Jan 31, 2012
Writing about lesbians when you’re not a lesbian
Last week someone emailed me this question:
“I am writing a short story about a lesbian main character … and almost had it finished when I had a panic attack. I was at a conference talking about my story when a lesbian told me she would never take it seriously because I wasn’t a lesbian and I can’t know what that feels like. But to me that love is love and normal and just like love between anyone else except for that one guy back home and his sheep. I don’t want to do this wrong. I want their love to be the reason my MC survives this ordeal but I don’t want to offend either. What can I do?”
First off, I think it’s great that you’re writing a story about a lesbian character, and that you understand that love is love. ((No comment about the sheep!)) That’s wonderful!
As for the comment made by the lesbian at the conference, well, some lesbians are going to think that way, and they have every right to. For a long, long time (virtually all of history, except for Sappho!), representations of women who love women were made by people who were not women who love women. Some of those representations were perfectly fine; many of them were (and still are) offensive or badly done.
Now that we live in a time period in which lesbians are more freely able to represent themselves — in books, art, the world at large — I think you can understand why many lesbians might prefer to read/watch/experience stories about lesbians created by lesbians. They may in fact be more accurate in their representations, or they may simply seem that way because the reader/viewer knows the creator has been through it, to some degree.
Also, there’s a matter of pride. Sometimes we like to support our own kind.
BUT: Representations of lesbians are not only done well by lesbians, and I think it’s a bit limiting to believe that. I’ve certainly read books about lesbians that were written by non-lesbians, and they’ve been great! Most recently, I adored Tripping to Somewhere by Kristopher Reisz. It wasn’t until someone mentioned (on Twitter? I can’t recall) that she didn’t usually read books about lesbians written by men that I even thought about the fact that Reisz is a man.
Obviously, sometimes men get it so, so wrong when it comes to lesbians. Sometimes straight women get it wrong, too. But that doesn’t mean that (1) you will get it wrong; or (2) lesbians always get it right.
It’s a good thing for a writer to be concerned about getting it right when s/he is writing about a group of people s/he is not part of and which has historically been oppressed. That is the first step in the direction of getting it right.
What else can you do? Well, you might read “Transracial Writing for the Sincere” by Nisi Shawl, which is a great primer on writing about “the other.” You can also read Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward’s Writing the Other: A Practical Guide.
And, you probably know this already, but do your research. You can start with reading about queer people. Take a look at my series of posts on Avoiding LGBTQ Stereotypes. Go to the library and read up on LGBT history and culture. Go online and get lost in AfterEllen or AfterElton, where you’ll get a massive dose of contemporary pop queer culture. And, of course, talk to your queer friends. You might ask one of them if they’re interested in reading your story, just to gut check whether you’re “getting it right.”
And remember: Every queer person has a different life story — just like every human being. If you think of your character as a human being first, that’s a great place to start.