You’d think that, as a gay man, I’d be all about any site that offered upwards of 4¢ per word with a submissions page that stated boldly, “We’re looking for stories from different perspectives. LGBTQIAA+, African Americans, Women, Hispanics encouraged to apply!” You’d think I’d be even more excited for the yearly “Queers Only” edition of any one of a number of markets. Yet the more I think about it, the more it makes me cringe, the more it makes me fear for the safety of many of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.
First, I don’t think that literature has ever hurt for gay voices or minority voices or women’s voices. Yes, there are a lot of straight, white, cis men with books in the world, but there are also a lot of very talented black authors, lesbian authors, women authors, and gay authors in the world. Women helped create genre fiction and gay men invented the Italian Renaissance. (Do you really think any straight person would ever have used that much brocade?) Nobody can deny our influence on culture.
Second, I also think that what we find so compelling about the works of Maya Angelou, Samuel Delany, Jorge Louis-Borges, and Paulo Coelho isn’t their ethnicity, orientation, or gender but how culture and cultural perception have impacted their work. We either turn to works in translation to obtain a different culture’s perspective on things (and there’s a danger in this I’ll speak of shortly,) or we look to voices we consider oppressed within our own culture.
In seeking out oppressed voices two things trouble me. Chiefest among these is the fact that the demand for such work underscores, exaggerates, and amplifies existing systems of persecution. It isn’t within the domain of art to raise legal arguments–that is, it’s not the work of the artist to be a civil rights attorney (unless the artists happens to be a civil rights attorney.) A novel, a painting, a piece of music is what it is and shouldn’t be Exhibit A for the prosecution.
Art speaks directly to the emotions, hence why critical thinking courses are reserved for college students. When art meets a political agenda–any political agenda–it ceases to be art and becomes agitprop. Such works are always suspect because they play on the cultural biases and suspicions of the reader / viewer. The less education a reader / viewer has, the more susceptible they are to the political message of a piece without being aware that they’re being indoctrinated.
While not every minority author strives to imbue their work with a political quality, the stage is set for the transformation of multiple markets from entertainment to propaganda. The difference between art and agenda stems from authenticity–the genuineness of the author in regard to the struggle portrayed on the page. Every line by Maya Angelou weeps catharsis, speaks to the sincere unburdening of a troubled soul. She didn’t write what she did to change the world; she wrote what she did to get it out, to be rid of it, to put it behind her, to sublimate her personal negative experience, to transform the lead of ignorance and racism into the gold of wisdom and love. That, in turn, is what changed the world.
Imagine you are an editor for a decent press. If I told you that a new novel was coming out by a woman who lived under the tyrannical rule of her very religious, authoritarian husband, it might interest you. If I told you that this woman had been forced–for the reason of “family”–to abandon numerous lucrative careers, you may think her story even more compelling. When I tell you that she had little choice (given the nature of her marriage) but to have a large family, that she has a daughter who is almost always pregnant and in trouble, and that she has a special needs child, you’d almost be willing to make a bid on the manuscript sight unseen–here’s a woman with a story to tell and you can just feel it!
Good luck. Working with Sarah Palin can be rough from all accounts.
The other thing that worries me about the call for divergent views in publishing is the fact that editors demand bona fides. Ever time I wish to be considered for a market that gives preference to “different voices” I am essentially required to out myself to a stranger.
While I am out and have no problems being out, I do not think anyone has the right to demand my orientation simply to consider a story I’ve written. Gay people are still not guaranteed full equal rights in many states in the US. Terrorist groups take lessons from each other and targeting literary and artistic creatives has proven an effective means of communicating a point in Europe, so doubtless it’s coming here soon. For an editor to demand an author out himself in order to be considered for publication is to demand that a gay author hang a target around his neck and open himself up to potential violence from groups like the KKK, the Christian Identity Movement, and assorted other neo-nazi types.
Further, don’t think for a moment that progress can’t be rolled back. We thought that voting rights were a done deal in Alabama for fifty years–and we were wrong as wrong could be. Creating “gay only” editions of magazines can provide a blacklist of sorts for future reference. Right now, a serious contender for the Presidency of the United States has demonstrated a willingness to use bully tactics, racism, and sexism in order to jockey into the lead for his party’s nomination. It isn’t really a time of security and safety for many minorities in the US, including us in the LGBTQIAA+ community. The closet looms large for many gay kids right now–a closet they might not be able to step out of as quickly as they would like–and demanding that they do so in order to be heard is to demand that they take a substantial risk and make a choice that could have damaging or even fatal repercussions later in life.
Now this isn’t to say that I think that editors should be cowards and not publish works by minority and traditionally under-represented writers. What I am saying is that striving to be as inclusive as possible based solely on accidents of birth isn’t viable and comes with substantially greater risks for the writer. It’s also rude to demand that authors “out” themselves. My orientation is mine to share, not yours to demand.
As for works in translation, let me add that the same problem given in the Sarah Palin example exists. Suppose a work captures a foreign market and gets translated into English. The author goes on to become famous and we never really learn that the subtext of the book contains a genocidal tirade against an ethnic group from the author’s home country, or that the book makes light of a cultural incident that still offends some minority group, or that the book offends a particular minority religion. We view the book as being representative of all people from an area and so make entire nations, races, religions, continents, and language groups monolithic, denying the very real problems foreign people and governments have. Yet cultural bias exists in Mexico and Honduras and Libya and Mongolia and everywhere on Earth. Problems exist everywhere. Racism and ideological extremism exist everywhere.
In an effort to romanticize the plight of the Dalai Lama, we often forget that the Tibetan government prior to the Chinese invasion was notorious for coddling fascists. Indeed, the Dalai Lama–a man many would definitely consider oppressed–was a longtime friend of the Nazi war criminal Bruno Beger. Do we overlook this “because oppression” or is this problematic? What of authors from African countries where gays and lesbians are “necklaced” in the streets? If such authors’ works don’t mention this explicitly then aren’t editors ignoring the plight of murdered gays by publishing these works?
Suppose a gay, black Israeli living in Tel Aviv writes a piece in Farsi detailing the future genocide of the Palestinian people. Compelling science-fiction in translation? Or maniacal agitprop? Suppose it’s more subtle than that–something we don’t pick up on in the West–and just as egregious, just as offensive? Must editors now be vetted by the World Court at the Hague to gauge the potential for a piece to incite violence, ethnic cleansing, and genocide?
Arguing that a publisher MUST meet a minority quota–be it based on race, gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation–is an absurd construct foisted on minority authors by well-intentioned but shortsighted social justice crusaders. So long as writers treat minority characters with care and detail, as long as they’re willing to do their research and flesh out sincere characters and sincere plots, if writers and editors demand a high level of writing that embraces the non-stereotypical treatment of minorities, and as long as publishing houses don’t go out of their way to exclude anyone based on accidents of birth then everything should work out just fine.