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Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Review: 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