Importance of Historical Fiction from an LGBT Perspective

[from my guest post on Art (202), The official blog of the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities]

When I came out of the closet 10 years ago, I had a lot of explaining to do.  Many family members and friends were surprised by my news, and those who weren’t still needed help in adjusting to the out me.  Although, in a broad sense, it’s unfortunate that LGBT people ever have to be closeted or, once out, have to take on the burden of making themselves known, I felt it was my responsibility to make myself known to the people in my life who cared about me.  So I went about explaining myself, telling my hidden backstory, filling in the gaps, righting all the misperceptions, some of which I had participated in creating.  It was exhausting and, at times, trying, but I was glad I did it.

I write LGBT-themed mysteries set in a historical time period, particularly DC during the 1940s.  I’m fascinated by the way a mystery story, by design, is about uncovering hidden backstory, the occluded past.  Much of LGBT life pre-Stonewall (1969) is murky.  Not a lot has been written about it, and personal narratives are scarce.  So often this is the case with suppressed voices of any sort.

There are a several good histories about LGBT life, but first person accounts are the most inspirational to me.  Books such as Jeb and Dash: A Diary of Gay Life, 1918-1945 and For You, Lili Marlene: A Memoir of World War II have helped me do more than get the facts right; they’ve helped me set a tone and begin to understand voices which were obscured by oppressive social dynamics and nearly lost.

Although recovered first person accounts and detailed histories are incredibly important, they are always limited by historical record, fixed by time and fact.  The imaginative leap of historical fiction allows for a more complete emotional understanding of LGBT people from different time periods.  By creating the atmosphere of a particular historical moment (in my case the 1940s in DC), I’m able to render the internal life of LGBT characters in a way that historical fact and even self-conscious personal accounts lack.

When I came out, I was able to reveal my own hidden backstory, to solve the mystery of my identity for family and friends.  Many LGBT people who lived before me remained silent and hidden out of self-loathing or fear of being persecuted or fear of being physically harmed.  Through an imaginative gesture that fiction allows, I can give flesh to those complex and various voices.  That seems the particular goal of writing historically from a LGBT perspective.

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