago at the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans. His name is ‘Nathan Burgoine and to me, his quiet but charming manner stood out in a crowd of queer writers, and although I didn’t spend as much time with him as I should have, I made up for it by getting to know him through his writing. His gay superhero novel, Light, had me smiling from the first page.
As today’s guest blogger, he focusses on why it is important to speak your mind.
A friend of mine was lamenting a trip to visit family the other day. Specifically, a sibling ranting—yet again—some racist crap that my friend was just too tired to counter. I commiserated, having recently visited family for a week and having had, among many other conversations, a few awkward moments over assumptions about refugees, the homeless, the use of the horrid word ‘retard’ and more I’m sure I’m now forgetting (or repressing).
A while ago, I put forth a gentle counter to someone’s discussion (I believe it was about polyamory) where it was obvious to all concerned that the person I was speaking with had zero chance of changing their thoughts on the subject. That happens often—especially in social media, and especially when religious beliefs are involved—and a friend in common sent me a private message saying she agreed with me, but also asking me why I bothered when the man in question was obviously not about to change his mind.
My answer then—and now—is the bystander.
I’m not a fool. I know full well that when I put forth a different point of view about something someone is speaking strongly about that they’re not likely to turn around and say, “Oh, well, you have a reasoned and measured argument and tone, perhaps I should critically examine my deeply held emotional belief on this subject and change my mind.” It’s not going to happen. And, frankly, I fall just as much victim to this as others do: I’m pro-choice, I’m pro-marriage equality, pro-polyamory rights, an advocate for visibility and own voices, and on and on. Many of these things get me really worked up, though I try very, very hard to be calm and measured as much as I can when having conversations.
Because for years, I was the bystander, and for years, no one said anything.
Here’s the thing. I don’t butt heads with my family to change their mind. I butt heads with my family so my niece and nephew hear a different point of view, and hopefully see that having that differing point of view is an option. When I have discussions on social media, my hope is that those who aren’t taking part in the active discussion also see it, and maybe, if they’re sitting in one of the groups I’m talking about, they see that they’ve got an ally.
When I was a queer kid, I saw nothing out there. No characters on television, no characters in movies, and certainly no athletes or famous folk of any ilk were there as an example of a future for myself. I loved to read, but I didn’t find myself there, either (certainly not in young adult books). That added so much stress to an already huge problem: I knew I was a queer kid but had no idea what that actually meant or what sort of life I could possibly have. When I did start to find mentions of other people like myself, they were dire and wretched (this was the eighties) and I was terrified.
My friends made fag jokes. My family made queer jokes. Everyone made AIDS jokes. I curled up in a ball and hoped no one could tell, because it was obvious that who I was was some combination of a punchline and a death sentence.
Those were the only things, after all, that were ever discussed in front of me about queer folk.
As an adult, I’m keenly aware of that past, and it’s one of the reasons I try so hard to have discussions whenever I can, wherever I can, and why I write what I write.
I’m still no idiot: as much as I know visibility matters, I’m not going to hold hands with my husband somewhere I’m likely to get stomped into the ground for doing so, but I sure do make sure I call him my “husband” whenever I’m somewhere safe to do so. When people tell those jokes, I call it out. It’s awkward for everyone (myself included), but I know the power of those moments, and for all I know the person in the next booth at the restaurant, or the next seat on the bus, or even standing with us is listening and hearing that they are a punchline.
And if there are kids around, I’m doubly vigilant.
Stories are another way to have these discussions, and that’s the main reason I write queer characters. I write characters I wish I could have read when I needed them. And while I do write with that specific reader in mind, I’m also writing for the other bystanders. The people who haven’t really thought about it before, but who—though a story—might have a small moment of realization.
I wrote a piece for a romance collection recently, and when the two fellows in question finally have their moment, they happen to be outside on the street. They kiss—but they kiss after checking that there’s no one around who might ruin the moment, or put them at risk. When I was working on this piece, I was also at a romance conference, on a panel about writing queer characters where the audience was made up by a vast majority of straight readers, and I brought this small facet of reality up as an example of a way to include a bit of authenticity when writing queer characters: we often don’t have a freedom of expression in the same way a straight couple might.
There was a visible and audible reaction to that statement. After the panel, a couple of people came up to me to express how they hadn’t thought of that before, and we had a great discussion of how far things have come, and how pleased I am that I could now find myself on a panel at a romance conference as a queer writer.
Whether you ever find out about it or not, someone is listening who might need to hear what you’re saying.
Before this post was published, my partner, Warren, read it and felt these words as powerfully as I did. So I’d like to thank ‘Nathan Burgoine for today’s thought provoking post. Make sure you check out his website and his latest novel, Triad Blood, pictured below. The trailer is at the end of this post.
‘Nathan Burgoine grew up a reader and studied literature in university while making a living as a bookseller. His first published short story was Heart in the collection Fool for Love: New Gay Fiction. Since then, he has had dozens of short stories published, including Bold Strokes titles Men of the Mean Streets, Boys of Summer, and Night Shadows as well as This is How You Die (the second Machine of Death anthology). ‘Nathan also has a series of paranormal erotic short stories that begins in the Bold Strokes anthology Blood Sacraments, and continues with further instalments in Wings, Erotica Exotica, and Raising Hell. His standalone short erotic fiction pieces can be found in the Lambda Literary Award finalist Tented, Tales from the Den, and Afternoon Pleasures. ‘Nathan’s nonfiction pieces have appeared in I Like it Like That and 5×5 Literary Magazine. Nathan’s first novel, Light, was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award.
A cat lover, ‘Nathan managed to fall in love and marry Daniel, who is a confirmed dog person. Their ongoing “cat or dog” d’tente ended with the rescue of a six year old husky named Coach. They live in Ottawa, Canada, where socialised health care and gay marriage have yet to cause the sky to cave in.