Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Out by Laura Preble

I was extremely wary about picking up this book. I have yet to read a discrimiflip novel that worked and didn’t end up being really appropriative and offensive. I find it doubtful they can work due to the inherent nature of making minorities the evil perpetrators of the very crimes committed against them. Still, I’m told it is possible, people assured me it was possible, so I picked up this book when it was released to see if it actually managed it.

So we have the story of Chris. A straight boy living in a world where, it seems, just about everyone is gay. Being straight is considered sick and wrong, condemned by both the church and the state (which are closely entwined). He tries to navigate this discrimination, as the son of a minister, and try to find freedom with the woman he loves.

And no, this discrimiflip did not manage it. Not even close. In fact, I’m sorely tempted to put a trigger warning for homophobia simply for having to discuss the contents of this book.

The author has appropriated every aspect of homophobic oppression imaginable. We have child bullying, we have demeaning dehumanisation from the pulpit, we have a horrific description of conversion therapy, we have chemical castration; we even have concentration camps, actual concentration camps.

All of these are extreme examples of oppression that have constantly been used to persecute and destroy gay people and they’re all used in this book – often graphically – but flipped. The victims of this torture and even this genocide are now made the villains. Those who inflicted them are now the victims. It is unbelievably offensive and enraging to see these despicable crimes that were – and continue to be – inflicted on gay people depicted with gay people as the perpetrators and straight people as the innocent victims. Even some of the basic language of anti-gay oppression have been callously appropriated by this straight author: we even have straight people being called “queer”. The book's even called "Out"! There really is no limits to the appropriation in this book and the extent to which gay people are presented as inflicting exactly the same cruel persecutions that, in reality, gay people have endured and died from.

To take the history of gay persecution, to take all of these horrendous things that have been used to victimise gay people and then mangle them to make gay people the villains makes me choke with rage. I have no words to describe how offensive this is. I had to stop reading several times because the book was so painfully offensive to read I couldn't keep going

The actual depiction of someone living with a closeted sexuality is also ridiculously shallow, especially for a young person. Chris finds out he likes a girl (note: A girl. Not girls. Just the one twu luv that follows the endlessly dull love at first sight meme that I’d complain more about if it weren’t such a tiny problem compared to the gross offensiveness of this book), it’s a shocking discovery. Within the hour he seeks out his friend to tell her. No, really.

In this society where being straight is illegal and demonised universally from birth, he couldn’t even keep it a secret for an hour. In fact, he goes home and his sister – in this ultra gay-normative society – already knows he’s straight! She even has some subversive literature for him! Yes, within a day of realising he’s straight, he already has a support net in this overwhelmingly gay world where heterosexuality is constantly demonised from the highest echelons of government. As an extra bonus, he meets Carmen, his love interest and she tells him she is straight in their first ever conversation, in a public café no less. They’re complete strangers, straight people are tortured and killed with the full blessing of the theocratic government but she’s going to spill her secret. I boggle how it can even be called a secret if 5 minutes acquaintance are sufficient for the big reveal.

To go with all these suddenly revealed straight people (including his sister, his sister’s boyfriend, his sister’s friends – seriously there seems to be more named straight people than gay people in this gay majority world!) Chris deals very quickly with any elements of self-loathing, low self-esteem etc he has from spending his entire life being told he’s diseased, wrong, mentally ill, a plague on society, bringing about the end of civilisation, hated by god and going to hell. Within the first three days we seem to be totally past such questioning and the focus quickly changes to the terrible forces that are keeping him and his beloved apart and the utter cruelty of living without her. There is a brief attempt to have him doubt himself in the very beginning but it takes less than a week for it to fade as a distant memory and him to be sure that the persecution of straight people is wrong. He's actually openly challenging and arguing against persecution of straight people on his first day realising he's straight- and it's used as an excuse to clumsily shoe-horn in many of the arguments the gay rights movement uses in the real world (and I have to say how unpleasant it is to see straight people taking our words and arguments for our survival and putting them in the mouth of a straight boy being attack by the evil evil gay folk).

In fact, it seems far more like a star-crossed lover’s story with extra offensive appropriation than an attempt to build any understanding of what it’s like to be gay in a straight society. If Carmen and Chris had been from foreign countries that were at war, or if she were a princess and he were a peasant, the story wouldn’t be vastly different – only the attacks and dehumanisation they faced would be a lot less offensive.

I find it unbelievable that this was even remotely supposed to try and convey any idea of what the closet is like. And it goes with the general sloppy and shallow way this book has built its "heterophobic" society. (The book's also sloppy in its convoluted info-dumps, but it pales next to the appropriation)

For a start, even in the pulpit the evil gay persecutors call themselves Parallels. Why? If you look at the homophobes in our world they don’t need to refer to themselves as heterosexual – in a world and a belief system where the minority sexuality is overwhelming defined as wrong, sick and deviant, you don’t use a word for “normal” people. They’re “normal.” Or there’s the fact that they refer to Romeo and Juliette. In a world of gay normality and straight suppression, why would this play even have been written, let alone be permitted reading in such a repressive anti-gay society? Especially for 17 year olds? In our world getting "Heather has Two Mommies" on the shelves requires actually going to war - let alone actual school-taught classics! In a world were gay marriage and relationships are the only ones allowed, why would “Mrs.” exist as a reference for married women?

But what about the gay people in the book which is supposed to be empowering? Well, firstly, there’s not actually that many for a society that’s supposed to be overwhelmingly gay, there seem to be a lot more straight characters unless you count faceless antagonists. And they’re unpleasant – whether it’s cowardly and weak like Warren and Andi, or outright evil like David and, well, just about everyone else. Gay people in this book are evil or pathetic, pretty much universally except for faceless and nameless possible supporters (who may or may not be more hidden straight folk).

And not just evil in the persecution of the poor straight folks suffering under the oppressive might of the terrible gay government – but to each other and especially their children as well: this gay society itself seems to be toxic

Chris's father shows his car more affection than Chris (almost actual quote) and his older sister recoils from their father's touch. Chris is beaten by his father until he is scarred. He and his sister, when 17, are literally being sold off to sexual-partners in their 40s for political influence. Not only is this considered OK, but the law of this gay land is specifically written to allow barely legal teenagers to be forced into marriages with older people without their consent. Because love doesn’t matter as David frequently tells us and Warren accept. This is actually one of the slurs the religious right has used against gay people, saying gay people buy and sell children - and here it is, perpetuated

We get repeated scenes where the chosen partner for Chris pushes him into kisses or is touchy-feely while Chris’s father keeps on arranging more time for them together so the man will get another chance to molest his son. He even pushes Chris into going for a weekend away, alone, with this man. Seriously, this man, Jim, in his late 30s or 40s is pushing himself onto David's 17 year old son so he arranges for Jim to go for a weekend in the woods with Chris. Completely alone, even after Chris has repeatedly tried to avoid Jim and broke down in tears when their future "marriage" is presented.

This is gay parenthood in this book. It's also implied they drink too much, in case they weren't demonised enough and we needed to get more of the hedonist sex predator meme thrown in.

Carmen’s mothers are described as “militant” (coded language ahoy!) Lanie, the woman Carmen is staying with, is vapid and entirely focused on politics (which, of course, means attacking straight people). They have no redeeming features

The families are weak – and I find it dubious that so many of these kids so often refer to their parents by their first name except as another way to present weakened, less authentic families. There’s no strong parental bonds and little care that their kids are sneaking round all hours of the night. The one gay relationship we see is at least borderline abusive and even then we have to force gender roles into this gay relationship, with Warren being the “male Martha Stewart” to stand alongside David.

And as for having kids? We have “conscious survival of the species” and “progressive evolution” where traits are bred out and eradicated through careful breeding and genetic testing. Yes, an all gay society is a big follower of eugenics! Never mind that “eugenics” have been used as a principle to commit genocide on gay people – this gay society uses it as a guide for breeding, with bonus points for trying to find the straight gene and eradicate people who have it. I’m actually reaching offence fatigue, there’s so much that’s so grossly offensive in this book that it’s impossible to dredge up any more outrage and disgust.

The actual “resistance” is just that, a resistance. It’s not a political movement  for equality, it’s an outright revolution that actually involves armed forces and invading foreign governments. Chris actually describes what he is asked to do as “terrorism”. They’ll kill, they’ll use kids as weapons, they’ll kidnap people. This is supposed to be any kind of parallel with the gay rights movement? Because armed revolution is not how we’ve battled for equality (nor, for that matter, have scenes of gay people being tortured and killed encouraged any invasions or revolutions – guess it’s just that much more horrific when it’s happening to straight people). It is what the homophobic militant right often says is necessary – especially when raising the deadly specter of what will happen when gay people take over.

This book actually reads like a cautionary tale written by the American Family Association or the Family Research Council. This is what will happen to you if the dreadful gay people take over. This is what the gay people will do to you if you don’t keep them in their place. The author should try to get an endorsement from Scott Lively or Matt Barber, because this book fits exactly into their screeds. The evil gay people taking over the world, oppressing, torturing, slaughtering straight people that need resisting by armed revolution and violence (which fits far more into the playbook of the anti-gay right than it fits into any parallels with the gay rights movement).

I don't believe this book even tries to encourage understanding of the plight of GBLT people or encourage even the slightest empathy. The gay people in the book are too evil and pathetic, the straight people too good and righteous, the evils of being in the closet and suffering from the abuse of self-hatred is too glossed over. Gay families are too demonised and a gay society is presented as being too evil for this to encourage any kind of positive feeling towards gay people. And the government (a theocracy) and the setting (as well as their "resistance") is too separate from that of its most likely readers to encourage parallels. It doesn't work as a book to develop empathy or understanding - and that's before we have the inherent problem of trying to encourage people to empathise with gay people against homophobia by encouraging them to empathise with a straight person rather than actual gay people. You don't encourage empathy for gay people by agreeing that only straight people are worthy of empathy. This isn't a book to encourage empathy and compassion - it reads as a warning, it's a warning to straight people about what gay people will do when we have power

I have rarely, if ever, read a book that is so homophobic and so utterly offensive. It was painful to read this book, triggering to read this book and utterly enraging to read this book. I can’t imagine anyone with half an ounce of sense would suggest this for GBLT people to read.  I am further horrified at the idea of this demonising book being YA and aimed at potentially vulnerable GBLT youth who already have so few decent depictions and portrayals out there

I’m told that it is possible for a discrimiflip novel to work. Maybe it can – maybe. But this book certainly doesn’t. But how about we try a novel concept – if you want to create a book which shows people what gay people have to endure and encourage empathy for ACTUAL gay people, maybe write a book where we aren’t the evil villains out to get you? That could help.

ETA: Too add even more offensiveness to this horrendously bigoted book, the author's habit of waving PFLAG and Gay-straight-alliances around as some kind of advertising tools is surpassed in appropriative offensiveness only by her waving her gay family member around to play the "I'm not homophobic, I have gay friends" game.