The story behind Sing You Home
My first crush was on a boy named Kal Raustiala when I was in second grade. He had shaggy, leonine hair and a pet iguana and a jungle gym in his basement. Although I didn't really know why at the time, my heart beat faster near him. When he wasn't around, I wanted to be with him. And when I was with him, I never wanted to leave.
At no point prior to falling hard for Kal did I choose to be attracted to a boy. It just sort of happened, in the way that love often does: naturally, instinctually, and whole-heartedly.
After college, I had a friend who, like me, was naturally, instinctually, and whole-heartedly attracted to boys. His name was Jeff. My roommate and I spent many Friday nights with Jeff and his partner Darryl, catching the latest movies and dissecting them over dinner afterward. Jeff was funny, smart, a technological whiz. In fact, the least interesting thing about him was that he happened to be gay.
Gay rights is not something most of us think about – because most of us happen to have been born straight. But imagine how you'd feel if you were told that it was unnatural to fall in love with someone of the opposite gender. If you weren't allowed to get married. If you couldn't adopt a child with your partner, or become a troop leader for the Boy Scouts. Imagine being a teenager who's bullied because of your sexual orientation; or being told by your church that you are immoral. In America, this is the norm for millions of LGBTQ individuals.
Those opposed to gay rights often say that they have nothing against the individuals themselves – just their desire want to redefine marriage as something other than a partnership between a man and a woman. On the other side are same-sex couples and their friends and families, who argue that they deserve the same rights as heterosexual couples. The result is a country bitterly divided along the fault line of a single, contentious issue.
People are always afraid of the unknown – and banding together against the Thing That Is Different From Us is a time-honored tradition for rallying the masses. I've noticed that most people who oppose gay rights don't have a personal connection to someone who is gay. On the other hand, those who have a gay uncle or a lesbian college professor or a transgendered supermarket cashier are more likely to support gay rights, because the Thing That Is Different From Us has turned out to be, well, pretty darn normal. Instead of plotting the demise of the traditional family, as some politicians and religious leaders would like you to believe, gay folks mow their lawns and watch American Idol and videotape their children's dance recitals and have the same hopes and dreams that their straight counterparts do.
When I started writing SING YOU HOME, I wanted to create a lesbian character that readers could truly get to know. Zoe Baxter is a woman who – along with her husband Max – has been trying to get pregnant for years. After many failed IVF attempts she finally conceives – only to lose the baby. The tragedy is the final nail in the coffin of her strained marriage, and she and Max divorce. To cope, Zoe throws herself into her career as a music therapist. When Vanessa, a guidance counselor, asks her to work with a suicidal teen, their relationship moves from business to friendship and then – to Zoe's surprise – blossoms into love. As she begins to think of having a family again, she remembers that there are still frozen embryos at the IVF clinic that were never used by herself and Max.
Meanwhile, Max has drunk himself into a downward spiral – until he is redeemed by an evangelical church, whose charismatic pastor has vowed to fight the "homosexual agenda" in America. But the mission becomes personal for Max when Zoe and her same-sex partner ask permission to raise his unborn child.
What does it mean to be gay today, in America? How do we define a family? Those are two questions I hoped to answer while writing SING YOU HOME. I began by speaking to several same-sex couples, who shared their relationships and their sex lives and their struggles. Some of these people knew their sexual orientation in childhood; some – like Zoe – had same-sex relationships after heterosexual ones. Then I interviewed representatives from Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian group that supports the Defense of Marriage Act, opposes gay adoption, and offers seminars to "cure" gay people of same-sex attraction. Like Pastor Clive in my novel, their objection to homosexuality is biblical. Snippets from Leviticus and other Bible verses form the foundation of their anti-gay platform; although similar literal readings should require these people to abstain from playing football (touching pigskin) or eating shrimp scampi (no shellfish). When I asked Focus on the Family if the Bible needs to be taken in a more historical context, I was told absolutely not – the word of God is the word of God. But when I then asked where in the Bible was a list of appropriate sex practices, I was told it's not a sex manual – just a guideline. That circular logic was most heartbreaking when I brought up the topic of hate crimes. Focus on the Family insists that they love the sinner, just not the sin – and only try to help homosexuals who are unhappy being gay. I worried aloud that this message might be misinterpreted by those who commit acts of violence against gays in the name of religion, and the woman I was interviewing burst into tears. "Thank goodness," she said, "that's never happened." I am sure this would be news to the parents of Matthew Shepherd, Brandon Teena, Ryan Keith Skipper, or August Provost – just a few of those murdered due to their sexual orientation - or the FBI, which reports that 17.6 percent of all hate crimes are motivated by sexual orientation, a number that is steadily rising. And it's not just in the US: in Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen, and parts of Africa, being gay is punishable by death.
Yet as eye-opening as all this research was, something happened during the writing of SING YOU HOME that truly made the subject hit home. My son Kyle, a brilliant, talented teenager, was applying to colleges while I was working on the book. One day, he brought me his finished application to read.
The essay was about being gay.
Did I know Kyle was gay before he came out in his essay? Well, I'd had my suspicions since he was five. But it was his discovery to make, and to share. I wasn't surprised, but I was so happy for him – for being brave enough to be true to himself, and to admit that truth to his family. My husband gave him a huge hug. Kyle's little sister shrugged and said, "So?" And his younger brother still calls to task those who carelessly say, "That's so gay," reminding them it's not a pejorative term.
Learning that Kyle was gay didn't change the way I felt about him. He was still the same incredible young man he'd been before I read that essay. I didn't love him any less because he was gay; I couldn't love him any more if he weren't. In the aftermath, I saw him blossom, finally comfortable in his own skin, because he wasn't living a lie anymore. Yet, as a mom, I had my worries – not because of Kyle's sexual orientation, but because the rest of the world might not be as accepting as our family. Because one day, when he least expects it, he's going to be called a "faggot." Because – simply due to the way his brain is wired – life is going to be more complicated.
Kyle is now a sophomore at Yale University – which has a thriving gay community and a culture of acceptance. His boyfriend is a smart, sweet guy who has accompanied us on vacations and who makes my son incredibly happy. Still, it breaks my heart to know that, unlike Kyle, there are teenagers today who cannot come out to their parents because of deep-seated prejudice -- which is too often cloaked in the satin robes of religion. Gay teens are four times as likely to attempt suicide as straight teens. I wish they knew that there's nothing wrong with them; that they are just a different shade of normal.
If I had any one great hope for SING YOU HOME, it would be to open the minds of those who have them closed tightly shut against those who are different – so that one day, my son's children will live in a world where being gay does not mean you're denied the 1138 federal rights automatically guaranteed by marriage. I hope they are just as puzzled as I am now when I see old photos of racially segregated schools and water fountains, and I wonder how could it possibly have taken so long for this country to come to its senses? I hope the religious leaders of their generation focus on the best literal interpretation of their Bible: Love your neighbor as yourself. But most of all, I hope that SING YOU HOME reminds people that while homosexuality is not a choice – homophobia is. Why not opt for tolerance and kindness instead?