As a gay man I've long been accustomed to being called names, and as a result I have developed a rather thick skin -- perhaps too thick. Negativity tends to roll right off my back, as if my body were slathered in Vaseline or, in my case, Astroglide personal lubricant. Typically I am able to greet each and every volley with a shrug, but an event recently occurred that I've yet to shake. Someone insinuated that I hate women, and although I'd never remotely thought that to be the case, given the many terrific relationships I value, as we approach Mother's Day I ironically find myself pondering how I feel about the opposite sex.
To give a brief introduction to the incident, I recently released my debut novel, Songs for the New Depression, and have been happy to see it receive positive reviews from such varied sources as The Advocate, Midwest Book Review, and Kirkus Reviews (whose editors tout themselves as "The World's Toughest Book Critics"), just to name a few. On May 11 it was even named the winner of the 2012 Indie Book Awards in the LGBTQ category and was shortlisted in the same category for the Independent Literary Awards.
Given this acclaim, I was a bit disheartened to read my first negative review, which, of course, I'd fully anticipated. I've long known that you can't please everyone, and I understand that not all readers will appreciate a book about a funny but cynical man facing death, trying to make amends to those he has wronged. After all, the character has more than his share of gallows humor, and his tale of love, longing, and redemption may not resonate with everyone. Still, it was not the reviewer's issues with the story that gave me pause; it was that her main objection to the book seemed to be that it was, in her words, "dripping with misogyny." She further noted, in the comment section of her post, that "it is hard not to see the author behind the scenes choosing to write it." And that, in the end, is what really pissed me off.
To be clear, the character of Gabriel Travers is indeed misogynistic. He is hateful, petty, and spiteful, even on the best of days, and a good deal of that venom is spit toward women. But the reviewer missed the more important point, which is that Gabriel hates everyone and acts similarly toward others but always reserves the harshest criticism for himself. He strikes out to prevent others from getting too close, only to wonder why his friends hold themselves at arm's length. Like so many of us, he wants to grow and better himself but hasn't a clue as to how to do so.
Aside from this overarching character trait, what the reviewer failed to note is that the women in the book, each and every one, are working to better themselves. Gabriel's mother makes great strides in learning how to love, another woman ultimately rejects Gabriel due to his negative nature, and a third offers him redemption when he most needs it. They are the true heroes and heroines of the story, which is part of why Gabriel is so angry with them. These women are doing for themselves exactly what Gabriel himself hasn't yet been able to do for himself. It is one thing to want to change; it is another to know how, and to have the tools necessary for such growth.
Far from being a nurturing, warm, June-Cleaver-type maternal figure, my own mother was more like the character Mary Tyler Moore played in Ordinary People: brittle, tightly wound, with the possibility of explosion just around the corner. My sister, my dad, and I continually walked on eggshells, highly aware that even the smallest of missteps could easily break our fragile truce of peace. Today, happily, my mother has grown and bettered herself, becoming, if not the mother I'd always wanted, then at least a mother I can live with. I'm appreciative of her efforts toward growth, and I have tried to improve my own damaged self, with varying degrees of success.
While my mom may not have been the ideal image of maternal nurturing, thankfully there have been other women who have more than met that need for me. My eldest son, Mason, was born to a wonderful woman in Tennessee who allowed me to be in the delivery room at his birth. She realized that she wasn't able to tend to his parental needs, so she entrusted him to my care. Her generosity, warmth, and spirit carry on to this day, through our continued contact.
Our youngest, Marcus, had a more difficult and challenging relationship with his mother. When he was 6 months old, his birth mom took him to a crack house, which was then raided, and he was placed into foster care. Authorities attempted to reconnect Marcus with his mother, but given her inability to leave drugs behind, it proved impossible. Still, I'm grateful to her for the gift she gave us: an amazingly resilient and loving son.
My assessment of people has not been based on gender but on deed. And, thankfully, my list of the phenomenal includes many women, particularly our dear friends Deb and Mary Kay, who became the first legally church-wed lesbian couple in Orange County, Calif.; Karen, who works tirelessly in the jail system, helping to wean inmates off addictive behavior; and darling Lisa, who continually offers me smiles, encouragement, and words of good cheer.
While this is, by necessity, a short list, my admiration for women extends far past the few mentioned. I came of age during the AIDS epidemic and will forever pay tribute to those brave women who stepped into vacant leadership and caregiver roles, whose many accomplishments are now largely forgotten. But simply listing the women whom I admire is a bit akin to the old "some-of-my-best-friends-are-___" argument. The bigger question is: What makes someone a misogynist, and am I one?
When I contemplate the word "misogyny," I think of anger, hatred, and dislike, which doesn't remotely correspond with my feelings. And when I think of "women," no negative connotations arise, either. Still, if a friend were to call me out for perceived misogyny, I would no doubt listen, for I have found that I become a better person from examining my failings.
With a creative work, however, linking artist to art can be tenuous at best. In my novel each and every word Gabriel utters, whether toward women or men, was carefully chosen for effect -- sometimes for humor, sometimes for pathos, and other times to offend. It is his nature to live life unfiltered, but I long ago learned the perils of such behavior and work rigorously to examine my insecurities and feelings in an ongoing attempt to better myself.
While I'm not convinced that I am, indeed, misogynistic, I'm leaving the door open to that possibility, for the best way I can think of to demonstrate my respect for women is to live authentically and treat others honorably, with my eyes open to opportunities in which I can improve myself, those around me, and the greater world at large.
Happy Mother's Day.