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Not too long ago, I was a 40-something straight screenwriter. Then I awoke one morning to discover that I'd become a hot, young, gay novelist. Although the change was sudden and startling, it was not mysterious. My first novel had just been published, and its narrator was a witty, erudite, chemically imbalanced, alcoholic, predatory, middle-aged gay man named B.K. Troop.
When I'd first imagined B.K., it never occurred to me that his narrating my book was such a big deal. Despite my woman's name, I am male, and I'd been writing film scripts about women for years without anyone ever lifting an eyebrow. Yet when I finished writing Christopher, many of my friends—gay and straight alike—reacted with shocked concern. Wouldn't a gay narrator turn off straight readers? Wouldn't it make the book harder to sell? What if people confused me with B.K.? What if people thought I was gay? And, by the way, why the hell had I done it? I didn't really have an answer, other than that I adored B.K., and that writing him was more like taking dictation than creating. When a character stands up and walks around, you don't question it; you type. As for how this would affect sales, I didn't really care.
When my agent sold the book, she confessed that the buyer had seemed so pleased to have discovered a promising gay novelist that she had done nothing to disabuse him of the notion. Because she knew that I was already writing a B.K. Troop sequel, she advised me to do the same and not mention my heterosexuality to my editor. It wasn't that she wanted me to lie, exactly. It was simply a matter of don't ask, don't tell.
As I am chronically candid and had never lived in a closet before, I was uneasy at first. But I reminded myself that I had a right to my privacy and that a writer's personal life ought to be irrelevant to the appreciation of his work. I recalled Gore Vidal's droll suggestion that someone should write a tragic novel about a young artist who comes to the big city but cannot get ahead because he is straight. I decided to go along with the plan. Luckily, it seemed fairly easy to pull off, as my editor and I lived on separate coasts.
The awkwardness, however, began during our very first phone call, when my editor asked me what I thought of the novel Fag Hag. He was stunned that I had never heard of it. Weeks later, there was an equally tense moment when I confessed that I had never watched an episode of The Golden Girls. In midsummer, I was nearly busted when I let slip my passion for the Cleveland Indians. His incredulity was fierce, and it wasn't based on the Tribe's lousy record; he just thought baseball "trashy." Each time, I had been sorely tempted to come clean, to fling open the closet door and swing out like Tarzan, or at least sidle out like John Wayne, but I was moving deeper and deeper into my second novel, falling more and more deeply in love with B.K., and the last thing I wanted to do was queer—or, rather, un-queer—a sequel deal.
Not long before Christopher's publication date, my editor came to town for a book convention and we finally met. Driving down to Orange County that day, I told myself that if any moment arose when to remain silent was, in essence, to lie, I would out myself. No such moment came. We had a lovely lunch.
But the inevitable finally happened not long after his return to New York. I casually mentioned an actor I had met. "Oh, I love him," my editor said. "Is he one of us?" A long silence. "I have something to tell you," I sighed. Although he was shocked by the news, and maybe even a little bit embarrassed, he was very good-natured about it. Soon we were laughing and debating whether this was something I needed to share when publicizing the book. We decided that I should play it by ear.
When Christopher was published, the gay press was universal in its praise. The Advocate picked it as one of the best reads of the summer. The Chicago Free Press called it "one page after another of witty, outrageous, raunchy, insightful, tender, and romantic prose." Instinct offered my favorite compliment of all: "You'll find yourself cracking up and thanking higher powers that you aren't this much of a flaming queen!"
Although the mainstream press was just as enthusiastic—the Los Angeles Times gave Christopher a full-page rave in the Sunday Book Review—my book was quickly labeled gay fiction. In fact, the computers at Borders literally labeled it as such, which meant that most of the chain's stores relegated it to the gay section. So did some other chains and websites. Although I was thrilled and proud to be receiving so much support from the gay community, to have the book defined this way made no sense to me. Yes, the narrator was gay, but the title character was straight and so was every other character in the book. If Christopher is gay fiction, an English friend wryly observed, that makes Oliver Twist orphan fiction.
Before long, I was being approached to submit work to gay anthologies, speak on gay-literature panels, and read at gay bookshops. I was even put forward for the Stonewall Award, the highest honor in gay fiction. My need to promote the book, as well as a complete lack of ad support from the publisher, gave me little choice but to make my closet as comfortable as possible. (I considered a mini-fridge and TiVo.) But, still, I hated my confinement. I lived in continual anxiety, feeling thwarted and half-expressed, and certain that I was just moments away from being found out. The only consolation to my self-esteem was that I had yet to tell a lie. In one interview, when asked for my opinion on the state of contemporary gay fiction, I simply answered, "I have no idea."
Months ago, a gay literary website not only reviewed Christopher but also published an excerpt and an interview. Only just recently did I notice a banner on the site: "For GLBT talent everywhere." The site was not for writers whose work was of gay interest, but solely for gay writers. By agreeing to the interview, I had unknowingly deceived them. I had crossed a line.
It was time, I realized, to say goodbye to my double life. I flung open the closet door with a bang, vowing never to return. While I still believe that a writer's sexual preference should be irrelevant to the appreciation of his fiction, I also know now that living a lie of omission is just as exhausting and demoralizing as living one of commission. I can only imagine how terrible it must be in the military, where the penalty for speaking up is not a possible dip in book sales, but the certain termination of one's career.
Last month, I was asked to join a gay author's chat room. I wrote back to the author who had invited me: "I would love to, but I am not gay." I heaved a deep breath and waited for his reply. It came quickly. "Yeah, I heard that. It doesn't matter." I'd always hope I'd find that kind of acceptance. But when you've been oppressed as long as straight writers have, you begin to have your doubts.
Allison Burnett is a Los Angeles-based writer and film director.