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Read This if You Dare: Why Are Straight Readers Afraid of Gay Writers?

by Aaron Hamburger Jun 19, 2013

One of the job hazards of being a writer is that people frequently ask you for reading recommendations. However, in my experience, they’re not always interested in the books you’re actually reading.

Take, for example, the recent award-winning road novel A Horse Named Sorrow by Trebor Healey. Set in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the book follows the journey of a young man who gets on a bike and sets out from San Francisco to Buffalo, New York, to return his lover’s ashes to his hometown. Along the way, Healey paints a vivid picture of San Francisco grappling with the ravages of the AIDS epidemic. At the same time, Healey adeptly depicts the rush of sexual desire as well as the pangs of mourning.

Besides being a lyrical and often quite moving novel, A Horse Named Sorrow is also a perfect example of the kind of book that most people I talk to about literature don’t seem to want to hear about, unless I’m talking to “select” — read: “gay” — audiences.

Let’s get real here. Tell me, those of you reading this who aren’t gay, do you think you might want to check this one out? If not, at what point in my description of the book did you lose interest and why? Be honest. What told you this book was not for you? Was it the gay thing? The AIDS thing? Sex? Death?

I remember a few years back when the film Crash won the Oscar for Best Picture over critical darling Brokeback Mountain, about a love affair between two cowboys, which had won every other award in sight. The explanation for this upset I heard repeated on TV and on websites like Awards Daily was that Crash was the more “universal” story, an explanation I found confusing. What could be more universal than a love story? By comparison, as a New Yorker without a car, I found Crash the more parochial story, about life on and along the highways of Los Angeles.

Can a gay story, or an African-American, Latino, Jewish, female story, ever be considered a universal story?

A Horse Called Sorrow is about love and death, mourning and recovery. Who hasn’t had those experiences?

The book also contains more than a few explicit gay sex scenes. Here are a few details from a tryst between the book’s protagonist and a Native American he meets on the road:

The smooth gnarled hardness of his slender, silent cock… [He] held me close and hard, smearing our seed together on our bellies, his hands on my buttocks, my hands on his. We fit. And we held each other a long time like that, nibbling each other, smelling like the heady pollen of chestnut trees.

I’ll stop playing Socrates here and come right out and say what I suspect, which is that it’s chiefly passages like these (or even the possibility that passages like these might occur) that turn off non-gay readers. This seems unfair to me. As a gay male reader, I often read straight sex scenes, as well as lesbian sex scenes. Yet how often do readers who aren’t gay read gay sex scenes in fiction?

I invite straight readers, particularly straight male readers, to comment here so I can understand. I read about and watch representations of your sexual acts all the time in books and on film and TV. What is it about reading gay sex that turns you off? Or do you not have a problem? Please tell me I’m wrong. I’d be glad to be wrong.

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