Writing Across Gender Lines
Guest post by Jendi Reiter, author of Two Natures (Saddle Road Press, 2016) for blog book tour, Feb-March 2017
I had a serious case of imposter syndrome during the three years I was writing the first draft of Two Natures. On some deep intuitive level, I felt that my male narrator and main character, Julian, was me, but I had never thought of myself as anything but a woman. When my conservative Christian friends spoke out against homosexuality, I wanted to respond, in the words of lesbian poet Minnie Bruce Pratt, “This is my life you are talking about,” but it wasn’t—was it? I had no label for my emerging sense of queerness. I didn’t know if there was anyone else like me—a woman with an alternate, interior life as a man attracted to men.
I was also sensitive to the risk of cultural appropriation. Majority-group members often feel entitled to try on minority-group traits that seem fun or exotic, without actually sharing in the struggle for equal rights or respecting the minority’s need for an “own voices” space. Straight women, for instance, might fantasize about gay men as sassy best friends, eye candy, or style icons. However, not all gay men fit this stereotype, and the ones who do are real human beings, not mere accessories to straight people’s fabulous lifestyles.
This latter concern came up in the genre boundary wars between M/M and gay fiction. I eventually discovered, with a great deal of relief, the large community of women who read and write love stories about male couples. Yet these authors were not always taken seriously by the gay male literary community. Women writers were accused of creating superficially male characters with female personalities—by which I suppose the critics meant men who were monogamous, emotionally expressive, and romantic about sex. There’s truth to this criticism in some cases, but there’s also a lot of internalized misogyny. Gay men are still men who’ve been raised in a sexist society, bullied into hating their own vulnerability and feminine mannerisms.
For too long, I lived in fear that no one would believe Julian as a character if he showed any “female” emotions. I took too many of my authenticity cues from binge-watching DVDs of “Queer as Folk”, a groundbreaking (and hot!) example of queer representation on TV, but one with a serious sissy-phobia problem. If Julian acts like a jerk in the early chapters, blame Brian Kinney.
Certain male authors helped me stop shutting down Julian and his friends when they tried to speak sincerely about love and loneliness. Iconic Southern novelist Pat Conroy was, to my knowledge, a straight man, but his male narrators freely indulge in mourning their childhood pain and luxuriating in the beauty of art and nature. Romance writer TJ Klune writes such wonderfully sentimental, tearjerking romantic comedies that his fans even have a name for how his books make them feel: “Wookiee Cry Face”. The late poet Reginald Shepherd argued in the title essay of Orpheus in the Bronx that writing was equally revolutionary when it let you reach beyond your identity markers, as well as when it represented them. Self-help books by therapists Angelo Pezzote (Straight Acting) and Terrence Real (I Don’t Want to Talk About It) explained how boys are socialized to conceal the tender side that all humans share. I realized that gender does not divide people as much as the different coping strategies we use to avoid rejection.
Finally, my involvement in LGBTQ communities for novel research taught me that the Q includes me! It doesn’t matter that my characters and I don’t fit into other people’s ideas of the gender binary. We can still claim our place under the big rainbow umbrella.
Title: Two Natures
Author: Jendi Reiter
Release Date: September 15th 2016
Genre: LGBT fiction, MM Romance
Two Natures is the coming-of-age story of Julian Selkirk, a fashion photographer in New York City in the early 1990s. His faith in Jesus helped him survive his childhood in the Atlanta suburbs with an abusive alcoholic father, but the church’s condemnation of his sexual orientation has left him alienated and ashamed.
Yearning for new ideals to anchor him after his loss of faith, Julian seeks his identity through love affairs with three very different men: tough but childish Phil Shanahan, a personal trainer who takes a dangerous shortcut to success; enigmatic, cosmopolitan Richard Molineux, the fashion magazine editor who gives him his first big break; and Peter Edelman, an earnest left-wing activist with a secret life.
Amid the devastation of the AIDS epidemic and the racial tensions of New York politics, Julian learns to see beyond surface attractions and short-term desires, and to use his art to serve his community.
**Kindle Price $0.99 from February 20th – March 17th ** (normally $9.99)
2016 Rainbow Awards: First Prize, Best Gay Contemporary General Fiction; First Runner-Up, Debut Gay Book
Named one of QSPirit’s Top LGBTQ Christian Books of 2016
The storm hit when we were about an hour south of the campgrounds. Sheets of rain covered the Chevy’s windshield. We crawled along, following the fuzzy glow of the taillights in front of us. Peter searched the AM band for a local station that could give us traffic and weather. I refrained from saying that we could see both of those by looking out the window. There’s the difference between us: he likes to know that he can’t do anything about a situation, while I just assume it.
Up ahead, flashing lights and a row of orange cones marked a lane closed off by a wreck we couldn’t make out. Peter was all for pulling off the highway and finding a shortcut via the local roads. Phil’s presence made me less adventurous. We had to get this right. If he’d been awake to vote, though, he would have sided with Indiana Jones, so I resigned myself to studying the map for the shortest possible detour. “Hey, did you know there’s a city in New York called Sodom?”
“Is it anywhere near Coxsackie?”
We bounced along winding roads through tired towns that blended together in the rain: another white clapboard with a sagging porch, another vintage Pepsi sign over a liquor-store marquee (“happy 21st birthday Amanda!”), more black and white cows grazing around a metal silo. I never went in for that Depression-documentary stuff. People who wear overalls deserve their privacy.
After half an hour we seemed to have outrun the rain, but finding our way back to the highway was another story. We stopped for coffee and pie in a diner with turquoise vinyl siding, where the waitress gave us directions to the campsite. I could have sworn one of the truckers at the lunch counter was cruising me. If I hadn’t been with my boys, I might have gone for him, and probably gotten myself murdered. It’s not a good idea to die luridly if no one knows you’re a celebrity. I doubted whether the local Walgreen’s carried Femme NY.
We crested the hill leading into the campgrounds as a yellow-gray sunset was filtering through the pines. Peter surveyed the scene and frowned. “Guys, I don’t think this is it.”
“Nah, I saw the sign, just like the waitress told us — Deer Mountain Nature Preserve,” Phil said.
“But it’s not how I remember it, from when we used to come here — I thought there was a lake, and this little bunkhouse with showers.”
“Maybe we’re on the other end.”
“Does it really matter?” I asked impatiently. “Nature is nature, right?”
“And why is it called a nature preserve? Maybe we’re not even allowed in here,” Peter fretted.
“Cool, we’ll be, like, anarchist squatters,” Phil said. Thus outvoted, Peter pulled the Chevy into a broad clearing with a view of the mountains, where we would pitch our tents. He’d brought two,
in case Phil and I wanted some privacy. The ground was damp and spongy under a fragrant carpet of pine needles. I sprayed a mist of bug repellent all around us. In the forest, you think it’s quiet, but it really isn’t, once you let go of expecting to hear human voices. Phil had brought a battery-operated radio that played staticky doo-wop oldies (the only station we could find out there) while I built a campfire.
The sky slowly turned from purple-gray to black. We drank Cokes because Peter didn’t like mixing beer and weed, and cooked hot dogs on sticks over the sputtering fire. Phil tried to get away without eating anything with his evening pills. “I thought you always had an appetite for this,” I said, waggling a plump hot dog in front of his face. We ate that one from both ends and met in the middle, and Peter sang the Italian-restaurant song from “Lady and the Tramp”, and I laughed so hard the soda came out of my nose.
The radio was off. If we strained our eyes, we could see faint stars that vanished into the cloud cover when we looked directly at them. “I want to try and find the lake,” Peter said.
“It’s too cold to swim,” I said. “We should have come sooner.”
“I just want you guys to see it.”
A nearly-full moon had risen, cresting and sinking in the swells of clouds that drifted across its light. That and our flashlights helped us find a marked trail. There was no reason to think that it led to any lake, but we were buzzed and lucky to be there, and why not hope our luck would hold?
Phil slapped at the mosquitos that were drawn to our flashlight beams. “So there, suckers — my blood is toxic.”
“Must you think about that every minute?” I said.
“I got a right.”
Peter slowed down to put his arm around my shoulders as we trudged uphill on the winding trail. My tense breathing eased and I began to enjoy the trek in spite of myself. The spindly pines swayed above us in the wind. Our slow progress through the dark was hypnotic. Peter hummed a tune under his breath and we joined in intermittently to stay focused. I heard Phil cough a couple of times but he didn’t stop walking or look back at us, so I couldn’t do anything.
The trail ended at the edge of a rocky outcropping overlooking a valley. Silver light flashed below us, a fast-moving stream tumbling over glistening rocks. To our left, a thicker, darker gray cloudbank was building up, edged with moonglow.
I reached out to pull Phil closer to me so we were all holding each other. Maybe it was the whisper of the stream we heard, or maybe it was too far away and we only heard the trees tossing in the wind. Warm from the climb, I spread my top-layer sweatshirt on the ground for Phil and me to sit on. We leaned against each other and kissed, while Peter sat cross-legged on Phil’s other side, holding his hand.
“Got your camera?” Phil whispered. “Like you ever don’t.”
“Too dark…besides, right now…let’s just be here.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean.”
Oh, those blue eyes. I saw you, Phil, I was inside you, closer than sex, clearer than words. And you in me. I hope, I believe. In the end, you trust it or you don’t, the ground under your feet, the air in your lungs, and something surrounding you that’s more than particles of heat and scent and skin.
The distant sky rumbled. A small flock of dark birds swooped and scattered into the valley. Phil sneezed. I took off my other sweatshirt and wrapped it around him. He didn’t object. Peter stretched out on the ground, propping his chin in his hands, and looked down at the stream with a sigh. “I guess this is as far as we’re going to get.”
“It’s all right,” Phil said. “I’m happy here.”
“Good, ’cause we’re going to leave you here,” I deadpanned.
He slugged my arm. “Hey, you promised me an ice floe.”
“What’s the big deal about the lake?” I asked, since Peter was still acting glum.
“It’s where he lost his virginity,” Phil teased.
Peter rolled over and swatted at him. “Ah, screw you.”
“Is it?” I pressed him.
“For your information, I lost my virginity in the back of a comic-book store in Brooklyn Heights. And I bet I was ahead of either of you guys, too.”
I wolf-whistled. Phil said, “I moved in with Ted, that was my first boyfriend, when I was sixteen, but we’d been doing it since the year before. He worked construction, like me, and the first time, we were fixing up this old lady’s attic and we all of a sudden got all over each other, and when she complained about the noise we told her she had squirrels.” Peter and I laughed. Phil looked expectantly at me.
“Define virginity,” I stalled.
“Fucking or being fucked. Messing around doesn’t count.”
“So how old were you?” I asked Peter.
He hesitated. “Thirteen.”
Phil made a face, like he didn’t believe this, but I didn’t think Peter was kidding. “Who the hell would do you at thirteen?” I blurted out.
Peter looked away. “Hey, I wasn’t totally hideous,” he muttered.
“No, I meant — ” Too frustrated for words, I touched my hand to his cheek. “I’m sure you were as delicious then as you are now, but I’m feeling this primitive Southern urge to punch that guy in the face.”
“It wasn’t so bad. I mean, it was good. I liked him.”
I stayed where I was, touching him. He wrapped his fingers around mine.
“Who…who was he?” I didn’t want to know, but I had to.
“Uh, a friend of my dad’s. I worked in his store the summer after the last time we came here — after my real mom found out about Ada.” He gestured impatiently at the view. “Only it’s not here, we’re somewhere else.”
“Wherever you go, there you are,” Phil volunteered.
“Oh, profound,” I said.
This time the dull boom of thunder sounded closer. The wind had picked up, whipping the branches around. “Oh crap, we’d better get back,” Peter said.
“Not until Julian tells us about his first time.” Phil slid his hand down my leg. I felt a flash of desire and wondered about the mechanics of safe sex in a sleeping bag.
“It was you,” I said, almost inaudibly.
Phil glanced up from nuzzling my neck. “Naw…I thought you’d been with lots of guys,” he said, just as softly.
“Yeah, but we said blowjobs didn’t count, only real sex.” I kissed his ear, trying to revive the tender mood of a moment ago.
Rain began to patter lightly on the leaves. “Guys, come on,” Peter urged, standing up.
Phil hung onto my thigh, keeping me on the ground. “What about the first time you were on the bottom, was that me too?”
“Let’s talk about this later, please?”
“Who was it?”
“I don’t know, okay?” I burst out, pushing him off me. “He was just some guy in Central Park.”
Phil caught up to me as I followed Peter’s bobbing flashlight beam along the narrow path downhill. “Here’s your jacket,” he said gruffly, draping the grass-stained sweatshirt over my shoulders. He didn’t take his arm away afterward, pretending to need my support as he dodged the humped tree roots underfoot.
Superimposed on the path before me, there returned my one memory of that man’s lined and wistful face, the pure gratitude in his eyes when he held me for a few seconds after fucking me under the arcade by Bethesda Fountain. I hadn’t expected it and it hurt quite a bit, though there was a thrill in it too, the way he invaded the center of me, opening what had always been closed.
The downward-sloping trail was slippery with wet leaves. Distracted by my thoughts, I stumbled and fell, skidding on my ass into a clump of bushes. The sky chose that moment to flush its cosmic toilet. Water poured down hard. I swore as the prickly bushes snagged my clothes. Phil tried to help me out but got entangled himself, like two fools in a fairy tale glued to the golden goose.
“I’m sorry,” he shouted over the noise of the storm. His face was smudged and wet. “Jule, I know…I know you didn’t want…to be with me, like this.”
“Phil. I love you.” Words I’d never said before. I warmed his rain-chilled lips with mine. His arms were the most solid thing in the world. How could they vanish, how to conceive of a time when all of us would become unreal?
Doubling back with the flashlight, Peter found us still clenched in our silent embrace. Since he was the only one who’d thought to bring gloves, he had little trouble pushing aside the thorny branches. We found our way back to the campsite in silence.
“Oh, crap crap crap!” Peter exclaimed when we saw the fallen tree limbs crushing his tent. He did this little stomping dance of frustration that would have been funny if we’d been watching it from someplace dry. He glanced back and forth from us to the other tent, which had stayed upright. “Okay, I guess I’m sleeping in the Chevy.”
Phil and I exchanged a look of agreement. I was just desperate to get him inside. He wasn’t hiding his shivering very well. “No, there’s room for you,” Phil said.
Inside the tent, we stripped down to our T-shirts and underwear, leaving our wet clothes in a heap by the door flap. Peter had found some spare blankets in the van to supplement the two sleeping bags, which were barely enough to cover the three of us when we zipped them together to make a sort of comforter.
I thought Phil should go in the middle. “Nah, night sweats,” he said, nudging me to change places with him. His eyes were saying more than that. So I lay against Peter’s chest, with his arms around me, and Phil, on my other side, reaching over to hold Peter’s hand where it rested at my waist. Phil tucked his head into the curve of my neck, the way we always liked to sleep. I felt his heartbeat, steady and strong, and heard the faint wheeze of his breath growing more regular
as he drifted off. Peter’s body, too, relaxed without easing his hold on us. I was just thinking about kissing him goodnight — on the cheek, would it be so wrong? — when he pressed his face to mine. Silent softness of mouths and tongues, a few minutes standing in for all the time gone and time to come, until the three of us were sleeping in the incomparable warmth we made together.
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About the Author
Jendi Reiter’s books are guided by her belief that people take precedence over ideologies. In exploring themes of queer family life, spiritual integration, and healing from adverse childhood experiences, her goal is to create understanding that leads to social change. Two Natures is her first novel; a sequel is in the works. Her four published poetry books include Bullies in Love (Little Red Tree, 2015) and the award-winning chapbook Barbie at 50 (Cervena Barva Press, 2010). She is the co-founder and editor of WinningWriters.com, an online resource site for creative writers.