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Bad Gays in Good Books


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“There are no positive gay characters in this work.” – a reader on Bath Haus

From 1998 to 2006, NBC flooded households with accessible, fictional gays every Thursday night. Edgy queer jokes pushed boundaries. Outlandish characters led impossibly glamorous lives. Shenanigans packed with sharp observations scored huge ratings. For fans, Will & Grace pointedly clarified the world like only comedy can. For this closeted kid in small town South Carolina—where coming out can be both hard and dangerous—Will kissing men on primetime did something else: it sussed out safety and identified potential allies. A straight, high school buddy erupting in laughter at a zinger from Jack MacFarland about bottoming told me something important: this guy might be country as hell, but he’s unlikely to harm me. Despite this and Will Truman’s prominence, he wasn’t easy to connect with. We shared a sexuality, sure, but Will dressed better. Will lived in Manhattan. Will indulged in Barney’s shopping sprees and made reservations at Balthazar and kept questionable friends of immense wealth. He was everything society tolerated in a cis gay white man, and at times, he made me feel messy.

Enter Andrew Van de Kamp (Shawn Pyform). Son of notoriously perfect, Bree Van de Kamp, this Desperate Housewives character was selfish, vindictive, and at times, an absolute monster. How could I feel messy when the gay on TV’s idea of revenge was seducing his mother’s sex-addicted boyfriend. Books, TV, film—“Bad Gays” have been around since Sodom and Gomorrah (our origin story?)—but unlike vaguely queer Disney villains and dangerously problematic portrayals in classics like Dune, Andrew’s unsympathetic antics were liberating. I couldn’t get enough. So much so, that palpable thrill I enjoyed from queers behaving badly was worth chasing in my own writing.

None of the characters in Bath Haus (Doubleday) are role models, but evolution brought us storytelling for the same reason it’s given us anything: survival. Cautionary tales keep our species going. It’s why we relish gossip and rubberneck our way past car accidents. It’s easier to escape a threat you’ve seen before, but pithy quips about “bad” gays aside, queers like Andrew and Bath Haus’s Oliver aren’t bad—they are simply human. They behave sympathetically at times, unsympathetically at others. They’re people. They’re characters. You know, what stories are made of.

Good books filled with “bad” (i.e. “real”) gays aren’t only fun—they can be life-saving. How many circumstances would I have better navigated with access to fictional stories featuring related challenges? Co-dependent lovers. Toxic family members. A spouse who framed me for their disappearance just before they became Gone. Okay, maybe not that last one, but had I been armed with the affirming power of queer genre fiction, I would’ve had more stories to relish, learn from, and above all, to see myself—a very human gay—represented on the page. Here are just a few.

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For that transgressive first love:
These Violent Delights, Micah Nemerever

Emotions are sky-high, because it’s your first time feeling them. Maybe you know you’re queer; maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re playing it straight because to do otherwise is risky. Regardless, two young people falling hard for each other is always fraught. Normalization makes us safer, but when society says hell no, the chance for high-stakes conflict—in life and fiction—grows enormously. These Violent Delights (HarperCollins) by Micah Nemerever shows us this beautifully and shockingly. Set in 1970s Pittsburgh, Nemerever reels us in to the insular, dream-like world college freshmen Paul and Julian secretly share.

The reader’s experience mirrors the narrative: the love, the sex, the fixation, the thrills—they escalate until neither character nor reader can stop the brutality to come. We’re as complicit and powerless as both characters. Exploring “taboo” is a dangerous game, and Paul and Julian illustrate how feelings this intense will always find an outlet. Appetites for both love and violence are so primal, it’s terrifying how one can accelerate the other. Especially when the taboo in question is simply existing—much less thriving—as queer.

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For that obsessive first infatuation:
She’s Too Pretty to Burn, Wendy Heard 

Even in progressive, modern San Diego, the feverish obsession of digging someone else for the very first time is exactly that: an obsession. The young and lovestruck can trust nothing and no one, because reality holds room for only one (or more—if that’s your jam). In Wendy Heard’s YA Dorian Gray re-imagining—She’s Too Pretty to Burn (Henry Holt & Co.)—we’re thrown headfirst into the fiery dynamic between an enthralled photographer, Veronica, and her muse: Mick. As magnetic as she is photogenic, Mick’s trust in her new paramour, Veronica, is stress-tested by stakes far higher than readers may ever endure, but the extraordinary attachment, the taunting, haunting, all-consuming possibility of something more (and the searing heat of betrayal when things veer) are universal.

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When homecoming means opening old wounds:
Cottonmouths, Kelly J. Ford 

For this queer, paying home a visit was (is?) complicated. While away at school, nothing had me sweating bullets quite like the inevitability of Winter Break. You know, when all your friends abscond to their own hometowns and you’re left with a gutting dilemma: T-gives alone or T-gives served with a heaping side of toxicity and pain. I can also readily envision being forced home. Happens all the time because life happens all the time. You need help getting back on your feet, and you sacrifice safety and well-being for food and shelter. Cottonmouths (Sky Horse) by Kelly J. Ford unpacks devastating homecomings, generational cycles of abuse and poverty, and a Gothic bleakness so sharp, you know shit’s gonna get real bad, real fast. But you’ll also find company Ford’s beautifully drawn characters. Emily, the college drop-out forced to confront a painful past while surviving a just-as-painful present. The “heroin-chic” Jody, Emily’s unrequited high school love whose own life has taken a dark turn. Chickens, lesbians, and meth aside (what a pitch!), Ford delivers a narrative about how far we’ll go to chase those three, frighteningly powerful words: I love you.

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When grieving your soulmate means opening their old wounds:
After Elias, Eddy Boudel Tan 

As an exceedingly anxious person, my brain love cultivating unmerited fears, new insecurities, and worst-case scenarios that keep getting, well, worse. Greatest among them: the loss of a partner. Piling on, was the desperate fear that family support during life-shattering tragedies like death, divorce, or dangerous relationships may not come. If they don’t accept us when things are grreat, how can they accept our pain when things aren’t? In Eddy Boudel Tan’s gripping debut After Elias (Dundurn), Coen awaits the arrival of his fiancé, airline pilot Elias, at the Mexican resort where they’ll soon be wed—only to learn Elias’s flight has crashed. In a horrifying reveal mirroring the real-life Germanwings tragedy, it appears Elias may have taken the aircraft down on purpose.

Do queer folks grieve differently? We sure don’t. In Boudel Tan’s stunning heartbreaker, secrets are surfaced and layers peeled back as Coen demands answers as messily (read: realistically) as any person would. His quest for truth and absolution is relentless and experiencing this through a queer lens is nothing shy of empowering. 

So keep the “Bad Gays” coming!

The list of splashy, queer books certain to resonate across a spectrum of lived-experiences and readerships is only growing. After these and others like John Fram’s brilliant Gothic debut, The Bright Lands (Hanover), multi-award winning Michael Nava’s Henry Rios Mystery series (Lies With Man is his latest from Able Press), and North Morgan’s poignantly reflective Into? (Flatiron), I can’t wait to sink my teeth into more. Whether it’s slinging drinks in 1920’s speakeasies with Louisa Lloyd, Nekesa Afia’s lesbian protagonist in the very-buzzed-about Dead Dead Girls (Berkley). Or bringing my own emotional baggage and guncle-status to Steven Rowley’s acclaimed The Guncle (G. P. Putnam’s Sons). Or riding sidecar next to Nicolas DiDomizio’s mother-son duo when their shared tastes for bad men launch them both on an inadvertent crime spree in Burn It All Down (Little Brown & Co.).

Shelves are only getting deeper. Books are only getting queerer. Characters are only getting realer. And if you underestimate the tangible, power each of these and titles like them hold, you do so at your own risk. There are plenty of times I still ask myself, “What would Will Truman do?”—but even more when I’d like to hear from a character who’s a little closer to home.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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