Jenn and I at an equality rally, Valentine’s Day, 2008.
I am a gay woman, married (though not “legally”) to a woman. As such, there is an entire host of rights denied to me. Basic rights–like, if my wife got into an accident, I would not be allowed into her hopsital room to see her. My insurance does not cover my wife because I’m not a man. If I died tomorrow, because the house is only in my name, Jenn could be out in the street. There are thousands of rights I do not have, including the right to marry the love of my life.
Well intentioned people are lobbying for something called “civil unions.” They argue that it would include (roughly, but not really) the same rights as a marriage, but wouldn’t include the actual name, thus placating the rabid anti-gay groups and peoples by saying: “see? They don’t REALLY have marriage. It’s close enough, so the gays’ll be happy, and it’s not marriage so the anti-gays’ll be happy. Everybody wins!” The problem is that “separate but equal” has never worked, and by relegating gay unions to “civil unions,” we are classified as something less than straight: second class citizens.
“Marriage” is a word that some straights guard ferociously, with froth inducing zeal. “You can’t have it,” they say, clutching the idea. “It’s ours. It’s always been ours. You can’t have it.”
“It’s an idea,” we argue. “A word. It has nothing to do with you, no one can own an idea. It doesn’t hurt you if we marry, it actually does nothing whatsoever to you.”
“It’s only for straights,” they argue. “No gays allowed.” (And what we’re hearing in our heads when this is said is something akin to: THESE ARE MY TOYS AND ONLY I CAN PLAY WITH MY TOYS.)
The problem with the concept of “ownership” of marriage that many straights portray is reflected in many other instances within culture. Interestingly enough, even in stories.
There’s this amazing YA book, Ash by Malinda Lo–a lesbian retelling of the “Cinderella” fairy tale. I love it for several reasons, but a major one is that it is the first YA book that became well known that had a gay protagonist who didn’t have a terrible coming out or suffer through grief for being gay. Much of GLBT literature focuses on the pain of being gay (which will be another blog post for another time), and this book transcended all of it. It was brave and daring and I appreciated it greatly.
Traditionally published authors have no control over their covers or blurbs (book summaries). When Ash was published, I was surprised to see its summary contain only a very weak allusion to the fact that it was a gay novel. The publisher approached the book from the vantage most publishers take: they wanted it to reach the most people as possible. Whether that was the decision behind not explicitly stating it was a gay book, or they simply didn’t want to differentiate it in the marketplace (which would be a brave and wonderful thing if they did–I have argued many, many times that by relegating the GLBT books into a “special section,” it further insinuates how removed we are from the “regular” population. I, personally, believe–gay or straight–the books should be shelved together), I’m not certain. Perhaps it was none of these. But, regardless, the summary does not state that it’s a gay book, and you’d really have to read into it to figure it out. Or, you know, be gay. Since we’re surrounded by straight literature almost constantly, we have gotten to the expert level of sensing any gayness in a book. It’s a thing. 😉
What’s interesting is that many people were blindsided that Ash was a “gay book.” Many people were pleasantly surprised, it’s true, but an equal number were angry that they’d read a “gay book.” Several people in several reviews of the novel went so far as to say: “why the hell would someone retell a straight fairy tale to make it gay? That’s SO WEIRD. It’s STRAIGHT. It’s not YOUR story!” The “HOW DARE THEY” was heavily implied.
It left me speechless.
The world is made and built for and caters to straight people. Almost all of the movies are straight. Almost all of the books are straight. All of the commercials are straight (and if they’re not, they’re almost 100% derogatory or making fun of being GLBT), almost all television programming is straight (and if it’s not, it’s yanked out during Sweeps to be controversial), all billboards are straights, all advertising is straight, everything you see in popular culture or surrounding you on a day to day basis is straight.
What are we supposed to do? Sit there and be silent? Act like we don’t exist?
To be a GLBT person in a straight world is to see yourself as invisible, relegated to the dusty “special interest” sections, separated, closed off. In this silence, we raise our voices, and we look at the straight culture we are immersed in, and we see a vein or a flicker of something we can relate to, and our hearts rise. Since we are surrounded by straight stories, fairy tales, myths, legends and archetypes, it is true that we often create our own, new stories because we must, because there has been nothing before to relate to, and we must create what we wish to see in the world. But reclaiming is powerful, in and of itself, and to take an old story and revision it to see a bit of yourself in it is something our community needs to do.
Without stories, humankind is nothing. Our past is a story, our future is a story, our lives are a story–everything is story. To grow up with no story you can relate to can be heartbreaking and devastating; to grow up in a world where you are seen as so vastly different as to be labeled “second class” can be excruciating. Surrounded by the straight makeup of the world, one of the most extraordinary actions of courage that can be done is to take an age old myth and see it for what it could be, instead of what it’s always been. It’s subversive, it’s brave, it’s important.
If we do not reclaim stories, I believe the world will stay as it’s always been. If we do not have the courage to have a voice, to say over and over again: “you’re wrong. They’re not just yours. It’s all of ours.” nothing will change. People will always assume we’re all right with second class. People will always assume we’re fine with the occasional mention of GLBT people in film or the secondary tragic gay character in novels because at least they’re gay, right? We should be grateful for that tiny mention, shouldn’t we?
No. We shouldn’t. We are an entire culture. We are “allowed” to reclaim entire stories so that we can see ourselves in them. We are “allowed” to reclaim archetypes so that they’re no longer painful for us to acknowledge, but empowering. We are “allowed” the use and meaning of words that currently only straight people have because, really, we are all just people, and no one concept or word can be held by one group and not all.
I have a novel coming out in less than two months. It’s called The Dark Wife, and it is very many things, but at the end of the day, it’s simplest to say that it’s a lesbian revisionist retelling of the Greek myth of Persephone and Hades. There are no base stories in classical myth that feature obvious lesbians as the protagonist, and very few that feature strong women. The original tale of Persephone involves a kidnapping and rape–the goddess is not a heroine, but the ultimate victim. However, the older version of the story cites that Persephone chose to journey down to the underworld, giving up everything she’d ever known for love. We know very little about Hades from classical texts, but we do know that Zeus was depicted as a jealous god who told many lies to assume control of Olympus, who could have lied to the ancient Greeks about who and what Hades was. Instead of simply changing Hades’s sex to come up with a lesbian story, I have rebuilt the myth and the idea of how we came to know it, reclaiming and reshaping its dark roots into a positive, empowering story that gives lesbians a myth that could have been.
Because of the way I told the story and what we know about the myths, it could have honestly happened (in a, you know, mythic way). But even though I have rebuilt it from the ground up, there will be those people who stand, hands on hips, shaking their heads, saying: “a lesbian retelling of Persephone and Hades. Who the hell would do that? Why can’t they make up their own stories?” There will be those people who, because it’s lesbian, refuse to read it (even though GLBT peoples do not have that luxury with straight literature since it’s everywhere). There will be those people who, because it’s lesbian, will hate it on principle, never giving the story itself a chance. After having read all of the reviews Malinda Lo received for Ash, after going through so much myself simply because I’m gay, after everything else…the question comes up: why are you doing it then?
There are so many reasons. I’ll leave you with the one I feel the deepest:
When I was growing up, I would cry myself to sleep at night because I was so different. There was nothing I could relate to, no one I could talk to. I was considered “perverted” and “weird” and “hell bound” because I liked girls, and I was all alone. There were no stories I read that gave me hope because, in all of my beloved fairy tales and myths, the girls always ended up with princes. If I had found The Dark Wife when I was fifteen, it would have given me the smallest ray of hope in the world. It would have been something. It would have been hope. Hope I wasn’t given until I was much, much older and realized that–regardless of the fact that people hated me because of who I loved–I could love myself anyway.
I wrote this novel for Sarah, aged fifteen. And if one single, solitary person reads it now, and feels the tiniest shred of hope or confidence or love or peace–the simplest, tiniest shred–it will have made a difference. The myth, reclaimed, will have changed and touched and grown.
Humans tell stories. It’s what we do.
It’s what I have done.