In 1995, I was a college junior creative writing major. I was also newly out but unclear to the extent I should let this impact my work.
I was really looking forward to taking a screenwriting course. Not only was I happy to get a crack at something besides fiction and nonfiction, but I had an awesome idea for a comedy about what it was like to work in a restaurant. Inspired by several viewings of Clerks, I knew I had a winner.
On my workshop day, I read my first ten pages to the class, inserting chuckles where I deemed appropriate. When I finished, I couldn’t wait for the positive feedback to flow. Crickets. My professor cleared her throat and asked across the conference table, “So, you’re a writing major?”
This is the type of feedback squashes a young writer, and I was devastated. My teacher told me to take a few days and then call her over the weekend. We’d get at some better ideas.
I wasn’t all that comfortable talking with professors over the phone—it seemed really personal and I didn’t know this professor at all. But while we talked, she asked what I was passionate about. I rattled off the usual: music, books, drinking, etc. I was waiting for her to start snoring on the other end of the line. She asked again: “No, really, what matters to you?”
I thought for a moment, took a deep breath and then said, “Well, I did just come out.”
I felt bold saying this to someone I didn’t know, and a bit confrontational, as I was somewhat daring her to take the point and run with it. Was I crossing a line by bringing this up? Did I have a right to explore this in my writing? The best thing I figured I had going for me in the moment was that she was my professor, and if she had a problem with it, I’m sure there was someone I could talk to. Still, I held my breath.
So I waited for her to maybe hang up, brush off the comment… I don’t know, do something incredibly dismissive. But instead, her voice perked up. “There, that’s a place to start.” The rest of the conversation she continued to probe how I felt about being young and gay at that time—Ellen had yet to come out on TV, so the culture was shifting but it was not exactly welcoming. Given this, taking on “gay” content was a risk—an artist might be embraced for being bold, brave but as equally shunned for pulling back the curtain on this slice of life people were not yet all that comfortable to discuss openly.
Eventually, I mentioned that I had this idea for a story, based on what I’d heard about this ex-gay ministry movement. I was incensed that these people were brainwashing gay people into being something they weren’t. I was over 21, so I felt safe from being carted off to one of these counselors or whatever they billed themselves as. But some people, either because they were too young to have a say in their own lives or because they were religious and the Bible was telling them that they way they were born (having same-sex attraction) was “wrong” were not so lucky. Someone had to speak up. What would happen if more people bought into this?
And so I gave this idea some thought—what if a group within a church was not getting the results they wanted from their “conversion therapy”? Would they try and find a researcher who was willing to probe and find the “gay gene”? And if they found such a person, would this person be able to find it? And if he did, what would people do with that information? And what if this researcher had a family, who would be impacted by his work? How would he be able to even carry out his experiments? I figured he’d have to be able to experiment on somebody, and so this group would find a way to seduce and then kill healthy subjects. But the subjects whose health made them unfit test subjects, they’d have to dump the bodies. This is when the cops would get involved. And the lead detective, what if he was gay?
That’s your story, she said.
And although the screenplay I eventually wrote was not good, it served as the basis for what became my first novel, Regret. In this novel I flushed out the three storylines—the religious group, the researcher and his family, and the lead detective and his failing relationship with his partner. Through these characters and storylines, I developed themes that I knew weren’t just of interest to me but also to the gay community in general. I crafted stories through this book that I hoped would shine a light on something that needed attention for the purpose of starting a conversation about these issues.
I will always be grateful to Jackie Apple for pushing me in her class to write towards things that mattered to me. She wasn’t the only one to ever do this but she was the first to get me to buy into it completely. I haven’t looked back since.
I was nervous that people would label me as a gay author then and still think about this at times now, but at the end of the day, if an author like me don’t tell our stories, no one will—or at least not well. I’m proud of the impact being gay has on my work.
In addition to Regret (which is available on Amazon HERE, you can follow my current blog where, as a gay author, I chronicle my experience reading the Bible for the first time. I was curious as to why this revered book is so often used to justify bigotry towards the LGBT community.