Unqueering the Deal


allisonburnett.jpgThree years ago I published my first novel. Set in 1984 Manhattan, Christopher tells the story of a young man struggling to revive his hope and idealism after they have been trampled to death by his unfaithful actress-wife.

What sets the novel apart from the hundreds of other adulterous-actress survival yarns published each year is that it is narrated by Christopher's next-door neighbor – a fat, balding, middle-aged, erudite, chemically imbalanced, alcoholic gay man named B.K. Troop.

Fuelled by thwarted lust for his hopelessly straight neighbor, B.K. narrates both Christopher's outer and inner life – a point of view that B.K. immodestly dubs the "first-person virtually omniscient."

Despite my female name and passion for antiques, I am a straight male, yet it had never occurred to me that letting a gay man narrate my novel was a big deal, but it was.

When my straight male friends read the manuscript, most reacted with genuine alarm, some with horror. Was I insane? What if people confused me with B.K.? What if people thought I was gay? This struck me as absurd. For years, I had been writing screenplays about women without anyone ever accusing me of being a woman. (Five minutes in a bright room with me naked and it's fairly obvious that I'm not.)

A few weeks later the book sold to Broadway Books, but before the good news had even sunk in, my straight female agent confessed to me that the gay male editor who had bought it was so pleased to have discovered a gay author that she had done nothing to clear up the misunderstanding. She said that if I knew what was good for me I would not breathe a word to him of my heterosexuality. It wasn't that she wanted me to lie, exactly. It was more a matter of “Don't tell, don't tell.”

As I am candid to a fault, the thought of living a lie, even one of omission, was nightmarish to me, but then I reminded myself that I had a right to my privacy and that an author's sexual preference really ought to have nothing to do with the acceptance of his work. If readers were so narrow-minded as to hold my straightness against me, then they weren't entitled to the truth. It's not like I chose the damn lifestyle. I mean, given its lack of good taste and of easy sex, who would?

I agreed to the plan.

Luckily, it seemed pretty easy to pull off, as my editor and I lived on opposite coasts and I speak with a subtle lisp. Things got dicey, however, during our very first phone call, when he asked what I thought of Fag Hag. He was stunned when I told him that I had never heard of it. "What is it?" I asked. "A girl band?" Turns out, it's a novel.

Weeks later, he was equally gobsmacked when I confessed that I had never watched a single episode of The Golden Girls. In midsummer, I could actually hear his sneer through the phone when I let slip my passion for the Cleveland Indians. He considered baseball "trashy."

After each of these awkward moments, I considered flinging open the closet door, but now, more than embarrassed, I was afraid. You see, I had begun writing my second novel, and it, too, is narrated by B.K. Troop. The last thing I wanted to do was unqueer a possible sequel deal.

It is one thing for a straight author to write a novel with a gay narrator, and quite another for him to do it twice. This became clear to me when I told my straight male friends about my next novel - The House Beautiful: A Novel of High Ideals, Low Morals, and Lower Rent (Carroll & Graf).

In this book, set four years later, B.K. Troop inherits a Manhattan brownstone and, in order to afford the upkeep, rents out rooms to young artists, to whom he might serve as mentor, if not muse. The fact that all of the tenants are straight (except for one gorgeous promiscuous lesbian) was, I soon learned, beside the point.

My friends - even the most liberal of them - were flabbergasted that I was actually reinvesting in B.K. “Why not go all the way,” they asked, “and make it a friggin' trilogy? In fact, why not move to Key West and open a B&B?” Right. Like I'd move my antiques to hurricane country.

One afternoon, before Christopher had even arrived in bookstores, I casually mentioned to my editor that I had met a certain movie star at a party, and he replied, "Oh, I love him. Is he one of us?" A howling silence followed. I sighed and came clean.

Although he was shocked by the news, and a bit embarrassed, he was remarkably good-natured about it, and wanted to know all about what had possessed me to write two books with a gay narrator.

My answer was simple: ‘B.K.’ And it was true. When a character stands up and starts walking around, you don't question it; you type. To do anything else is the height of creative folly, not to mention ingratitude.

When Christopher came out, the gay press was kind. 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 warned: "You'll find yourself cracking up and thanking higher powers that you aren't this much of a flaming queen!"

The mainstream press was just as enthusiastic when they deigned to review it, but they rarely did, because it had already been branded gay fiction. A pink triangle might as well have been seared into its spine. Borders and other chain stores relegated it to the gay section in back.

Although I was honored to be receiving so much support from the gay community, to have my book defined in this way made no sense to me. If Christopher is gay fiction, does that make Oliver Twist orphan fiction? Is Moby Dick whale fiction? Is Orlando dyke fiction?

Okay, forget that last one.

Now, three years later, The House Beautiful is about to arrive in a bookstore near you. Despite the fact that on my website and in interviews I am officially out of the straight closet, the generous support of the gay literary community has not wavered.

A gay online literary journal is publishing an excerpt, gay publications are reviewing it and I am reading and signing at gay bookstores. If only the mainstream literary community were as gracious, openhearted, and inclusive toward gay authors. Alas, that day seems far away. The sad fact is that literature with gay protagonists is, if not ignored, ghettoized - unless, of course, it inspires a Hollywood movie starring straight people.

As for my own literary future, friends ask me what's next, and, without reservation, I break the exciting news: Another B.K. Troop novel, the last in the trilogy. - Allison Burnett

Allison Burnett grew up in Evanston, Illinois, the son of a Northwestern University professor. After graduating from Northwestern with a degree in Speech, he moved to New York City, where he was a fellow of the Lila Acheson Wallace Playwriting program at the Juilliard School. For the next decade Allison wrote fiction, while earning his living as a legal proofreader and a tutor of English. In 1990, he moved to Los Angeles, where he works today as a screenwriter. In 1997, he directed his first feature film, Red Meat.