On writing (other people’s) stories “authentically”

Hi, all–

I’m sure by now some of you have heard about evangelical Christian Timothy Kurek. He’s the guy who was homophobic and then decided to live life as gay for a year to find out what it was all about. He realized that his views were wrong, and then documented his year in a book.

Sounds like it was something that seems to have helped him figure a few things out. But on the other hand, he spent a year lying to LGBT people and to his family and friends from his real life. Which perhaps might give him a flavor of what it’s like for LGBT people, some of whom HAVE to lie in order to keep their jobs, their kids, their lives. But Kurek isn’t gay (he says). And he could go back to his heterosexual privilege whenever he wanted (he stuck it out for a year). I’m seeing some critique of what he did along those lines.

And it has to do with privilege and, perhaps, “authenticity.”

Source (re-sized here)
More? Read on…

From Sierra, who escaped the Christian patriarchy movement and has blogged about her search for her own self in the wake of that. She has also blogged about her changes in perception about LGBT people. Here, she’s troubled by Kurek:

Suspicion. That’s an immediate and common reaction to Kurek’s project, one that I felt instantly when I read the first news report this week. “Why do we need a straight guy to tell us what it’s like to be gay? Shouldn’t we be listening to gay men themselves?” I thought.
(Sierra, “Checking Out of Privilege: Timothy Kurek’s “The Cross in the Closet” and What it Means to Change Your Identity,” The Phoenix and the Olive Branch blog (October 15, 2012)

I highly recommend you read that whole blog, as well as the comments. She addresses the idea of people transgressing, if you will, boundaries between communities in an attempt to understand for themselves. John Howard Griffin did it with Black Like Me (as Sierra notes, as well), which he published in 1961. Griffin was white, and dyed his skin and hair so as to pass as black and experience life in the segregated South.

Back to Kurek. Here’s Sierra, again:

Kurek writes about his own change of heart, the eradication of his prejudice – in the same way that I tried to do in my homophobia series. Neither he nor I deserve gold stars for learning to overcome our prejudiced programming (come on, where’s my “congratulations on being a decent human being!” card?!). Both of us hoped, though, that talking about the opening of our minds would help other people learn to open theirs, or at least offer some handy tips to people on the front lines who are trying to open the minds of others.
Sierra, “Checking Out of Privilege.”

And let’s check in with Amy Lieberman, writing at Feministing (H/T to Sierra for this):

Okay, I’m super conflicted about this whole thing. On the one hand, you take a homophobic man, add some real life experience, and turn him into an ally and gay activist. That’s fabulous, and I’m all for that! But something about this story just rubs me the wrong way.

I’m pretty sure it’s the privilege. Yeah, that’s what it is. Can you imagine having enough privilege in your life that you felt comfortable running an experiment in which you lied to all your friends and family about a central aspect of your identity for a year?
Amy Lieberman, “Pretending to be Gay?” Feministing (October 15, 2012)

Read the comments there, too.

And here’s Candace Chellew-Hodge, writing at Religion Dispatches:

Timothy Kurek is getting a lot of press for his new book detailing the year he spent pretending to be gay. While I am incredibly pleased that Kurek’s experience in the LGBT community changed him from a self-professed, church-taught “homophobe” into a staunch ally for the community, I have become increasingly troubled by his story.
But I think what galls me the most is the attention Kurek has garnered from the mainstream press—which really isn’t Kurek’s fault as much as it is the fault of a voyeuristic media that loves a peepshow, in this case into the lives of gay and lesbian people. The problem is, the media wants to hear from people outside of the LGBT community to tell the community’s story. This is the most offensive part of this story for me.

Candace Chellew-Hodge, “When Straight People Tell Gay Stories,” Religion Dispatches (October 22, 2012)

She further elaborates,

I’m eternally grateful that our allies are telling our stories, but why are we silenced in the process? Who better to witness and give voice to the trials, the pain, the heartbreak, or even the victories and euphoria than those who have actually experienced them all?

Chellew-Hodge, “When Straight People Tell Gay Stories”

The comments on all these pieces seem to deal with the unease, as well, about telling other people’s stories from a position of privilege. The book Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich came up in both Sierra’s blog and in a comment on Lieberman’s blog. In that book, Ehrenreich took low-paying jobs in different states to see what it was like for low-income Americans. She’s gotten flak for that, because she could always leave that life and go back to her privileged existence. But as one commenter on Sierra’s blog notes, what she did opened the eyes, perhaps, of his (?) wealthy schoolmates. That point comes up with Kurek’s book. He didn’t necessarily write his book for LGBT people or allies. He wrote it as part of his own journey and for a Christian evangelical audience, who perhaps might take the message about religious bias against LGBT people better from one of their own than an actual gay person talking about the crap they deal with every day.

But, as Chellew-Hodge points out, the mainstream media doesn’t want to hear gay people’s stories. They’d rather hear the story from a person who was privileged, went undercover, and says, “Oh, wow. Yeah. There is some discrimination going on here.” As if that somehow validates what LGBT people have been saying all along. “Look! A straight guy went undercover, told everybody he’s gay, and even HE discovered the discrimination! So maybe there is something to what all those gay people have been saying. But we’d better wait until another straight guy goes undercover and says the same thing.” Because somehow, gay people just can’t be trusted to tell their own stories.

I had an email conversation with a reader a while back. The reader was absolutely adamant that authors who identified as heterosexual had no business writing LGBT fiction and/or characters. This reader would not read or purchase LGBT fiction if it was written by a straight-identified author. I got to thinking about that, and I can understand, to an extent, why that reader feels that way. It’s disempowering, in a way, for a person who has no real idea of what it is to live each day as an LGBT person to write LGBT characters whose portrayals may end up coming off as offensive. Not to suggest this happens all the time when straight-identified authors write LGBT fiction/characters. But it does happen.

However, if you’re going to insist that people only write within their boxes, then I have no business writing a Nuevomexicana detective (which I do), because I’m not of Hispanic descent. Nor should I write male characters, by that logic, because I don’t identify as male. And, by that logic, I shouldn’t write straight characters, either.

Admittedly, there’s a big difference between going undercover as gay and writing a nonfiction book about that and writing characters in fiction. Nevertheless, the issues of “privilege” and “authenticity” come up in both, and they’re not issues that have easy or concrete answers.

So, like Amy Lieberman, I’m conflicted about what Kurek did. I don’t necessarily begrudge people who are trying to figure something out about themselves by “going undercover.” Though I’m sure the LGBT community in Nashville (where Kurek did his social experiment) are probably feeling a bit betrayed in the wake of his semi-celebrity status and realization that he lied. His friends and family might be, as well. And some of them may or may not feel kind of weird, especially if they rejected him when he “came out” as gay. So I’m uncomfortable with the idea that he infiltrated a community with lies, then appropriated that story and published it. So why is it that people like Kurek get all kinds of accolades when they realize they had some prejudicial beliefs while those of us who are on the constant receiving end of those beliefs don’t get even a damn golf clap?

Having said that, I realize that what Kurek did is part of HIS story, and I think he has a right to tell his story, in whatever way he wants, whether I agree with him or not (as an aside, read THIS review and the comments following for a whole other can of worms Kurek may have opened). And perhaps his book will help others get past what could be prejudicial views about LGBT people. One reviewer on Amazon said it actually helped him/her start thinking about his/her prejudicial views about evangelical Christians. So it goes both ways.

Ultimately, as a writer, I try to tell stories. I write fiction (which is a slightly different arena than the one Kurek’s writing in, obviously), and I make those stories up and populate them with made-up people. I try to write those characters as authentically as I can so that the characters seem true to themselves in the eyes of a reader. Will all readers think so? No. Will readers take exception to what I write? Yes. Will they challenge my knowledge and “authenticity”? Probably. Will I stop writing certain types of characters because I should only write what I’ve personally experienced within my cultural, ethnic, and racial identities or sexual orientation? No. So how “authentic,” then, is my writing?

That’s something I think all writers grapple with, on some level.

There you go. Monday ponderings. Happy reading, happy writing.

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