In Hollywood, one of the quickest ways to an award nomination is to be a straight man playing gay.
Similarly, television shows that include gay characters are lauded for being so “brave” and for changing culture for the better. GLAAD even does an annual ranking of networks (PDF) based on how much each is contributing to the positive image of gays. Joe Biden famously claimed in 2012 that Will & Grace “probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far.”
So the idea that inclusion of gay characters in media is beneficial is well established.
But what if there was a heterosexual male author who reached millions of middle-aged heterosexual male readers, and what if that male heterosexual author wrote about gays as if they were a normal part of our daily fabric—and even tossed in a gay sex scene? And then what if nobody noticed?
I am speaking, of course, of Ken Follett, who has sold more than 130 million books.
“These gay characters are there because this is the world I live in,” Follett said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “I live in a world in which there are gay people, and to leave them out would seem odd, just as it would seem odd to write a story in which there were no people of color, or all the heroes were men and no women were heroes. It's just not the world I live in.”
Follett is out this fall with his final installment of an historical fiction trilogy that races through the 20th century. The first two books focused on World War I and World War II, while Edge of Eternity focuses in part on the wars for civil rights; namely race, gender, and, you guessed it, sexual orientation.
“I looked at the 20th century as a historical novelist does, and said, what are the dramas, what are the stories that readers are going to take sides, that they will hope that one side wins and the other side loses,” Follett says. “Time and time again, it was a drama about freedom. It's about people struggling for freedom.”
Edge of Eternity includes not only Follett’s cheerleading for the gay rights movements in the U.K. and the U.S. but the character of a gay rocker as well. In the previous novels in the trilogy, there is a tender love affair between two American men who are in the Navy, as well as a brutal attack by Nazi Brownshirts who loose dogs on a gay man.
Follett’s inclusion of gay characters isn’t a new move on his part because times have changed.
Pillars of the Earth (1989), perhaps his most famous work, had a frank discussion of homosexuality’s presence in society. Its follow-up, World Without End (2007), featured a good-hearted bishop whose committed relationship with another man is used in a blackmail scheme against him. Lie Down with Lions (1985) gave a shoutout to gays in a laundry list of human rights to worry about.
But, in 1993, Follett, who has always penned randier sex scenes than his rivals, included one between two men in A Dangerous Fortune.
The scene in question involved Micky Miranda, the tall, dark, and handsome scoundrel allowing his infatuated and wealthy best friend Edward to perform oral sex on him as a last-ditch effort to ensure his evil plan will succeed. This is coupled with previous sex scenes in which Edward’s modus operandi in brothels was to only have sex with women immediately after Mickey had finished with them. The novel also has a second gay character, in the form many are familiar with—the wise, kind, but discreetly gay uncle.
I was a gay teenager in the decade after A Dangerous Fortune was published, and its gay sex scene was the first gay sex scene I ever read. When I got past the idea that I had managed to find a gay sex scene, even one as messed up as that, I also realized that my O’Reilly Factor-watching father, whose copy I was of course reading, had also read that same passage. Oh. My. God.
Of course, one has to wonder whether Follett, who has been married to Labour politician Barbara Follett since 1984, was writing from experience.
“No, I haven’t,” he replied about whether he’s had gay sex. “Not yet, anyway.”
Ironically, while Follett has received no credit for including gays in meaningful ways in his books—in fact he was caught off guard at first that I was asking him about it—he has certainly gotten the ill will.
“It does turn some readers off. To which my response is, fuck them,” he declares. “I get letters from people who say ‘I like your stories, but why do you have to put in perverts, I don’t want to read about such people.’ I generally don’t reply, but the feeling I have is, ‘Go read something else.’”
There are probably a variety of reasons why Follett’s seamless inclusion of gays has gone unnoticed. The most likely reason, however, is that the impact of mass-market fiction is unlikely to get noticed by book reviewers at high-brow opinion-making news outlets. But, in conversations I’ve had with family and family friends, the gay characters, and certainly that gay sex scene, did not go unnoticed by its straight male readers.
It may not have gotten rid of any bigots, but it certainly made us a whole lot harder to avoid.