On Outing Your Identity Through Writing

I have always tried to separate myself from my work. My pen name was concocted from anecdotal family folklore, and from its very inception was meant to serve as an authorial projection of, well, whatever the reader wanted me to be.  I could relay little accounts of pronoun mix-ups in regards to submission responses and third person bios (as my picture suggests on my Thought Catalog contributor page, I am female), but it strays from what I really want to talk about, so I won’t.

My pen name, though — my pen name was meant to delineate the actual from the transmitted authorial figure (which would be me, I suppose). Despite the little mishaps I previously alluded to, this is mostly a non-issue in the realm of fiction, which constitutes the bulk of my focus and publications. When it comes to creative non-fiction, however, it gets a bit tricky, like making a decent Adam Sandler movie post-2002. My pen name is meant to serve as an ambiguous conjuring devoid of a locatable gender, ethnicity, age, or specific preference. So when confronted with questions that need to be answered (“…what age, what orientation, what ethnicity?”) I find loopholes. In short: I simply avoid writing about myself, or if I need to write about myself, I write from my own perspective about another object or subject, another vantage point.

Of course, as you’ve probably figured out — I’ve been writing about myself for two paragraphs — something went wrong.  So here is where it starts, my self-outing:

A few months ago, I was contacted by a writer who wanted to organize an event in Manhattan that centered round the theme of coming out. She had recently published a book that featured a coming out scene, and figured that a reading would be a pleasant PR stunt. A mutual friend got us in touch. This writer specifically asked if I knew any gay writers who would be interested in participating in this event. After I suggested a few names, she asked if I would like to be part of the line-up. I agreed.

The event took place a little more than a week ago. A playwright, a memoirist, and three fiction writers — myself included — were rostered for the event. The last up was the event organizer. Before reading her excerpt, she proceeded to say to the audience, “Even though I curated [this event], I’m not gay. I’m straight. I don’t know a lot of gay people. Thank you social networking, because without it, I wouldn’t have been able to find gay people to read. I want to thank all of these talented writers for sharing their work today.”

I’m positive that the organizer did not intend for her commentary to be divisive; from my interactions with her, I knew that her intentions were pure. She certainly didn’t mean for her words to parent a thick, tar-like awkwardness that pervaded the room, even after she began to read. At conclusion, I had subsumed the editorializing with thoughts of where my friends and I would go for drinks to celebrate. At the bar, it was one of these friends — another writer who was headlined at the reading — who remarked, “How embarrassing was it that she outed us?”

In a base, formulaic sense, what my friend said was true. Although the reading was structured by an event typified by the coming out process, there would have been no indication that any of the writers were queer. With the exception of the memoirist and the playwright, who had relayed personal narratives about coming out, the rest of us had read fictive pieces with sinewy connections to the theme. By proclaiming her own heteronormative assignations, the organizer had created a chasm, with her on one side, and us on the cliff of the Other.

Since the reading, I’ve attempted to parse the implications of this public outing. As stated before, I’ve consistently attempted to distinguish my real self from my authorial self. But when something like this occurs, the barriers of this perpetuated construct are rendered miasmic. In symphony, my identity is taken from me and foisted upon me. Does this mean that I have a responsibility as a writer to this identity?

I don’t mean to dramatize; read the newspaper and there’s plenty of drama already. The question without drama is sincere: do I use my position as a writer to represent myself as a writer who is gay, even if the subjects of my stories do not align with this particular part of me? And if this is the case, what if there are other parts of me that deserve equal representation? In my personal life, I am honest about my sexuality and am proud to be with my girlfriend, but this does not exclude the observant, kosher-keeping, Shabbat-celebrating Jewish part of me. My Jewish identity might perhaps inform who I am even more so than my sexuality in the sense that I have been conscious of the former longer than the latter. And what of my womanhood? How are these fragments sutured in how I am authorially represented?

I turned to the accounts of other writers grappling with these particular dilemmas. When asked by a reporter by The Guardian in 2011 on how he responds to the outside categorization of him being a gay novelist, Alan Hollinghurst replied, “I spent 20 years politely answering the question, ‘How do you feel when people categorize you as a gay writer?’ and I’m not going to do it this time round. It’s no longer relevant.” When posed a similar question in 2010, Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cunningham responded, “What I meant to say is that I don’t want to be seen only as a gay writer… [w]hat I never wanted was to be pushed into a niche.” In a similar vein, Nathan Englander told Interview in a recent piece, “Here you go. Does this answer the question?” when asked what being a Jewish writer is in this day and age means. The only thing I can garner from this is that the writing should speak for itself.

In his essay “The Storyteller,” Walter Benjamin states that “…the storyteller is the figure in which the righteous man encounters himself.” When I review my fiction, there are passing instances when a character happens to be gay. In concordance, there are characters that (in my mind) are Jewish, but their Jewishness is never overt. I switch between male protagonists and female protagonists. My fiction is only my fiction, but somewhere between the text on the page — perhaps even five fathoms below the page itself — there are things not even I can find; all I can ask is for the reader to become the spelunker, and ask himself or herself what he or she wants to see. TC mark

image – Shutterstock

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  • Anonymous

    So good, and as someone who knows you IRL, so very you. You’re a great writer, Jamie. Period.

    • JEReich

      Oh no, the jig is up!
      (Love you.) (And thank you, Gabs!)

  • Anon

    This was wonderful and makes me want to ask you out for a cup of coffee.

    xo.

    • JEReich

      I always take people up on free coffee!

  • joyce nancy

    excellent article. a pleasure to read.

  • Carmen

    This piece is so great, and reminds me about the brouhaha over Anatole Broyard. 

    • JEReich

      It’s funny you should say that — I was thinking of putting something about Broyard in, as well as commenting upon Toni Morrison’s excellent critical book “Playing in the Dark,” but I felt as if making analogies with race and identity would make the piece way too long, or that if attempted, I wouldn’t do justice to the complexities of the matter.  And thank you for your kind words!

  • a dissenting opinion

    This piece made me uncomfortable, if only because I just came out of the closet in a conservative family, in the South. Every day of my life I have to fight for the right to claim my real sexual orientation. I can’t imagine the kind of privilege the author experiences if she has the luxury of dismissing such a profound factor in her identity. Would that it were so easy for all of us!

    • JEReich

      Hey there!  Thank you for your opinion — I always enjoy a well-rounded discussion.  I suppose I should have added a disclaimer with the fact that I came out years ago in this piece.  Although the coming-out process is difficult initially (one of the hardest things I’ve gone through), I’m currently at a point wherein most of my family, friends, and so forth are comfortable with my identity.

      As for the “luxury of dismissing such a profound factor in [my] identity,” I thought I clarified that I am proud of who I am in my personal life (“…in my personal life, I am honest about my sexuality and proud to be with my girlfriend…”), but have made efforts to authorially separate my actual self from my author’s self.  The argument I present here is one that exclusively only has to do with the authorial self — the one that presents no outward gender, race, religion, etc. — and the fiction writing it spins, not myself as a whole.    

    • JEReich

      Also, if you ever need someone to talk to about coming out, please feel free to get in contact with me!

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